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July 21 2012

LA artists fight for soul of one of the city's cultural landmarks

Trustees of Museum of Contemporary Arts split by row over dumbing down of shows

A furious row has broken out at Los Angeles's leading art institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is pitting some of America's most celebrated aesthetes against a billionaire property developer.

Moca, one of the symbols of LA's recent emergence as an art hub to match New York, is dedicated to the presentation and study of recent art and has long been a home to the erudite and esoteric. But the museum has been hit by the defection of high-profile artist board members furious at a perceived dumbing down.

The conceptual artist John Baldessari was first to resign, followed by agit-prop graphic artist Barbara Kruger and "queer-space" photographer Catherine Opie. Then Ed Ruscha, possibly the city's best known artist internationally, followed suit. Their resignations, they said, could be read as a protest at the commercial, pop-culture direction of the museum at the expense of education and scholarship.

"The artists in LA are very upset," said Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, author of Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. "There's a schism between the trustees. It's a complicated situation."

Angry fingers are being pointed at Eli Broad, a billionaire property developer and art collector who bailed out the financially struggling institution three years ago with a $30m donation, and his choice of director, the pop-art minded, former New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

With Broad's backing, Deitch, they claim, effectively engineered the removal of the museum's long-serving chief curator, Paul Schimmel, setting up a confrontation between artists and a deep-pocketed collector allied with museum managers charged with raising revenue and exhibition attendances.

Art in the Streets, a Deitch-orchestrated survey of the graffiti and street art movement, drew a record number of visitors. That was followed by a retrospective of Dennis Hopper's artwork. Earlier this year, the actor James Franco curated a show that drew inspiration from Rebel Without a Cause.

"Jeffrey represents a populist streak that many in the art world consider vulgar. He goes for spectacle more than scholarship," says New York art critic Carlo McCormick. "They feel he's dumbing down the cultural values of the art world."

And behind that, many suspect, is a billionaire whose motives are not entirely clear. While Broad saved Moca and wants to keep it viable, he is also constructing a rival museum across downtown LA to house his own collection.

In addition, the original trustees of the museum have been bolstered by big-money figures such as hedge fund whale Steven S Cohen and Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian who collects Damien Hirst. "The influence of collectors is probably at an all-time high," says McCormick. "Art is highly professionalised and market-determined at every level."

LA artists expressed dismay that educational aspects of the institution have been cut from the budget and said they worried that Moca was becoming "a cliche of Los Angeles or a part of the entertainment industry. We want to know the direction of the museum and to know that curators are respected and their shows are being funded."

LA art critic Mat Gleason said: "Deitch is actually inoculating the museum from conflicts of interest with high-wealth collectors." By putting on more pop-culture orientated shows, "he can go to low-level donors and say, 'We throw really cool parties, why don't you donate to us?' " In response, Deitch wrote to museum members saying the institution's programme was "a response to and an articulation of the current art and cultural landscape today". Moca, he said, would continue to engage audiences in a "dynamic and scholarly way".

Friends of Deitch say he's tired of being criticised for placing pop art or shows about disco culture ahead of cutting-edge art. But they also say he's perfect for Los Angeles because it is a city "wrapped up in celebrities and celebutantes".

It's the artists, then, who may have to accept that they live in an entertainment town. "But, of course, they're freaked out that people like James Franco are getting exhibitions because it's not serious and it doesn't matter," says a Moca supporter.

Artists, however, not collectors or institutional managers, may still have the final say. "If showing at Moca means selling out, then no one is going to want to show there," says one.

• This article was amended on 23 July 2012. The original wrongly gave the location of Eli Broad's rival museum as Wilshire Boulevard.


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January 05 2011

Dennis Hopper's shot at Warhol

Image of Mao dented with two bullet holes from Hopper's shotgun among memorabilia to be sold by Christie's in New York

We've all been there. It's late, you're at home and you're spooked by one of your works of art – an Andy Warhol screen print of a smiling, smug Chairman Mao – so you pick up a gun and shoot it. One as a warning, the next through his eye.

In truth, only the late actor Dennis Hopper was there and it was the 1970s, a time when he was taking drugs in order to sober up quicker so he could start drinking again. Certainly his friend Warhol didn't mind, cheerfully annotating the two bullet holes.

As a result the work became a Warhol-Hopper collaboration, and it will be sold by Christie's in New York for an estimated £20,000-£30,000 next week, part of a sale of some 300 items of memorabilia and Hopper-owned art that filled his Venice Beach home from floor to ceiling. Many of the items are estimated in the low thousands of dollars and it follows the sale of Hopper's expensive stuff last November when 30 works were sold for a combined total of $12.8m (£8m) including a Jean-Michel Basquiat which went for $5.8m.

Hopper, who died last May aged 74, was a voracious collector from the 1950s onwards – encouraged by the actor Vincent Price – and a friend and patron to many artists as well as being a photographer and painter himself.

A family friend and trustee of Hopper's estate, Alex Hitz, described the Warhol incident. "One night in the shadows, Dennis, out of the corner of his eyes, saw the Mao and he was so spooked by it that he got up and shot at it, twice, putting two bullet holes in it.

"Andy saw it, loved it and annotated those holes," labelling them "warning shot" and "bullet hole".

Also included in the sale is a painted letter from the artist Jean Tinguely, brilliantly illustrated with familiar Tinguely motifs and the message – 'Thank you for the 3-phone calls. I am looking for to be in L.A!' There are also mementos from his films and career – a Waterworld-themed pinball machine anyone? – and numerous posters for movies including Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet and Speed.

Most of the art is 20th century, although there is the odd incongruous item. For example, if you want to own Hopper's 300-year-old Italian walnut buffet it will cost someone in the region of $1,000-1,500.

Other lots include a 1955 photograph of Hopper as doe-eyed pretty boy taken by fellow actor Roddy McDowell and a peculiar portrait of Hopper with a vampiric Christopher Walken taken at the Chateau Marmont hotel, LA, by Annie Leibowitz.

The collection is being sold on 11-12 January by Hopper's four children and they are, said Hitz, following their father's wishes.


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October 04 2010

For sale: Dennis Hopper's house

The Easy Rider star's sleek mansion, designed in part by Frank Gehry, is up for sale. But no one is buying. Could its edgy location in Venice, LA, be putting people off?

It was one of those Hollywood-in-the-hood myths, part of the fabric of living in a town with a single industry: entertainment. Deep inLos Angeles's Venice district, it was said, less than a mile inland from the heft of the Pacific, was the house. It stood in the hood, down on Indiana and fourth, past Broadway, past Brooks – an area that scared the lights out of Charles Bukowski, the drunken postie-turned-poet who was afraid to look out of the window when he lived there, for fear of the eyes peering back in at him.

A haven for low-lifes and low-riders, crackhouses and gangbangers, that spit of Venice was immune to the polite society emerging around it. Instead it revelled in the fear; the fear where black met Latino and joined together to glare at the Anglo. The first time I came here, the estate agent I was following stopped her car, got out and clack-clacked her way back to me to profess that she was lost. Then she looked around. "I can't believe I got out of my car!" she screamed. "I'm a white Jewish princess out of my car! Here!"

In a frenzy of sequins she skanked back to her car and we sped off, bouncing through the storm drains, crossing the crucible of fourth-fifth-sixth-seventh avenues before arriving at Lincoln Boulevard and the security of its third-world shanty.

I often wondered if it was really Dennis Hopper's house there on fourth and Indiana. By then I was living a few blocks away, in one of the safely gentrified parts of Venice. Julia Roberts lived across the block, Ed Ruscha had his studio at the end of the street, and I never walked as far as Indiana. But still, you could drive past – and I did, peering at the fences, the walls, the hedges. And then I found it: deluxe, A-list-size palms towering overhead, skewed building blocks piled one upon the other.

The giveaway that there was some big mother of a star living there, behind the barrier, was that this was a triple lot. Want to tell people you've arrived in this town of infinite real estate? Bag a double lot, or bigger. Then they'll notice you, even in little old Venice. Frank Gehry did it (out-did it, even) by seizing his own triple-lot a few blocks away. The lot's still there, in fact, ringed by chain-link and as bare as the day he bought it – the planners, the zoners and the permit department having aced the hot-shot architect with his wibbly-wobbly planes and crow's-nest shtick.

Gehry also designed parts of the Hopper Compound, as it is known, to house the actor's formidable art collection. Forget about Hopper's own pretensions, his abstract fancy-pants photos of street paintings, those candid snaps of his fellow myths in their heyday and his papier-mache banalities. That was just dabbling. His eye as a collector – now that was for real. His early investments in art, when he played the penniless punk (long before he played the advertising icon), helped pay the debts and move him up the ladder. Hopper, he would tell you, was the first to buy one of Warhol's Campbell's Soup paintings. For $75.

I met him once, and told him about my interest in his house, how we were near neighbours, and he told me the story of how a Guardian journalist had come to his house for an interview and fucked him over. Invitation aborted.

Now that he's dead, the Hopper Compound, one of the stranger remnants of his idiotic reign, is on page 15 of the local rag's property listings; the fruit of a dispute between Hopper's estate and his estranged widow. To date, there are no takers. The price has dropped from $6.245m to $5.194m, and the Hopper myth is reduced to a banality that might serve as a motif for the death of celebrity: the knowledge that his house had "dishwasher, dryer, garbage disposal, refrigerator". TS Eliot probably had something to say about it all. Or Charles Bukowski.

This article was amended on 5 October 2010. The original referred to Charles Bukowski as the drunken Polish postie-turned-poet. This has been corrected.


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April 28 2010

Actor, director and – yes – brilliant photographer

Those who accuse Hopper of being an amateur snapper miss the point: the photographs that will go on show at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art are an inspired blend of Hollywood gloss and the miraculous everyday

Last week Jeffrey Deitch, the new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in Los Angeles, announced that his first exhibition, scheduled for July, will feature the paintings and photographs of Dennis Hopper. It will be curated by Hopper's close friend, the artist and film-maker Julian Schnabel.

Hopper, who will be 74 next month, is a semi-mythic figure both as an actor and director, but his art and photography are less well-known. In the blogosphere, the announcement raised questions about art-world nepotism, as well as the blurring of the boundaries between art and show business. "This is exactly the sort of PT Barnum extravaganza, dripping with cronyism, star-fucking and insider dealing, that Deitch's main detractors feared he would bring to Moca," wrote Steven Kaplan on post.thing.net. "It feels like an extension of the titillating, fame-obsessed, outre projects that often dominated his NY galleries … Schnabel has directed Hopper in his films. Hopper owns Schnabel paintings. They are 'dear friends'."

Kaplan acknowledges that Hopper's photographs are "noteworthy". In fact, they are more than that. For most of the 1960s, Hopper was a Hollywood outsider with a reputation as a troublemaker and a rebel. He had appeared in Rebel Without a Cause with his close friend James Dean in 1955, but had subsequently been consigned to one too many supporting roles. What he really wanted to do was direct films that flew in the face of Hollywood convention – something he achieved, to a degree, with 1969's Easy Rider, which ushered in a new era of vibrant independent film-making in America.

From 1961 to 1967, though, Hopper made photographs as if his life depended on it. In the vividly impressionistic introduction to Out of the Sixties – his first book of photographs, published in 1986 – Hopper wrote: "I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive … They were the only creative outlet I had for these years until Easy Rider. I never carried a camera again."

The book is divided into thematic sections: Warhol and the Factory, 1964; Artists and Collectors; Hollywood; Music; Civil Rights March, Selma to Montgomery; Mexico, the Scene. It tells you where Hopper's head was at in the 1960s – which is to say, all over the place. In grainy black-and-white, using only natural light, he photographed Ruscha and Rauschenberg, John Wayne and Dean Martin, James Brown and the Byrds, Martin Luther King and Timothy Leary, Mexican graveyards and the Grateful Dead. The closest he came to documentary reportage are his images from the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The rest, including his portraits, often look like ornate tableaux which constantly draw the eye from the subject to the backdrop and back again. He never cropped his photographs. Somehow they work; often brilliantly.

Here is Wayne and his sidekick Martin, two celluloid cowboys glimpsed through the tripod of a film camera, waiting for the "action" to begin. Here is Ike Turner, sharp as a switchblade, one hand resting on a piano, while beside him Tina Turner watches while scrubbing a shirt on a washboard. They seem to be backstage at a fairground or a circus. It is hard to know what exactly is going on in this photograph, but the tableau is overloaded with metaphors – about race, show business, roleplay and marriage.

Even in his photographs, then, Hopper deployed a film-maker's eye. "In a curious way, what seems special about Hopper's photographs now is that they seem to resemble shots from movies," wrote Walter Hopps, the iconoclastic American curator, in a short essay for Out of the Sixties. "Not so much frames from films, but still photographs made on the sets and locations of imagined films in progress … wonderful ones."

The shot I like best is an intimate one, part-portrait, part-social history. It is called simply Biker Couple in a Bar. Like many of Hopper's portraits, it has been taken up close, so the couple almost fill the frame. She is relaxed but glamorous, holding a cigarette in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, her heavily made-up eyes staring downwards as if lost in thought. He, too, is gazing off out of the frame as if daydreaming, his torso bare and tattooed, his quiff immaculately groomed, and possibly high-lighted. They look like bikers as a Hollywood film-maker might imagine them; but they are real, and so is the setting.

It is that hinterland between the real and the imagined, the everyday and the mythic, that Hopper's best images revisits again and again. One cannot help but wonder how his style would have developed if he had stayed with photography, even as, with hindsight, we can see that his feverish mind was less than suited to the patient capturing of stillness. For all that, though, his photographs do not depend on his name or his art-world contacts to be considered as contemporary art. They stand alone as testament to the maverick imagination of Hopper: actor, director and, fleetingly but brilliantly, photographer.

Now see this

Dorothy Bohm's evocative black-and-white street photography was exhibited at the ICA in 1969 alongside the work of Don McCullin and Tony Ray-Jones; but, until now, she had never had a major retrospective. This show spans six decades and also features Bohm's colour photography and a recreation of her studio. A chance to reappraise the work of an underrated pioneer of social observation.

The World Observer is at Manchester Art Gallery until 30 August 2010. Admission is free.


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April 20 2010

Dennis Hopper to have own art show

The ailing actor's career as an artist is to be the focus of an exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by fellow film-maker Julian Schnabel

A retrospective of artwork by the actor Dennis Hopper, curated by his friend and fellow film-maker Julian Schnabel, is to open at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the exhibition, the first under the museum's new director Jeffrey Deitch, will open on 11 July and is entitled Art Is Life. It will include work from Hopper's various styles and periods, including abstract expressionist painting, pop art collage, graffiti-inspired oils and portrait photographs, the best-known of which feature Paul Newman, Tina Turner and Andy Warhol. There will also be some film content, including a "sculptural installation" that involves the projection of Easy Rider and two of Hopper's other movies.

Deitch conceived the show a couple of months ago after visiting Schnabel, who made his name as an artist in the 80s before a successful move into cinema. The pair admit that the exhibition's haste is in part motivated by Hopper's condition – the actor is battling terminal prostate cancer.

"We're rushing this exhibition because Dennis is ailing," said Deitch, "and I wanted him to be able to participate in the selection of works. He saw the space with us last week."

But he also defended a choice some critics could see as artistically lightweight. "That's one of the reasons I want to do the show," said Deitch said. "It's good to have a mission. I want to try to explain why he's important for a new generation."


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