In his later years, Walter Hopps was evidently not a big fan of the Rolodex. When he needed the phone number for the Dia Center, or Joe Goode's studio, for instance, he would simply call the art gallery where I worked and ask for the number. Some days he called three or four times a day. It was a practice that did not go over well with my bosses, who would hit the "hold" button with mighty exasperation and tell me to give Hopps the number to Site Santa Fe. I never once approached annoyance. Each time he called, I could only think "This is the man who gave Marcel Duchamp his first American museum show. His gallery gave Andy Warhol his first solo show. Ever." Walter Hopps died in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 20 of pneumonia at age 72.
In the years following WWII, Los Angeles was hardly a blip on the artistic radar--a perception that Hopps was instrumental in changing. Despite never having graduated from college, in 1962 Hopps became the curator, and later the director, of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). There, he curated the first American museum exhibitions of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, and Kurt Schwitters. In 1962, his exhibition New Paintings of Common Objects introduced museum goers to the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Jim Dine, Joe Goode, and Wayne Thiebaud--creating a canon of Pop Art. His love for the scrappy, funky art of SoCalers like Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Billy Al Bengston prompted Hopps to open the Ferus Gallery with artist Ed Kienholz. After Kienholz left the gallery to pursue his own work, Hopps and Irving Blum offered a young New York artist his first solo gallery exhibition. The artist was Andy Warhol, and his 32 paintings of soup cans were offered up for $100 each.
Some of Hopps' fascinating, unrealized exhibitions ranged from a solitary work of art to the "100,000 Images Project" that he envisioned for New York's PS.1. Rumor has it that for the past several years, Hopps had been working on a volume of his memoirs, and we can only hope to read the firsthand accounts of the man whose gonzo approach to curating once prompted his staff to create buttons that read, "Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes."