Walter Hopps Through the Eyes of Lary Bell, George Herms, and Ed Ruscha

Walter Hopps, in Washington D.C., 1978. Photographed by William Christenerry, The Paris Review.

On March 24,  Menil Collection opened their new exhibit called The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps, which featured selected artworks he curated over the years, including Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) (1962). This event explores “the influential curatorial imagination of Hopps… as well as his distinctive approach to exhibition making and appreciation for a variety of 20th-century art movements.” As a way to celebrate the opening, Menil Collection also hosted an event called Artists on Walter Hopps: Larry Bell, George Herms, and Ed Ruscha. During the event, the three artists discussed their roles and involvement during the 1960s Los Angeles, CA art scene and their relationship with Walter Hopps. 

Walter Hopps is a well-known American curator who was once dubbed as “the marvelous mad maven of modern art in America.” It was estimated that Hopps curated about 250 exhibitions for over 50+ years of his career. It all started in 1957 when Hopps founded a contemporary art gallery called Ferus Gallery, which still stands today, in Los Angeles, CA with Edward Kienholz. This gallery became a place for artists like George Herms, Larry Bell, and Ed Ruscha to begin their stories with Walter Hopps. 

Organized by Clare Elliott, Associate Research Curator. March 24th-August 13, 2023.

During the Artists on Walter Hopps panel, the audience learned one thing Bell, Herms, and Ruscha all have in common, besides being artists, is their initial meeting with Hopps. All three men stated that they met Hopps through another artist in Los Angeles. Larry Bell, known for using “refined surface treatment of glass,” recalled the first time he met Hopps. Bell was sure he was about to be drafted during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and confided to a fellow artist about wanting to have a show before getting drafted. The fellow artist introduced Bell to Hopps and in 1962, Bell had his first showing at the Ferus Gallery, and from there, the rest is history. Ed Ruscha, an American artist known for conceptual art, stated during the panel that Hopps had a way of connecting artists and creating a tight-knit circle among them. Not only does Hopps have a way of networking, but all three men agreed that Hopps had a way of encouraging artists to pursue what they want to create. George Herms, an assemblage sculpture artist known for using discarded materials, recalled the time when Hopps encouraged him to showcase his artworks. With Herms’s excitement, he got dressed up and showcased all his best works, including Macks (1963) which featured a tattered American flag. Unfortunately, the American Legion viewed this piece as a disrespect to the American flag, but for the artists, this is a piece of art that portrayed Herms’s own beliefs and opinion as part of the Beat Generation, who rejected traditional style. 

Larry Bell, George Herms and Ed Ruscha. The Menil Collection.

Throughout the panel, not only did these artists share stories about their artworks and their experience working along the Los Angeles art scene, they also shared their unforgettable, yet hilarious, memories with Hopps. Ruscha shared a story about the time when Hopps hired him and another artist to deliver Matisse artworks that cost thousands of dollars across town to his collectors using a pickup truck, which is obviously something not allowed nowadays when dealing with art transportation. “I think about Hopps all the time,” Ruscha said during the panel. All three men agreed that they are here today as artists because of Hopps and that they were grateful for him. 

Bell, Herms, and Ruscha painted an image of Walter Hopps filled with light-heartedness, yet spontaneity. Hearing all of their stories gave me an idea of who Walter Hopps was, his colorful life, and the people he left an impact on. Back then, Los Angeles was not the place for the art community, it is usually New York, even today, but Hopps paved the way for these artists to be seen and be heard. It was Hopps who helped connect these artists together in a place where art needed recognition. 

The Menil Collection will exhibit The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps from March 24 to August 13. It will feature more than 130 artworks that Hopps curated over 50+ years of his career from at least 70 different artists. 

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