Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 445 black and white photographs, generally mounted and unframed, and hung against white walls in a large divided gallery and the adjacent entry area on the 5th floor. Aside from the 12 unique gelatin silver prints on view near the reception desk (each framed in blond wood and matted and sized 3.5×5 or reverse), the show is comprised of clusters of vintage photographs hung together in groups, mostly in mixed subject matter sets of 25, with one single subject matter set of 8 from Mexico. No detailed information on these prints was provided on the checklist, although the individual prints look to be sized roughly 5×8 (or reverse); there is some repetition of images from cluster to cluster, so the prints are likely not unique. The images were taken between 1961 and 1967. A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Prestel (here). (Installation shots at right courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever. Artworks © Dennis Hopper, courtesy of The Dennis Hopper Art Trust.)

Comments/Context: Back in the days before the instantly disposable digital print, people seemed to have a hard time throwing photographs away. Rather than heedlessly pitching them in the bin, we tended to squirrel them away in boxes, pushed to the backs of closets and the recesses of attics, waiting for some later generation to unearth them once again. There was something mildly heretical about trashing history, and so for the most part we didn’t; it was easier to let them gather dust than make the active decision to get rid of them. As a result, the recent history of photography is full of fantastic and improbable rediscovery stories: Vivian Maier, Mike Disfarmer, Charles Jones, Robert Capa’s mexican suitcase, the list goes on and on. The story of this exhibit follows this same pattern: boxes of prints tucked away after Dennis Hopper’s 1970 exhibit at the Fort Worth Art Center Museum, generally thought to be forever lost, but miraculously found once again.

If we play a word association game with the name “Dennis Hopper”, most of us will blurt out actor, director, or maybe Hollywood cool guy, but few of us will start with photographer or artist. But as this time capsule of photographs clearly shows, Hopper was busy shooting pictures long before his prime years as an actor. Looking at the literally hundreds of images in this show, it’s easy to see Hopper at the center of a starburst diagram, with dozens of connections splashing outward to all kinds of cultural communities. He took portraits of actors, rock stars, artists, gallery owners, politicians, Hell’s Angels, and hippies. He hung out at rallies and riots, went to bullfights in Mexico, and documented the civil rights marches in Selma. He watched TV, noticed commercial signage, and thought about abstraction. In short, he had amazing access to the cultural melting pot of the 1960s and he took advantage of that position to make a wide range of pictures that reflect the conflicted spirit of that time.

The way these photographs are installed discourages focusing in on single images; your eye darts from picture to picture in these clusters, flitting from one to another like a hummingbird looking for nectar. Jane Fonda’s wedding, the Kennedy funeral on pixelated TV, Martin Luther King Jr. giving a speech, a matador flashing his cape, an abstraction of torn posters, a hippie chick, a Rauchenberg and Cunningham performance, the groups return again and again to common visual themes, like refrains and choruses of a song. By the time you reach the fifth or sixth grouping, the patterns have settled into recognizable rhythms, a little of this, a little of that, all wrapped up in one long stream of consciousness memory.

Photographically, Hopper was a bit of shape shifter, moving from documentary seriousness to Siskind-like Abstract Expressionist studies in found line and form. His celebrity portraits are his best works, if only for their careful looseness; Hopper had an eye for in situ composition, but didn’t seem to let his photography break the sense of easy casualness that pervades these pictures. He was an insider, and his subjects are comfortable and open in ways others couldn’t possibly replicate. Regardless of whether it was Claes Oldenburg or Ed Kienholz, Paul Newman or Timothy Leary, Hopper caught his friends unguarded, generally opting for playful rather than posed.

By the early 1970s, Hopper had left photography behind for other pursuits, and while he did return to making pictures at various times later in his career, none of those images really match the verve and immediacy of these 1960s works. Looking back at them as an interwoven group, they have an undeniable right place right time vitality, even if Hopper’s photographic voice hadn’t entirely emerged. Seen together, they are a transporting, swaggering frieze of curious, idealistic, cultural signifiers.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced as follows. The clusters of 25 prints are priced at $250000 each (prints not sold individually) and the smaller single prints near the reception desk are $15000 each. Hopper’s photographs have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging between roughly $5000 and $48000.

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Read more about: Dennis Hopper, Gagosian Gallery, Prestel Publishing

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