sketches of an art world original
Nancy Reddin Kienholz
The art world mourns the loss of one of our greatest champions. Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, was 72 when he died in Los Angeles in March. He was in L.A. doing what he did best: installing an exhibition and speaking for an artist (George Herms).
Walter looked natural in a white suit and fedora. Tall and thin, pale and horn-rimmed, he did not go unnoticed. He always looked a trifle lost, perhaps because his mind ranged farther ahead than his feet.
Walter truly loved art and artists. He had the ability to enter an artist's soul. Walking through an exhibition with him was one of life's pleasures. He knew the art, he knew the history and he could deduce the artist's intent. He was unrivaled in terms of curatorial knowledge.
Walter was often called eccentric. I think a better call is genius. He was smarter than the rest of ushe didn't hold it over you, he just was. I remember in 1994 when he had a brain aneurysm, during his recovery, some of his friends said, It's a good thing this happened to Walter; he has more than enough brain cells to lose some. If it happened to you or me, we would be blithering idiots.
Recently, over dinner, Walter gave his wife Caroline Huber and me a test. The first question was, Who was the first American filmmaker? The answer was Edison. Now that we knew what century we were in, we felt better prepared. "Who was the first great American painter?" Audubon. I don't recall the third question, but with Ben Franklin, I got it right. Like a child, I felt relief for not failing. Walter always made you think. You wanted to please him; you tried your best, thought your hardest for him. He instructed you in a charming, calm way. He shared his genius generously, and for me he was a wonderful resource for the Sunday crossword. I would call to ask, What is a four letter word for a box-like sled? Pelf. What was the name of Prince Valiant's wife? Aleta. What is the word for Icelandic writing? Eddas.
There are so many stories about Walter. He and my late husband, Edward Kienholz, founded Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. I remember Ed telling a story of how he was upset because he had to do all of the work: painting, building walls, etc. But Walter would appear with paintings by Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn or Andy Warhol. Ed realized that what Walter was doing was more important than his labor.
In the early 1960s, Ed made a sculpture called The Illegal Operation. Ed was going to destroy it. Walter broke into his studio and stole it. He denied taking it and hid it until Ed promised not to demolish the piece. In retrospect, considering it is perhaps the best piece Ed ever made, I know Walter was correct in his thievery.
There was always room at the table for Walter. When he appearedlateat a dinner it was like the parting of the waters. He would stand at the table of his choosing, and any member of that table would gladly give up their seat. He was Walter. He was there to educate and enlighten. You were his willing pupil.
The night before the Menil honored Walter in 2001 with the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Excellence (and the mayor proclaimed Walter Hopps day), I gave a dinner at my studio for artists and collectors. No dealers. No business. Just a chance to talk to Walter, drink, eat Tex Mex and Gulf Shrimp and relax before the big event the next evening. It was a family affair, and Walter was the paterfamilias. He was pleased. A good time was had by all.
We have lost not only a friend, we have lost the best, numero uno curator in the world. The art world mourns.