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July 13, 2010

On Celebrity, Crowd-Pleasers and Deitch's MOCA Vision


                                                                                                          Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Wireimage
Jeffrey Deitch and Julian Schnabel at the MOCA press preview of the Dennis Hopper show, which is in the background.

A few months before New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch officially took over as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles on June 1, he announced that the first show on his watch would be a retrospective of the artwork of actor/director Dennis Hopper. With impressive speed, the show at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space opened Sunday, and the reason for the quick work was that Deitch wanted the rapidly ailing Hopper to see it. Sadly, Hopper died of prostate cancer on May 29.

The show is as much about Deitch and his directorial vision for MOCA as it is about Hopper and his artistic vision. Deitch Projects, the gallery he ran in SoHo until joining MOCA, had a reputation for being a freewheeling establishment catering to youthful exuberance, perhaps best represented by Dash Snow and Dan Colen, who, in 2007, created an installation including two thousand shredded telephone books, "Nest," which they and their friends had previously staged with destructive abandon in hotel rooms around the world. (Snow died a year ago, reportedly of a drug overdose.)

Compared to the Deitch Projects shows, Hopper's retrospective, curated by artist/director Julian Schnabel, seems pretty tame and conservative. That's odd, since Hopper had a reputation for being reckless and since his work in film could be (but wasn't always) wild and assertive, whether he was directing films like the seminal Easy Rider, or acting in Apocalypse NowBlue Velvet, or Speed, among many other movies. As an artist, Hopper worked in painting, photography, sculpture, and film, and while his work has been widely shown around the world, Deitch said that this is his first U.S. museum retrospective.

The question is, did he deserve a retrospective, and is Deitch lowering the museum's standards to bring in the crowds of film fans and potential donors from the world of Hollywood? When Hopper's artwork was previously shown in museums and galleries, it was usually his photographs that were exhibited, especially the ones he took in the 1960s of celebrities and of the burgeoning Los Angeles art scene. There is a central room in the exhibition that features dozens of these and other photographs. It's obvious that Hopper could take very good pictures. Whether he was shooting movie stars, landscapes, bullfights, street scenes, interiors, or political rallies, Hopper knew how to compose a picture. A recent series of digital color abstract photos shows similar ability.

And Hopper had a serious interest in art. At Friday's press preview, stories were told of how he would regularly make the gallery rounds and how he would hang out with artists to try to learn from them. He collected art and also turned one of his former homes into a kind of art environment, with a sculpture of a clown hanging from the ceiling, and murals covering the walls. But MOCA's rooms of his mostly abstract canvases; reinterpretations of his photographic portraits in the form of huge black-and-white photo-realist paintings; and fiberglass sculptures that resemble roadside Americana, while not embarrassing, really only generate interest because of his fame in film.

During the press event, Schnabel, who referred to Hopper as his best friend, was doing a series of TV interviews when he suddenly turned to me and asked if I knew the work of German painter Gerhard Richter. When I said I did, he told me a story of how Richter had once painted a picture of a cow. When a museum curator had told Schnabel that Richter's cow preceded Andy Warhol's famous cow paintings, Schnabel recalled, he told the curator: "Yeah, but everyone remembers Warhol's cow and no one knows Richter's cow."

I don't think that Schnabel was trying to compare Hopper to Richter or Warhol, but he proceeded to show me around the museum, pointing out aspects of Hopper's compositions that he suggested were as accomplished as any painter's work. I mentioned to Schnabel that during his press comments, while he talked about how there was a consistency running through all of Hopper's output, he never once said that it was good enough to be in a major contemporary art museum. Schnabel replied that this was understood, and when I said that people would only be coming to the show because of Hopper's celebrity status, Schnabel said, "Who cares why they come? It's what happens to them after they walk through the doors."

Fair enough, but what if nothing happens? What if this is just a peek into a celebrity's life through the artwork that he made between gigs as an actor and director that offers no particular insights or enlightenment? From the museum's perspective, does substance really matter if you can string together a series of crowd-pleasers? This may be Deitch's thinking and it may also be why he was hired: to get people through the doors with shows that appeal to the masses. Of course, MOCA tried this three years ago with a major show of Takashi Murakami's work that featured a high-end Louis Vuitton store in the middle of the museum. It was tacky and the crowds came in droves, setting attendance records for MOCA. Did it work? I wouldn't be surprised if most of them haven't been back to MOCA since. Perhaps Hopper will lure them back.

Are celebrities the only hope for contemporary art museums? Well, there are lots of stars who like to paint and sculpt in their downtime. Just last month, Deitch allowed actor James Franco to stage an event at MOCA's satellite facility at the Pacific Design Center. Franco re-created his role as an artist on the soap opera, General Hospital, sounding like '60s Happenings creator Allan Kaprow when he called the episode a blurring of "art and life." So what's next? An exhibition of Post-it Note doodles from the cast of The Office? Copies of Yves Klein's blue body-art paintings featuring the ladies from Desperate Housewives? Perhaps Lindsay Lohan can be persuaded to do some nail-polish portraits of prison guards when she goes off to the hoosegow soon. Does anyone see a reality show here?

Guest blogger Mike Rogers, an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, is the author of an illustrated novel about the art world, "The Third Eye," published by Edicions 30/kms of Barcelona. He has been a reporter for Fortune magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, among other publications.

July 13, 2010 1:50 PM | | Comments (0)

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