LOS ANGELES — “We had a lot of belief in each other.”
That's filmmaker and painter Julian Schnabel talking with a touch of sadness about his good friend Dennis Hopper, who died from prostate cancer at age 74 on May 29. The two had known each other since the late 1980s, and had grown close. The actor/artist/filmmaker had encouraged Schnabel to make his first feature in 1996, Basquiat, and Schnabel had become the godfather of Hopper's son, Henry.
Schnabel recently finished installing Dennis Hopper Double Standard, an exhibition of artwork by his friend on view at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary through Sept. 26. While Hopper has had a few exhibits abroad during his lifetime, notably one in Russia, this is the first museum show of works in the United States.
“When I was installing this stuff, I couldn't believe that Dennis wasn't standing beside me,” Schnabel says. “I think Dennis used himself as a guinea pig, and I just wish he hadn't used himself so much as a guinea pig that his liver wouldn't have given out for one more month and a half.”
The title of the exhibition comes from a photo that Hopper took in Los Angeles in 1961 through a car window of a gas station's double signs at a V intersection — the roads leading off into different directions. The image and title raise a number of thoughts about Hopper's career.
Born in Dodge City, Kan., in 1936 and raised in San Diego, Hopper was 18 when he signed with Warner Bros. and a year later appeared in Rebel Without a Cause with his friend James Dean. Around that time Hopper began collecting abstract expressionist art and took up painting, but a fire destroyed his collection in 1961, and he turned to photography.
In the 1960s, he photographed friends and artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as well as historic political and social events, such as the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march and the riots on the Sunset Strip in 1967.
Meanwhile, his acting career at that the time was hit and miss, mostly small roles in movies and TV.
His big break was Easy Rider (1969), a film that caught the zeitgeist in the story of two bikers traveling through America in a search for freedom.
In 1981, Hopper returned to painting, spending time in a Taos, N.M., studio. Two of those works are part of the exhibition, as well as film clips of his movies that play in a room at the show.
The main thrust of the show is a sort of a photo collage of some 150 photographs by Hopper that Schnabel has stacked together. There are also several billboard-style reproductions of the photos, which are mostly in black and white.
Hopper did work steadily in film right up to the end, starring in the cable series Crash. But he only got to direct a handful of movies, mostly notably Colors in 1988 and the film noir The Hot Spot in 1992.