"A KEEN EYE":
Dennis Hopper at The Amsterdam MOMA
Amsterdam, March 7th(maybe), 2001
Dennis Hopper first flashed across America's screen and
mine as "Buzz", the bad guy in "Rebel Without a Cause",
the anti-JamesDean as it were. He was an evil little
motherfucker, was Buzz. Dangerous dude.
Then when the sensitive
young Indianan in the red
windbreaker bought eternal cinematic youth and a piece of
Mulholland Drive in his Porsche Spyder, Dennis kinda went
off America's scope and mine for a while. I heard some
Hollywood people were pissed off at him. I do not
He turned up in "Easy Rider" in l968 or so, you can look
the year up, but apparently doing so pissed some more
Hollywood people off, and he submerged again, at least in
America. I do not understand why.
But Buzz made such an
impression on the young Panama that
during these hiatuses (hiati?) I, who really could always
have given a ratsass about movies, did find myself
sometimes wondering, Hey what happened to that guy?...
It wasn't until "Blue
Velvet" that the Hopper we have come
to love and fear...Buzz grown older and more creative in
his viciousness...once more flickered through the cultural
I met Hopper once or
maybe twice in the Texas Jewboy daze.
I remember in l974 talking from a dark corner to a
Hopperesque shape in another dark corner across a room at
the Chateau Marmont or somewhere. And once Gigi, his
secretary in L.A. while he was making films in France, let
me sleep-an-that's-all with her. A pity-snuggle, I guess.
We have longtime mutual friends in Kinky Friedman and Tommy
Masters. My friend Nona used to babysit for his kids.
Other than this stuff, I don't know the dude.
I would have studied art in more depth, but I kept running
into people who knew a lot about art but didn't know what
they liked. Ignorance is bliss. So with this bolstering
philosophy and a hashjoint from Future, I set out on the
Number 20 tram for the Amsterdam Museum of Modern Art to
review Dennis Hopper. Maybe it's the Modern Art Museum.
Tram 20 or Tram 2. It'll be on the left side. You'd have
to be stoned to miss it...
Walking back from having missed the museum, I see a really
large crowd of people hanging out on the steps. Cool.
Lotsa other people wanna see Buzz's stuff.
The first part of the
exhibit is on the first floor in a
U-shaped room, so that there are eight surfaces on which to
hang. You can enter on the left or on the right. I choose
counter-clockwise. In here are what seems at first to be
the extent of Hopper's work. It is photographic.
Blacknwhite. They are called gelatin silver prints. Us
art critics know that this means blacknwhite. Most of the
photos in the first-floor portion of the exhibit seem to
have been taken in the mid- to late sixties.
I enter the room on the right-hand side so the first prints
I see are shots of 1967 Sunset Strip cops demonstrating the
use of riot gear. They are rioting.
There are photos of
Andy Warhol and The Factory, a snap of
a young Hopper, circa l965 unless the cars in it are old.
Coupla beach babes who seemed foggily familiar. Only some
of the works are explained, or even titled. And unless
you're Ansell Adams or Steinmetz, photography is by its
nature tied to a particular era or event blahblah. So when
I'm asked to admire a non-Steinmetz, non-Ansell Adams
photo, especially one that I'm not in, I'd like to have a
little explanation regarding what it's about. Snap
photography is not "A Starry Night".
I see a photograph of
a babe's face duplicated over and
over in a billboard company's shop. This will later
develop more significance.
A little further along
there is a gelatin silver photo of
what is undoubtedly Topanga Canyon peopled with what are
undoubtedly 60's SoCal country-rock stars. I think I
recognize Steve Stills, and a coupla these other guys are
dimly familiar, maybe only from album covers, as well.
There are the expected celebrity photos, of course; the
Fondas Jane and Peter, Roger Vadim, 1965ish seemingly- nude
So far I've stood in
front of five of the eight hanging
walls looking at stuff that maybe means something to Dennis
and the subjects he has captured in gelatin silver, but I'm
makin no connection here. Is this the Hopper show? A
buncha snapshots? Of famous people being famous?
I'm starting to wonder: Where's the real Buzz?
Now I come to some photos
Hopper took in 1964 and 5. This
would have been during his first exile from Hollywood, and
during a time the young Panama was wondering what ever
became of that guy? And a light begins to glimmer.
These are photos of Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert
Rauschenburg. Guys the Buzz was apparently hanging with in
New York when he couldn't get arrested, let alone work, in
Tinseltown. Actually, as I understand it Dennis could and
DID get arrested in Tinseltown during this period. But he
didn't get work.
From the photo of Jasper
Johns on, Hopper as see-er starts
nailing it, because the obligatory snapshots of famous
subjects disappear and composition becomes evident. I find
that now I'm not minding so much not having a narrative for
Four photos in particular
grab me. Two are
frame-within-frame kinda stuff: a shot thru an adobe
window, and a picture of a mother and son thru the windows
of a train in which they are sitting. Three Mexican men
around a campfire. A matador with his back to a charging
bull. These have essence and presence. This is some art.
Around the next corner
is a mini-exhibit of photos of
Selma, Alabama in 1965 during that shame. Back to
Final corner and I come to the last part of the first wall.
There are scenes of what must be the artist's family and
funky residence at some time. And there are foreshadowings
of what will come in part two upstairs. By the exit is a
photograph of what is apparently an advertisement for a
passion play. A billboard featuring a section, badly done,
of DaVinci's classic: "SEE 'The Last Supper'. Observe Holy
Week at Forest Lawn". It is a nice irony.
I head upstairs, hoping
not to see more photos. I'm pretty
burned out on blacknwhite.
In the atrium at the
top of the stairs I am stopped in my
tracks by this huge probably fiberglass sculpture twenty
feet tall of a gas station guy, wearing the Sinclair horse
logo on his cap. Interestingly, this same piece was in one
of the photographs on the last part of the first wall
downstairs. Is it found art or was it made by the artist?
I don't know. There is no title card, no explanation. I
have to assume Hopper made this, as opposed to just saying
hey that's cool i'm gonna collect it. It has a matching
piece: a twenty-foot Mexican peasant in full Mexican
peasant drag. Serape, sombrero, that sort of thing. There
is not much but size here in terms of the conveyance of
emotion, but these things ARE big.
I am reminded of the
Albuquerque scene in "Easy Rider"
where our heroes ride by this giant lumberjack statue on
Central Avenue, still there and known in Albuquerque as the
"lumberjack statue in 'Easy Rider'".
Now I enter the gallery
off the atrium on the second floor.
And I get what I expected from Buzz.
Right thru the door
and right thru another door, this one
created or collected by Hopper. Turn around, and I'm
facing a wall made of sheet metal, rusted, with what looks
like a shotgun-blasted hole in part of it, another piece
torqued up off the surface. This is pretty thick stuff,
looks like 14 guage. Somehow I'm impressed enough by this
thing that I go back to the other side to look at the
framework. Yep. This is a collected piece: there is too
much real detail for it to be anything but a once-actual
wall. But collected or not, this is a wall to be reckoned
with. I can see how it would have been held onto as a
piece for a long time. And I appreciate the eye that saw
it as art.
Now there is a '57 Chevy
sculpture. Really cool. Got the
whole side there and then the front end placed at about a
forty-five(as opposed to ninety) degree angle. So that you
can see both the front and the side at once, but never get
them to fall into a normal structural alignment, and the
piece is not as deep as it would otherwise have to be. The
note says it is made of metal. Well. Metal and a lot of
bondo maybe. Are these panels from an actual '57 Chevy? I
sneak a feel but I can't tell. But that would be the
way...it is a stunning piece of eye candy.
Across the room is another
revelation. Downstairs I had
seen a photo of a billboard babe duplicated over and over
in a billboard shop. Now I see what appears to be a canvas
painting of the same thing. There is some stuff here that
I recognize as tricky to do if this is indeed a canvas
painting. I look closer for those little imperfections
that would turn up between the segments if this were indeed
painted and they are there. Goddam! Does this mean Buzz is
an actual artist? Apparently. This is a painting, not a
photograph. There is recognizable technique here.
I had somehow heard
that Hopper was living in Venice
(California) maybe in the late '80's. Throughout the
exhibit there are references to that period of his life,
lithographs on paper, abstract graffiti-based stuff. There
are also basic angular paintings covering thirty years of
stays in Morocco. A couple of really good color blowups of
The next room is killer. Literally. Hopper has a series
called "One of Four Joiners", I don't know what that means.
But there are gauzy photographs of violence and brutality
surmounting abstract representations of what I can only
guess are the artist's reactions to the photos or the
events themselves. This is, really, scary stuff. Heavy.
Oppressive. Like I say, scary.
There is a three-projector
room showing stuff on three
screen with triple stereo sound. I didn't get to see much
of this because one of the museum guards clocked my
backpack - apparently a no-no at MOMA, like I'm gonna steal
the '57 Chev and sneak it out the front door. And a hassle
ensued. I didn't play my final trump, which of course
would have been "I'm a personal fucking friend of the
fucking artist, you fucking weasel." Instead I weenied out
Hopper has a juggernaut
fascination with violence and human
misery that is difficult to withstand. After the oppressive stuff
and the hassle
with the guard, I was glad to leave.
But the unasked question gets answered: Dennis Hopper,
American, born Dodge City, Kansas, l936.
Good show, Buzz.
If you want to go to
any of several museums in Amsterdam,
get on the 20 tram or the 2 tram at Centraal Station (or
anywhere, actually). These will take you right to the
doors of the Rijksmuseum, the van Gogh, the MOMA, and