Dennis Hopper - KCRW

Dennis Hopper and Ed Kienholz

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp says a show at Kohn Gallery sheds new light on the actor-photographer and his friends.

July 13, 2017

Dennis Hopper, actor, director and art collector, apparently wanted his legacy to be his photography. From the time his actress wife Brooke Hayward bought him his first Nikon camera, he took thousands of black and white photographs. Since his death in 2010, there have been quite a few exhibitions but often with the same iconic pictures: the Standard gas station, portraits of handsome young Ed Ruscha or Paul Newman.

There is a different approach at a new exhibition at Kohn Gallery in Hollywood in Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album, 1961-1967. Organized by Sam Mellon and Claudia Bohn-Spector, the exhibition recreates Hopper’s 1970 exhibition held at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum with 400 black and white prints originally selected by Hopper himself with his friend Henry Hopkins, then director of the museum. The entire show with its documentation was discovered recently in a box that had been stored in his garage and is now part of the Hopper Trust.

The great number of small prints, dry-mounted in an informal style on black-painted walls, initially looks like too much of a muchness. But Hopper, who had already gained acclaim for his roles in films like Giant and East of Eden, was using the camera to develop his eye. Instead of a single image from a series, the exhibition often includes multiple images on a theme whether that be pretty women, civil rights marchers, or members of the Hell’s Angels that he cast in his 1969 movie Easy Rider. After the success of that film, Hopper gave up photography and concentrated on work as a director. He also concentrated on substance abuse to a legendary degree but eventually sobered up and returned to stardom in the 1986 film Blue Velvet.

Hopper was connected to all of the creative facets of LA in the '60s: The show includes photographs of the Byrds, Ike and Tina Turner and other rock acts when they played at small clubs like Whiskey A Go Go. There are pictures of fashion icons like Rudi Gernrich and Peggy Moffit. But one of his greatest passions was the LA art world of the late 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by the artists whose work he collected and who he personally befriended, his photographs capture the intimacy and informality of the people and the times. There are more images collected here than have ever been presented apart from a 2012 show in Berlin. Having used a number of Hopper’s images in my own book, Rebels in Paradise: The L.A. Art Scene and the 1960s, I was excited to see a whole series of photographs of a 1966 performance staged by Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham giving a sense of how the event unfolded in time.

It becomes clear that Hopper was presenting his photographs sequentially like storyboards for a film. His multiple images of the so-called “riot on the Sunset Strip” in 1967 offer some sense of what it must have been like to be there.

In series, as well as his graffiti wall photographs, he was not afraid to let his images be vaguely abstract. Though known for collecting the Pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom he photographed, he was initially intrigued by Abstract Expressionism. He embraced all notions of anarchic freedom and one of his greatest achievements, apparent here, might be his early and unwavering support for those who dared to fight convention. Works of art made by many of Hopper’s closest friends in LA, Bruce Connor, John Altoon and Joe Goode among them, are on view in another part of the gallery. The show continues to September 1.