Walter Hopps, in Washington, D.C., in 1978. Photograph by William Christenberry. Collection of William Christenberry.
Walter Hopps’s just-published memoir, The Dream Colony, opens with the sentence “My parents collected plein-air California paintings, and that was the art that hung in the Hopps household.” The line is striking for its thumbnail sketch of the pattern Hopps’s life would take: that he managed to turn identifying, collecting, and living with art into a career that vastly influenced post–World War II American art. As a teenager in Los Angeles, the precocious and curious Hopps regularly visited the great collectors and Duchamp supporters Walter and Louise Arensberg and explored the museums and galleries of LA; by night he soaked up the city’s jazz scene, where he befriended Chet Baker and a young Dave Brubeck. In 1952, at the age of twenty, he opened a gallery, Syndell Studio, and, three years later, mounted an exhibition called “Action” in an empty carousel on the Santa Monica Pier. The show introduced both an aesthetic and a group of artists that would engage Hopps for the length of his career: gritty assemblage and abstraction as exemplified by Jay DeFeo, Hassel Smith, and Craig Kauffman.
With the sculptor Ed Kienholz, Hopps opened Ferus in 1957. It became the ur–sixties Los Angeles gallery, home to the young artists Wallace Berman, Ken Price, and Billy Al Bengston, among others, and host to Andy Warhol’s first West Coast solo show. Hopps, however, was never very comfortable as an art dealer, and in 1962 he became the curator of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art), where he gained fame and critical attention for shows that were the first of their kind in the United States, including Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell retrospectives and the country’s first Pop Art overview, “New Painting of Common Objects.”
From the midsixties through the seventies, Hopps served in leading curatorial roles at the Washington Gallery of Fine Art; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he showed artists as diverse as Walker Evans and Robert Crumb; and the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts, where he mounted a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective and began a friendship with the artist that lasted the rest of his life. In 1980, Hopps began collaborating with the collector Dominique de Menil as a consultant to the Menil Foundation in 1980, and in 1987 the Menil Collection opened; he was its first director, and then its curator of twentieth-century art. Hopps was made adjunct senior curator of twentieth-century art at the Guggenheim Museum in 2001.
In 1990, he joined Jean Stein’s Grand Street as art editor. It was there that he began collaborating with the magazine’s managing editor, Deborah Treisman, and the assistant art editor, Anne Doran, on art essays for the magazine and catalogue essays. A few years later, the three began work on his memoir. I corresponded with Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, about the process behind the book and the particular talents of its subject.
When did you come to this project in its current iteration?
I didn’t actually “come to the project,” I was part of it from the conception. At Grand Street, Walter selected the artists whose portfolios appeared in the magazine and often provided the accompanying text. He wasn’t particularly comfortable writing—he was far better at speaking and storytelling—so usually we would talk on the phone, or he would talk onto tape, or he would be interviewed by Anne, and I would turn those conversations into the essays that ran alongside the visuals. We went through the same process to put together catalogue essays for some of the major exhibitions Walter curated in the nineties. At some point, after I had moved to The New Yorker, we started discussing the idea of doing a larger project, a book that wasn’t a direct autobiography but that would cover most of Walter’s life and the many artists he wanted to talk about. I wrote up a proposal for the book, which Bloomsbury USA acquired, and Anne was on board to do the interviewing. She had known Walter for decades and was familiar with many of his stories and with much of the work he’d done, so she was able to guide him and keep him focused on the project, which wasn’t always an easy task. Walter had a tendency to digress! Read More