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Walter Hopps: Standing Sideways

An ongoing conversation between Terrell James and Virgil Grotfeldt in April 2005

Walter Hopps... Photo taken by George Hixon


Terrell: Virgil, your friendship and working relationship with Walter go back to his arrival in Houston, I believe. Could you tell me how that started? What connected your work?

Virgil: I met Walter Hopps in 1983, a chance encounter at the time. I had built a studio in Commerce Street Warehouse in its early stages of development. Rick Lowe, Nestor Topchy, Wes Hicks and others had started the space. One evening, late, I was working, and Walter appeared in my doorway, asking if I minded him looking around. I said no, of course not. At that time I knew nothing of him or his history. Later my wife Deborah Grotfeldt began working at DiverseWorks, and from there we began a friendship. I am not certain why Walter related to my work as he did, but am grateful that he did. Walter had an uncanny way of knowing a work almost immediately, also bringing in the historical context, which as an artist was extremely helpful.

Terrell: We both miss Walter both personally and professionally. What are a few of the things you will most miss about him?

Virgil: I talked with Walter almost daily, mostly by phone, but also on lunch dates, and social occasions. We became very close on a personal level.

Terrell: One of the things I miss the most about Walter is his warm quiet laugh, and of course his stories. Walter is known for his ability to put work in context, through the history of art of the last century to the new one, and those stories are filled with major figures in the cultural world, from both coasts and Europe. But my favorite ones have to do with his own childhood and youth. Living in Mexico at his grandfather’s citrus farm, and in California, in the shadow of a large observatory. Learning photography so that he could make a fake ID for the jazz clubs, for the music, not the booze.

His stories about art events took the first person, often told in the present tense. Stories about Cornell and Duchamp. Not just the history but the insight the history granted. He humanized the artists, and made them less like legends and more like human beings.

Virgil: I maybe haven’t heard every story he had to tell, but a good portion for sure. I agree. What was great about hearing these stories, was that he was talking about artists and events from personal experience, not a learned knowledge. Walter put a face and persona to the great artists of the 20th Century; they became accessible as people, not just icons. I certainly will miss the stories the most.

I will also miss the interchange and discourse relating to my work, which of course was extremely valuable.

I will miss Walter’s constant encouragement, particularly relating to those times when we all suffer setbacks and doubts about developments in our work.

Terrell: Could you talk about Caroline Huber Hopps and her enormous contribution in his life? As an artist with him. And as someone with tremendous energy supporting him and his work.

Walter Hopps... Photo taken by George Hixon


Virgil: Caroline Huber is central to the Walter I knew. First of all she was an artist, as was Walter, so that is where their relationship begins. Walter loved Caroline’s art: that was always obvious to me. Caroline brought so much to the relationship; I hardly know where to begin. Aside from her position as Director of DiverseWorks, she maintained a studio practice, kept Walter organized, as much as possible, and was devoted to his work. Without Caroline, the Walter we knew would have been quite different.

Terrell: I thought it was extraordinary how much work he had going on, or in plan. He was still jumping in. Photography projects of his own, writing about his life, at least fifteen curatorial projects mapped out mentally, and in some cases, actually. Remember when the day after the last Rosenquist opening in Houston, he began working on a project called New American Painting? There were the three exhibitions that for him define the major work of the 20th C. I have notes I took from him about those shows. Possible venues included the Menil Collection and the Guggenheim Museum. You probably can recite them. Categories: abstraction; realism; imagist. He had just launched the George Herms show in Los Angeles. He was working on plans for a possible exhibition of your work, putting it in a wider context. I understand he was also working with James Magee in El Paso.

Virgil: In 1994, I believe that was the year Walter suffered a brain aneurysm. At the time, no one knew what to expect for his future. For most people that episode of ill health would have been career ending, but not for Walter. Even under these extreme conditions he always had ten years of exhibitions planned in his head. Walter lived as if life was infinite, always with an eye on what next. That was inspiring for me. Walter was planning, along with Bill Agee, a large survey of Abstract Expressionist art for a future show at the Guggenheim. Sarah Bancroft was again involved in the curatorial team. In this exhibit would be the usual suspects, but also many artists he admired, who were not household names, along with some surprises. He loved surprises. Along with this show, as a satellite exhibit, he wanted to do a show called The Next Generation.

Terrell: Yes, we three spoke about that often, because you and I were among the artists in the show. The work was to start at 1960 and go forward to now, showing artists who carry the expressionist banner further.

Virgil: And you’re right, Walter had proposed to me a show of my work, placing it in a historical context. He phoned one day and said, “Virgil, which would you like to work toward: a solo or a group show?” Of course the obvious question was who’s in the group. The group, as Walter then conceived it, included Victor Hugo‘s visionary artworks, Redon, Kandinsky, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hoffman, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Terry Winters, Brice Marden, Anselm Keifer and Joseph Beuys, and I said wow, I like it. I do not know whether that will happen now, but by context of course, I was overwhelmed.

Walter also planned a David McManaway show at the Menil, which is going to happen soon. I look forward to this exhibit; it will be great. Walter was planning future exhibits dealing with 20th Century realist work, and imagist work. The sadness is we may never see these exhibits.

Terrell: Right. And together with the Abstraction inquiry, the three main streams of 20th Century American art would have been covered. A compendium.

He had also planned to go back to photography. I wish he had had the time to explore that again. I was particularly interested in the light drawings done in the darkroom, around 1955, and their visual relation to your drawn/painted forms. I placed them together in the Gulf Coast literary journal’s twentieth anniversary issue, in the art section, along with Abdel Hernandez and Tracy Hicks. Could you address that parallel in your explorations?

Virgil: In 2004, Waldo Bien produced a monograph of my work in Amsterdam. One of the proudest things for me is that Walter’s experimental darkroom photos are included in this book. Many people had no idea Walter actually produced artworks himself. Walter was also an artist in the way he put art in context, particularly in installation of exhibitions. Walter was always an artist first and a curator second; he lived his life as an artist.

Sculpture by Kienholz for Walter Hopps


Walter and I shared an interest in the subconscious self, along with a love of gesture as voice. Walter’s photography comes from the same sources of inspiration as my work. We felt a little like kindred spirits.

Terrell: Stephen Cadwalader in New York, with whom we both work, mentioned that one of Walter’s last pieces of writing was about my work, and includes your work. He has mentioned how much Walter thought about contextualizing what we are doing. I hope in this piece we have done a little bit of that for Walter, placing the wealth of his amazing original thought and vision in the context of our lives, and the enormous difference he made here in Houston, at the Menil Collection and in the entire community.

Virgil: I feel sorry for all the artists who either didn’t know, or will never know Walter, as an artist and a visionary curator. There may never have been, or ever be, a museum professional who’s allegiance was always in favor of the artist. Walter loved art and artists more than did anyone I have ever known. He was always the champion of all artists.

Walter would visit any and all studios, always engaged in serious thought and dialogue. He loved nothing more than lunch and a studio visit. Whenever an artist was in personal trouble: health, poverty or what ever, Walter was always involved, helping to right the ship. What a friend!

The world and art in particular has lost a great treasure. He cannot be replaced, or recreated. On arch 20, 2005, the earth moved, and all of us with it. My hope is that we, who were so fortunate to share his life, can carry the lessons we learned from him forward. We too must be advocates for the artists and the works they produce, always dreaming far into the future, as Walter Hopps would expect us to do. I miss him terribly.

Terrell: As George Herms, artist, and Caroline and Walter’s close friend, read at the graveside service, lines Walter wrote about Joseph Cornell also apply to him:

To stand at the end of any shore is to contemplate vastness and a possible journey. Good English poets such as John Donne and others discussed the hereafter from the vantage point of standing on the beach looking out to see. [Walter] liked all these traditional things: sands of beaches, sands of time, skies, vistas beyond, conventions of stars, zodiac formation, diagrams.

His thought was profound, his poetry exquisite. His physical resolution of his art, beautiful. What else can we ask?

Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Walter Hopps, Richard Vine, and Robert Lehrman; 2003, Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

“Standing Sideways,” phrase from Terrell’s notes from a conversation with Walter about his New American Painting show, in 2002.

Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, The University of Houston, pp. 128-146, with art editor’s essay, Terrell James, Volume XII, Number 1, Summer 2000.

Walter Hopps: Standing SidewaysAn ongoing conversation between Terrell James and Virgil Grotfeldt in April 2005Terrell: Virgil, your friendship and working relationship with Walter go back to his arrival in Houston, I believe. Could you tell me how that started? What connected your work? Virgil: I met Walter Hopps in 1983, a chance encounter at the time. I had built a studio in Commerce Street Warehouse in its early stages of development. Rick Lowe, Nestor Topchy, Wes Hicks and others had started the space. One evening, late, I was working, and Walter appeared in my doorway, asking if I minded him looking around. I said no, of course not. At that time I knew nothing of him or his history. Later my wife Deborah Grotfeldt began working at DiverseWorks, and from there we began a friendship. I am not certain why Walter related to my work as he did, but am grateful that he did. Walter had an uncanny way of knowing a work almost immediately, also bringing in the historical context, which as an artist was extremely helpful. Walter HoppsPhoto taken by George HixonTerrell: We both miss Walter both personally and professionally. What are a few of the things you will most miss about him? Virgil: I talked with Walter almost daily, mostly by phone, but also on lunch dates, and social occasions. We became very close on a personal level.Terrell: One of the things I miss the most about Walter is his warm quiet laugh, and of course his stories. Walter is known for his ability to put work in context, through the history of art of the last century to the new one, and those stories are filled with major figures in the cultural world, from both coasts and Europe. But my favorite ones have to do with his own childhood and youth. Living in Mexico at his grandfather’s citrus farm, and in California, in the shadow of a large observatory. Learning photography so that he could make a fake ID for the jazz clubs, for the music, not the booze. His stories about art events took the first person, often told in the present tense. Stories about Cornell and Duchamp. Not just the history but the insight the history granted. He humanized the artists, and made them less like legends and more like human beings. Virgil: I maybe haven’t heard every story he had to tell, but a good portion for sure. I agree. What was great about hearing these stories, was that he was talking about artists and events from personal experience, not a learned knowledge. Walter put a face and persona to the great artists of the 20th Century; they became accessible as people, not just icons. I certainly will miss the stories the most. I will also miss the interchange and discourse relating to my work, which of course was extremely valuable. I will miss Walter’s constant encouragement, particularly relating to those times when we all suffer setbacks and doubts about developments in our work. Terrell: Could you talk about Caroline Huber Hopps and her enormous contribution in his life? As an artist with him. And as someone with tremendous energy supporting him and his work. Walter Hopps and groupPhoto taken by George HixonVirgil: Caroline Huber is central to the Walter I knew. First of all she was an artist, as was Walter, so that is where their relationship begins. Walter loved Caroline’s art: that was always obvious to me. Caroline brought so much to the relationship; I hardly know where to begin. Aside from her position as Director of DiverseWorks, she maintained a studio practice, kept Walter organized, as much as possible, and was devoted to his work. Without Caroline, the Walter we knew would have been quite different. Terrell: I thought it was extraordinary how much work he had going on, or in plan. He was still jumping in. Photography projects of his own, writing about his life, at least fifteen curatorial projects mapped out mentally, and in some cases, actually. Remember when the day after the last Rosenquist opening in Houston, he began working on a project called New American Painting? There were the three exhibitions that for him define the major work of the 20th C. I have notes I took from him about those shows. Possible venues included the Menil Collection and the Guggenheim Museum. You probably can recite them. Categories: abstraction; realism; imagist. He had just launched the George Herms show in Los Angeles. He was working on plans for a possible exhibition of your work, putting it in a wider context. I understand he was also working with James Magee in El Paso. Virgil: In 1994, I believe that was the year Walter suffered a brain aneurysm. At the time, no one knew what to expect for his future. For most people that episode of ill health would have been career ending, but not for Walter. Even under these extreme conditions he always had ten years of exhibitions planned in his head. Walter lived as if life was infinite, always with an eye on what next. That was inspiring for me. Walter was planning, along with Bill Agee, a large survey of Abstract Expressionist art for a future show at the Guggenheim. Sarah Bancroft was again involved in the curatorial team. In this exhibit would be the usual suspects, but also many artists he admired, who were not household names, along with some surprises. He loved surprises. Along with this show, as a satellite exhibit, he wanted to do a show called The Next Generation. Sculpture by Kienholz for Walter HoppsTerrell: Yes, we three spoke about that often, because you and I were among the artists in the show. The work was to start at 1960 and go forward to now, showing artists who carry the expressionist banner further. Virgil: And you’re right, Walter had proposed to me a show of my work, placing it in a historical context. He phoned one day and said, “Virgil, which would you like to work toward: a solo or a group show?” Of course the obvious question was who’s in the group. The group, as Walter then conceived it, included Victor Hugo’s visionary artworks, Redon, Kandinsky, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hoffman, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Terry Winters, Brice Marden, Anselm Keifer and Joseph Beuys, and I said wow, I like it. I do not know whether that will happen now, but by context of course, I was overwhelmed. Walter also planned a David McManaway show at the Menil, which is going to happen soon. I look forward to this exhibit; it will be great. Walter was planning future exhibits dealing with 20th Century realist work, and imagist work. The sadness is we may never see these exhibits. Terrell: Right. And together with the Abstraction inquiry, the three main streams of 20th Century American art would have been covered. A compendium. He had also planned to go back to photography. I wish he had had the time to explore that again. I was particularly interested in the light drawings done in the darkroom, around 1955, and their visual relation to your drawn/painted forms. I placed them together in the Gulf Coast literary journal’s twentieth anniversary issue, in the art section, along with Abdel Hernandez and Tracy Hicks. Could you address that parallel in your explorations? Virgil: In 2004, Waldo Bien produced a monograph of my work in Amsterdam. One of the proudest things for me is that Walter’s experimental darkroom photos are included in this book. Many people had no idea Walter actually produced artworks himself. Walter was also an artist in the way he put art in context, particularly in installation of exhibitions. Walter was always an artist first and a curator second; he lived his life as an artist. Walter and I shared an interest in the subconscious self, along with a love of gesture as voice. Walter’s photography comes from the same sources of inspiration as my work. We felt a little like kindred spirits. Terrell: Stephen Cadwalader in New York, with whom we both work, mentioned that one of Walter’s last pieces of writing was about my work, and includes your work. He has mentioned how much Walter thought about contextualizing what we are doing. I hope in this piece we have done a little bit of that for Walter, placing the wealth of his amazing original thought and vision in the context of our lives, and the enormous difference he made here in Houston, at the Menil Collection and in the entire community. Virgil: I feel sorry for all the artists who either didn’t know, or will never know Walter, as an artist and a visionary curator. There may never have been, or ever be, a museum professional who’s allegiance was always in favor of the artist. Walter loved art and artists more than did anyone I have ever known. He was always the champion of all artists. Walter would visit any and all studios, always engaged in serious thought and dialogue. He loved nothing more than lunch and a studio visit. Whenever an artist was in personal trouble: health, poverty or what ever, Walter was always involved, helping to right the ship. What a friend! The world and art in particular has lost a great treasure. He cannot be replaced, or recreated. On March 20, 2005, the earth moved, and all of us with it. My hope is that we, who were so fortunate to share his life, can carry the lessons we learned from him forward. We too must be advocates for the artists and the works they produce, always dreaming far into the future, as Walter Hopps would expect us to do. I miss him terribly. Terrell: As George Herms, artist, and Caroline and Walter’s close friend, read at the graveside service, lines Walter wrote about Joseph Cornell also apply to him: To stand at the end of any shore is to contemplate vastness and a possible journey. Good English poets such as John Donne and others discussed the hereafter from the vantage point of standing on the beach looking out to see. [Walter] liked all these traditional things: sands of beaches, sands of time, skies, vistas beyond, conventions of stars, zodiac formation, diagrams. His thought was profound, his poetry exquisite. His physical resolution of his art, beautiful. What else can we ask? Terrell James and Virgil Grotfeldt are artists living and working in Houston.Images courtesy The Menil Collection.Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Walter Hopps, Richard Vine, and Robert Lehrman; 2003, Thames & Hudson, Ltd. “Standing Sideways,” phrase from Terrell’s notes from a conversation with Walter about his New American Painting show, in 2002. Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, The University of Houston, pp. 128-146, with art editor’s essay, Terrell James, Volume XII, Number 1, Summer 2000. Images courtesy The Menil Collection.

Terrell James and Virgil Grotfeldt are artists living and working in Houston.

also by Steve Hodges
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