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The Menil's founding director forever changed Houston's art scene. His gift of 600 works shows how

Houston Chronicle 3/24/2023 Amber Elliott, Staff writer

It's not common to organize an exhibition around a curator's career. Those were Menil associate curator Clare Elliott's words on Wednesday night, during the museum's largest in-lobby dinner to date, in celebration of its latest opening, "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps."

Walter Hopps III, who became the Menil's founding director in 1981, was not the common art hound.

By his own estimate, he curated some 250 exhibitions in his 50-year career. What began as "organizing a few shows" after Hopps transferred from Stanford University to the University of California, Los Angeles, to study microbiology and art history led to founding the Ferus Gallery in 1957 with artist Edward Kienholz.

"It was one of the cutting-edge galleries at that time because contemporary art was illegal in Los Angeles," Menil director Rebecca Rabinow told the Chronicle. "People thought it had communist ties."

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In 1960, Kienholz's sculpture in Hopps' likeness, titled "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps" (1959), was the centerpiece of Ferus Gallery, and it now welcomes Menil visitors into "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps." Hopps is shown hawking three miniature works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning under his jacket lapel like a drug deal to promote the contemporary artists who were then based in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York — and pokes a little fun at Hopps' salesman tendencies.

"(Ferus) was the center of the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles," Rabinow said. "You can trace back LA's art center today to the founding of that gallery."

He went on to become director of the Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon Museum, and Corcoran Gallery of Art; then, curator of modern art at the National Collection of Fine Arts, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In the 1960s, Hopps met John de Menil while curating an exhibition on Jasper Johns in Pasadena, though he wasn't introduced to de Menil's wife, Dominique, until 1971 during the opening for a Barnett Newman exhibition in New York City.

She invited Hopps to direct the museum the de Menils built at Rice University nine years later. He became a board member of the Menil Foundation, and the rest is history.

The Menil Collection opened to the public in 1987. Hopps stepped down two years later.

"Walter decided he didn't want to be director anymore because he loved being a curator and working with artists," Rabinow shared.

Some of those creatives, including Suzanne Bloom, Mel Chin, Terrell James, Sharon Kopriva and John McIntosh, were dinner guests on Wednesday. Their work is on view as part of "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps." Others, such as Larry Bell, George Herms and Ed Ruscha, are part of the Menil's public Artist Talk on March 24 and have work in the show as well.

After Hopps' death in 2005, Rabinow says she had an organic conversation with his widow, Caroline Huber, about the future of his things. "They tell the story of this really interesting person. He was one of the cutting-edge curators from the 20th century, and it was really important that they have a home," Rabinow said.

Which is how more than 600 works came to the museum in 2019. The exhibition, which opens Friday, celebrates those recent and promised gifts.

"We really wanted the art to tell the story, because that's what Walter would want to do," Elliott told the crowd Wednesday. "These are Walter's stories."

Greeting the circus with a smile

If "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps" serves as the exhibition's welcome wagon, then "Greet the Circus With a Smile" (1961) by George Herms is the motto, according to Elliott. "That's how Walter approached art," she said.

A series of mostly works on paper from Hopps' collection from the 1950s-1980s hang salon-style behind his eponymous sculpture. Among them is "Untitled (hat)" (1982) by John McIntosh.

"To have Walter's attention was mystifying to me," McIntosh said. "I think of Walter whenever I see art. He would've flown through a gallery like this. He may have even given himself a hug."

Elliott concurred; Hopps moved very quickly and very decisively. He frequently startled museum security as he leapt from one artwork to another. 

She followed suit, guiding a small faction of Hopps' artists briskly into the next gallery space. This one highlighting Hopps' direction at the then-Pasadena Art Museum. Outside of Los Angeles' city limits, and without restriction on contemporary art, Pasadena became the place to see modern creativity in the 1960s. In 1962, he opened "New Painting of Common Objects," a movement which later became known as Pop Art. 

The next space functions as a bridge between Hopps' time in Southern California and Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of State tapped Hopps to curate the United States Pavilion at the São Paulo Bienal in Brazil in 1965. That's where he paired more established artists, such as Barnett Newman, with the emerging talents of Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Larry Bell. 

Bell's "Conrad Hawk" (1961), "untitled" (circa 1966) and "untitled" (1966-1967) hug a corner. The latter two glass boxes share a wall. He visited the show while it was on view in Washington, D.C., which didn't exactly go as planned.

"Some guest tripped over a barrier and into one of the cubes," Bell recalled with a sly smile. "I heard this clunk and knew what it was."

The adjoining gallery is a tour de photography. By 1970, Hopps was unanimously elected director of the Corcoran Art Gallery and befriended William Christenberry, then an instructor at the museum-affiliated Corcoran School of Art. Christenberry's photographs of the American South led to a road trip.

"You can picture them driving cross-country, visiting Dennis Hopper," Elliott said, gesturing to images above. 

Additional standouts in the vicinity include Robert Longo's massive "Master Jazz" (1982-1983) and "Eat Human Flesh" (1988) by Mark Flood, though Elliott won't divulge the juicy story behind the latter. She suggests reading "Artists We’ve Known: Selected Works From the Walter Hopps and Caroline Huber Collection" to get the not-suitable-for-work scoop.

A trio of Houston-based artists  — Suzanne Bloom, Terrell James and Sharon Kopriva — each has work on view in the alcove adjacent to the Robert Rauschenberg room. There, James took pause to thank Huber for nurturing up-and-coming female artists way back when.

"Caroline was very involved in the scene with DiverseWorks," James said. "She was instrumental in the discovery process that brought young artists into the fold and got us introduced to Walter."

Four walls of early works by Rauschenberg close the show. It was Hopps' who positioned the painter and graphic artist from Port Arthur to represent the U.S. in the 32nd Venice Biennale; Rauschenberg stunned the world when he brought home the International Grand Prize in Painting in 1964.

"'National Spinning/Red/Spring (Cardboard)' (1971) was one of the last acquisitions during Walter's time at the Menil," Elliott said.

Their favorite museum

After Hopps and Huber wed in 1985, the bride wasn't exactly keen on the idea of moving from Washington to Houston when Dominique de Menil first hired Hopps at Rice.

"Houston was very different then than it is now. I found it to be a really dynamic and exciting place unexpectedly," Huber said. "There was a sense of collaboration between institutions large and small. And generosity to make things happen."

Her husband's white whale had long been intimate involvement with the design and planning of a museum from the ground up. So working alongside Dominique de Menil to build the Menil Collection was a dream realized.

Huber says that she and Hopps have given works to the museum ever since it opened, and long after he resigned from his post. With "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps," she's simply making good on a promised gift. 

And, there's more to come. "Some of the things, I'm still living with them," she said. "I didn't even know all that we had. The museum is very close to my heart, and there’s no place I’d rather have the art live."

Today, as a Menil trustee, spending three days with the artists and artwork her husband championed feels like a homecoming. Huber and Hopps met them way back when the collective group was green and first starting out. The couple didn't necessarily buy expensive things, but they liked to collect and support when they could. "The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps" is a reflection of that.

"When you have art you're a steward for it. You have to make sure it's always cared for, safe and seen. All of those things matter. We have it while we're here, then it has a life past us," Huber said. "I know Walter would feel the same way."

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