"Actors aren't taken seriously when they make art", Dennis Hopper once said in an interview. In general, he might be right. But it has long been known that Hopper never considered himself to be merely an actor. And with his first large-scale European retrospective, currently on show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, he wants to offer evidence of his various talents to the Dutch public.
he first remarkable thing about this exhibition is its sheer size. A very large number of artworks by Hopper have been brought together, occupying nearly all the first floor of the Stedelijk Museum and the photo cabinet on the mezzanine. The second remarkable thing is the total absence of comments. Neither a biography nor any other explanations are offered to the visitor. And although it is very relaxing that Hopper's celebrity is not unnecessarily stressed, a few words about his influences, development and standpoints as an artist would not have done any harm.
Cardboard, Tin Indian
Courtesy of the artist
It becomes clear very right at the start of the show, in the cabinet half way up the stairs, that photos are Hopper's strong point. They reveal his extraordinary feeling for shapes and structures, which in his early works he combined with a strong dynamism, in the later ones with calm and serenity.
Bruce Connor, Toni Basil..., 1965
Gelatin Silver Print
Courtesy if the artist
His black and white photos from the 60s, taken in the US and Mexico, include a wide range of genres and subjects: portraits, street scenes, surreal compositions, groups of friends, pictures from demonstrations, architecture. In an exhibition by a famous actor and director who works with the medium of photography, the obvious expectation is to see a lot of photos of celebrities being glamorous. In Hopper's photos, however, famous people are pleasantly unimportant. Of course a lot of his artist and actor friends can be spotted in the pictures from the 1960s, but they are never represented just for their celebrity's sake. His photos are witty documents of life in California in the 60s, abounding with colourful advertisements, limousines, biker romanticism and palm trees.
Courtesy of the artist
It took Hopper nearly thirty years to top these early works. The next highlight in his artistic production is a series of photos he took in Japan in the 1990s. They testify to his interest in structures and series, depicting magazine stands, graveyards, walls and stairs as well as groups of people. These pictures, all hung in one room, are probably Hopper's most mature, self-confident and beautiful productions, next to the huge close-up photos of painted walls he started taking at about the same time.
Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibition does not reach this degree of quality. Hopper's other works only become moderately interesting when photography is involved. A lot of Hopper's paintings were done after a photo, thus documenting his priorities. Often, however, they do not have anything to add to the original.
To the show's detriment, the organisers were not very choosy in what to exhibit. The large number of paintings on show could easily have been reduced by half. In painting, Hopper apparently tested any "ism" and any technique that was fashionable at the time. There is some pop art, some abstract expressionism, some neo-realism, some assemblages and some ready-mades - the only thing missing is a clear line. Approximately one piece per room is quite impressive, but a lot of the works on show lack individuality.
Among the few remarkable non-photographic works is a series in which he combined TV stills, showing brutal scenes of police arrests and fights, with graffittis, commenting on American street culture. Hopper is generally at his best when he picks on the American dream and its commercial reality, like in the big colourful "Salsa Man" and "Mobil Man" sculptures in the stairway hall.
The entire exhibition seems to underline what Hopper himself once said about his first years in the artists' scene of LA: "I was never really accepted. The artists used to call me 'the tourist' because I always had the camera hanging round my neck." He should have taken it as a hint, and devoted his artistic ambitions to photography instead of dabbling in every trendy style that crossed his way. His photography really has character and style - and that's what distinguishes the works of an artist from those by an actor who makes art.