Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper R.I.P.

Dennis Hopper died yesterday and I'm sad. They say you should never meet your heroes for fear of disappointment and while that can be true, with Hopper it wasn't.
Like most people I found him via Easy Rider and thought he was brilliant. His inability to keep it real on and off screen just endeared him further to me but meant he became increasingly difficult to insure or bond to make movies.
When he disappeared off the screen I found him again first via photography and then art. His early years as a student actor at the Lee Strasberg School had introduced him to the New York Artworld and he took to it like a duck to water. Dorothy's line "You're no longer in Kansas" was never truer. Being a TV arts producer it was only a matter of time before I managed to engineer a crossing of paths.

He was a patron of the Whitney in Manhattan and agreed to show me around a newly renovated wing. We got off to a bad start. He arrived a little late because of traffic and unexpectedly turned up with his wife. During the introductions an effervescent young PR girl made enthusiastic conversation with Mrs Hopper. "I believe you're from Boca Ratan" she beamed, showing off her knowledge of celebrity minutae, and the more gauche communites of Florida.
"No" Victoria Duffy began, "That must have been one of Dennis's many previous girlfriends. Actually I'm from Boston"
Being from the UK, I recognised the use of the word "actually" when it's used as cold steel to insert cleanly into your enemy but I was too busy trying to remember the difference between "frosty silence" and "froidure" at that point, wondering what might have happened if anyone had ever said to Princess Margaret "I understand you're from Peckham?"

I talked us through it and we set off to look at the paintings, the camera crew stifling giggles long enough to bet on an early lunch. They were wrong. Hopper talked and talked and talked. He not only knew every painting intimately but knew the artists as well, including some recently dead.
When we got to Edward Hopper, I joked about them 'being related' and he said that yeah he'd been through all that but actually knew him well, as they both hung out in the same place.
"Where?" I asked, thinking some downtown arts club.
"Georgia O'Keefe's house in New Mexico," he said, "we'd spend a lot of time there. I had my own chair. Took all kind of things out in the desert. Y'know."
I didn't need to ask - the camera was still running - what "all kinds of things" were.
He turned to the (Edward) Hopper painting and stared, wistfully. "It's all about the space, the expectation, the waiting," he said, "It's not the people, or the buildings, it's the nothingness" he went on to describe his last meeting with his namesake and declared excitedly "he showed me this painting he'd done upstairs. There's the room, the wardrobe, the bed, and the window, and you know what? There was NOBODY in it!!" He laughed excitedly, turned on by the very idea, and also the fact that he had been the first person, ever, to see it.
We diverted from the new wing and went to his favourite art, the abstract expressionists, and as he stood in front of the plain black, and red, canvasses of Ad Reinhart, he explained what they meant to him, what their depth conveyed, why there was a stillness on the surface, but a raging maelstrom underneath.

"I don't know how to explain these things, " he said, " I don't know the language of art, I don't read magazines, but I do know how this stuff grabs you"
There was never a more eloquent translation of 'I don't know about art but I know what I like'

We kept in touch and a short time later I suggested a TV show to him, a tour around the 'outside art' of the US in the company of Damien Hirst, then also a bad boy of his art. He loved it. Damien loved it. We set it up. It was a goer. But unfortunately our favourite UK TV company didn't love it, and it collapsed at the very last minute, as these things have a habit of doing.

A couple of years back I was at a London art preview and became aware of a small man in a cap standing beside me. He looked up and greeted me, remembering my name. "Howya doin? What happened to our tour of James Turrell and Walter de Maria? Call me, anytime!"

And after a short chat he wandered off, smiling and waving, a little camera hung around his neck just like all the other American tourists you see in London everyday.
"There goes the man" I thought to myself, "that scared the living bloody daylights out of me in Blue Velvet, looking like an extra from Monsieur Hulot's Holiday."

I liked him.



GreenlightWilly said...

Nice little homily. You have provided some welcome relief to the usual characterizations of the man. I always wondered how such a free spirit like him could have been so naive as to endorse behavior that restricts personal freedom - such as his apparently sincere ' you are doing great things' comment to Newt Gingrich as he was about to deploy his disingenuous 'contract with America'. Your commentary doesn't really solve that puzzle but it does suggest Hopper as more of a typical midwesterner rather than an urbane intellectual. This effect I take to be more authentic when reported by a non-American who may be more objective in his experience of the behavior rather than the connotations that come with it.

fatzers said...

nice read, cheers

and i would've loved watching that art documentary :)

Nationwide said...

I think Hopper was adopted by libertarians in much the same way that Frank Zappa was, it was the imagery and timing which attracted them, but only at a later date did it become obvious that politics were not part of the deal. Zappa was never a hippy, Hopper was never one either.

Fatzers, it was a good programme, broadcast a few times and benefitted from his input greatly.