Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album


"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven," wrote Wordsworth on the eve of the French Revolution. Though his words could equally have been describing a very different time and place and another, later, revolution where to be young was, also, ‘very heaven'. This revolution was expressed not through chopping off aristocratic heads but through drugs, sex and rock n'roll. And, as with the French revolution, its utopian values of freedom grew out of the restrictions and constraints of the dominant culture.

I was at school in the 1960s and remember going to see Easy Rider. It's hard to explain, coming from my bourgeois English background, just how mesmerising it was to sit in the dark and watch this anarchic road movie. Cool, sexy and intense, its saturated colour, naturalistic shots and long lonely vistas of desert highways seemed to embody a sort of frontier freedom that was primarily American, something I'd only previously encountered in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Easy Rider was wild, thrilling and a little frightening. It encapsulated the restlessness of the 60s counterculture, the feelings of a generation increasingly disillusioned with organised government and the political conflicts that surrounded Vietnam, poverty and issues of race.  The film stared three men who would go on to become iconic anti-heroes:  Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.

Mad, bad and, no doubt, dangerous to know, Dennis Hopper became a cult figure. He embodied the restless mood of those emotionally charged times with their major social shifts and changes in moral values. Good-looking, self-confident and iconoclastic - part outlaw, part artist - he was the sort of guy who was always going to be something even if he didn't know what that something was going to be. By the age of 18 he was under contract to Warner Bros and became fascinated by the creative potential of film,  co-starring with that other American icon, James Dean, in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). By the late 50s Hopper was living in New York and studying acting under Lee Strasberg. He was also taking photographs of street signs, walls and ripped posters, material not yet commonly the subject of art. At 25 he married the actress Brooke Hayward, daughter of the photographer, Leyland Hayward. On Hopper's birthday Brooke went to her father and borrowed the money to buy him a Nikon camera. From 1961 to 1967 he carried it everywhere until he began work on Easy Rider and put it away.

The necessity to take photographs (and make paintings) came, he said, from ‘a place of desperation and solitude'. He hoped that taking photos would fill the void. In his own words he was "an Abstract Expressionist and an Action painter by nature, and a Duchampian finger-pointer by choice." (Duchamp had said, ‘The artist of the future will merely point his finger and say it's art – and it will be art.') By his own admission, Hopper didn't read a lot. But he had a compelling sense that he wanted to "document something. I wanted to leave something that I thought would be a record…whether it was Martin Luther King, the hippies, or whether it was the artist." His black and white photographs, taken from the full negative, were uncropped and shot in natural light. He photographed flat so there was no depth of field and the images became like a wall, or a painted surface. Living in LA there was, he claimed, not much to look at. Driving along endless highways walls gave a point of interest.

The Lost Album: A Treasure Trove, now on show at the Royal Academy, presents a selection of the 400 pictures that were stored and forgotten in five boxes and not unearthed until after Hopper's death in 2010. They are believed to be the ones that he selected for his first major show at Forth Worth Art Centre Museum, from the hundreds taken between 1961 and 1967. As well as being visually talented, Hopper was also, according to Rolling Stone magazine, "one of Hollywood's most notorious drug addicts" for 20 years. The 1970s and early 1980s were spent living as an "outcast" in a small town in New Mexico. In The Taos Incident Walter Hopps, co-founder of the Ferus Gallery, describes how in the mid-70s he transferred the photographs from ‘the biker gang, lesbian, drug and hippie nest of Taos' into the protected space of his museum. What they show is that this enfant terrible had a rare artistic sensibility and empathy.

Dennis Hopper captures a series of uniquely American moments. He is the Walt Whitman of celluloid. So many faces of the United States are here: the celebrities, the heroes, the poor, and the crazy. There are images of the downtrodden and ordinary New Yorkers: kids climbing a tree, two women in head- scarves seated in an all-night diner, a middle-aged seamstress, as well as photographs showing both the poetry and the poverty of lives on the streets of Mexico and in Alabama. There are hippie girls dancing and Hell's Angels with their chains, Nazi insignia and biker jackets, and a 1967 photo of ‘Flower Children' – girls, one nursing a baby, sitting under a tree on a hot summer's day with garlands in their hair, looking like members of some fundamentalist religious cult. And there's a picture of that guru of gurus, Timothy Leary, reaching out and shaking the hand of a follower like some sort of Messianic priest.

But it's the photographs of the young Andy Warhol (before the wig), the boyish, owl-eyed David Hockney, of Jasper Johns and a gamine Niki de Saint Phalle, along with the snappily dressed Robert Rauschenberg sticking out his tongue for the camera, that are truly Proustian. Then there's the dashing Ed Ruscha standing in front of a neon sign that looks like one of his paintings, and an iconic image of Jane Fonda and Roger Vadaim – all European chic - at their wedding in LA in 1965, and Paul Newman looking amazing, sitting on a lawn in the shadows of tennis court netting, ensnared like some sultry beast. They are all so young, so golden. They must have thought they would be the first generation to live for ever. But most poignant of all are the photographs of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Funeral taken from the television. In these it's as if time has stood still for a moment. With their brutal assassinations came the loss of the dream. ‘Bye, bye miss American pie' this was ‘the day the music died'.

Credits:

Dennis Hopper
Leon Bing, 1966
Photograph, 17.68 x 24.59 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Irving Blum and Peggy Moffitt, 1964
Photograph, 16.69 x 24.92 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman, 1963
Photograph, 17.25 x 24.74 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.

Dennis Hopper
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965
Photograph, 23.37 x 34.29 cm
The Hopper Art Trust
© Dennis Hopper, courtesy The Hopper Art Trust.


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Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic. She has written regularly for Time Out, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The New Statesman and contributed to The Times, The Guardian and numerous art magazines such as Apollo, Tate, Irish Art Review, NY Arts Magazine, State Media, Print Quarterly, The British Museum and the RA magazines.

She is London correspondent for the Los Angeles based contemporary art magazine, Artillery, and writes a regular column for
www.3quarksdaily.com.

For some time she had her own arts programme on Resonance Radio: Hubbard's Half Hour.

Her compendium of art essays Adventures in Art: Selected Art Writings 1990-2010 was published by Damien Hirst's imprint, Other Criteria.


© 2014 Sue Hubbard