Home Art He’s a Walking Contradiction, Partly Truth and Partly Fiction

He’s a Walking Contradiction, Partly Truth and Partly Fiction

Dennis Hopper at Sushi a la Hattori restaurant in Taos, May 2009

Reflections and Reminiscences of Dennis Hopper in Taos


One can only imagine the impact Dennis Hopper had on the tiny village of Taos, New Mexico, when he blew into town on his Harley at the height of America’s most radical decade. Back then, he was considered a paranoid, pistol-packing local menace—a far cry from his eventual evolution into beloved denizen, which culminated in his designation as Honorary Mayor of Taos in conjunction with a town-wide celebration, Hopper at the Harwood, in 2009. Upon receiving the keys to Taos, Hopper said with a smile, “Who would have believed this in the ’60s?” Just over a year later, in June 2010, he was laid to rest near the village that had been his physical and spiritual home for nearly 50 years.
A lot has happened since.

Above: Dennis and Henry Hopper with German screenwriter Norman Ohler, Lindrith, New Mexico, 2009

Within weeks of his passing—and in the midst of considerable controversy—a retrospective titled Dennis Hopper Double Standard opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Said to be the first comprehensive exhibition of Hopper’s artwork to be presented by a North American museum, the show was curated by Hopper’s friend, New York artist Julian Schnabel, and included photographs, paintings, assemblages, graffiti-inspired wall constructions, billboard paintings, sculptures, and film installations.

Hopper was also a passionate art collector and his was considered one of the most extensive collections in the U.S. In a highly publicized feeding frenzy, it was parceled off and sent to auction in what fellow collector and artist Ron Cooper says is, “Tragic. One of the most unfortunate things that I have seen happen in the world of art in the last 40 years is the cheap auctioning and breaking up of Dennis’s collection.”

While his life’s accumulation of artwork has been flung to the far corners of the globe, writers and filmmakers are beginning to explore Hopper’s legacy as one of modern culture’s most controversial and contradictory figures. An independent film about his life in Taos titled The New Neighbor, directed by Kathleen Brennan and co-produced by Brennan and John Hamilton, was released in 2011. It has since been shown at Taos Shortz Film Festival, the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and The Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto. And this year a new biography by Tom Folsom, HOPPER: A Journey into the American Dream, was released by HarperCollins. The book’s dedication reads “For Dean,” a combination, says Folsom, of Hopper’s longtime friend Dean Stockwell, James Dean, and the rebel spirit revealed throughout the book—and indeed throughout Hopper’s life.

Now that several seasons of dust have settled on Hopper’s intentionally humble, dirt-mound burial site, his own words lend an interesting perspective—as do the reflections of his fellow artists and Taos friends—on Hopper’s influence as artist, art collector, and member of the Taos community

Taos: The Early Years

High on the prospect of filming the first serious portrayal of the turbulent times and counterculture of the 1960s, Hopper and his crew were literally “on the road” in search of film locations for a movie he had written. In a 2009 video interview with Rick Romancito of The Taos News, Hopper said, “I was coming down from Farmington with my production manager looking for locations for Easy Rider and we got down to Española and he said well, ‘If we take a left here we’ll go to Santa Fe. If we take a right we go to Taos, and Taos is an art community,’ and I said, ‘Well I don’t want to go to any damn art community, man! We are making Easy Rider.’ He took the wrong turn and I ended up in Taos . . . in the plaza, and this Indian guy came up to me as I was getting out of the car and he says, ‘The mountain is smiling on you. I know where you need to go.’ And he took me out to New Buffalo, which is what I was looking for—a commune—so that’s the way it started.”

Stockwell elaborates: “He did some locations around Taos for Easy Rider. I think that’s what got him hooked, because he was trying to decide between buying a ranch in Nevada and [Mabel Dodge Luhan’s] house, and I remember telling him, ‘Dennis, man, Taos is the place.’”

While he also kept a home in Los Angeles, for the rest of his life Taos indeed became the place for Hopper—although some have often wondered why. “Maybe Dennis was on some sort of spiritual search, but the reality is that Taos was a rathole,” says artist Ron Davis. “You can take that scene in Easy Rider where Bobby Walker is at the commune at face value. There is something about that at the time maybe Dennis didn’t even know. Watching it now, it feels very ironic. Like, ‘Oh, we are going to plant seeds now.’ It was the ’60s, you know? [You’ve got] Timothy Leary saying, ‘We’re all going to have internal freedom, man.’ But we all know that that went out the window with Altamont.”

Self-proclaimed showman R.C. Israel arrived the same year as Hopper. “He opened a gallery in 1971, Dennis Hopper Works of Art, in Cabot Plaza. His objective was to show the community what artists were doing in New York and San Francisco by showing art from his own collection,” Israel says. “We knew the same artists, Bruce Conner and Andy Warhol and Edward Curtis, whose photos weren’t well known then. Dennis collected Lichtenstein, and he knew the New York artists of the ’60s and collected a lot of their work.”

Hopper also purchased the old El Cortez Theater in Ranchos de Taos, which was open to the public for a time, then open for premieres by invitation only, and ultimately became Hopper’s art studio. Israel goes on to recall, “After Dennis decided to close the theater, he took out all the seats except 52—because it is the number of seats he said were in the actor’s theater in New York.”

He’s a Pilgrim and a Preacher and a Problem When He’s Stoned

With the bad boy image firmly established in James Dean’s wake, along with the heady success of Easy Rider, Hopper spiraled out of control in the 1970s. There was the eight-day marriage to the Mamas and the Papas singer Michele Phillips and Hopper’s Taos arrest in 1975 for reckless driving, failure to report an accident, and leaving the scene. Not to mention countless stories of gun-toting altercations with locals. Reflecting on those days in a 2006 interview with GQ, Hopper said, “I was doing half a gallon of rum, 28 beers, and three grams of coke a day just to get by.”
In an interview for The New Neighbor, Israel recalls that, “During the time Dennis was living at the Mabel Dodge Lujan house, he brought people in from all over the world and there was a constant party going on.”

With the round-the-clock partying and serious substance abuse came delusional thinking and distrust of epic proportion. “He just seemed very paranoid. Perhaps he was irrationally afraid of people, maybe suspicious of things that were going on that were probably quite okay,” says Pam MacArthur, former Director of Dennis Hopper Works of Art, in The New Neighbor. “He carried a pistol because he was convinced that people were coming to get him.”

Artist Jane Mingenbach, a neighbor of Hopper’s when he lived at Mabel’s (a.k.a. the “mud palace”), says in the film, “He would have this whole place always patrolled. He’d come over and say, ‘Okay, Jane, don’t worry.’ He was always afraid that these outside people or something were gonna beat him up.”

“He was hard core,” says Davis. “He went insane. He’d be up on the Mabel Dodge house roof shooting at imaginary helicopters. He was parading his addiction. Maybe it was a cry for help. And you have to think, too, he was a kid from Dodge City, Kansas, for Christ’s sake, with a Warner Brother’s contract at 18.”

But, as artist Jack Smith points out, “Wild behavior defines him as well as creative genius, but those were craziness years. Everybody was like that. Dennis wasn’t alone in that. We were all living a certain moment in time.”

Serious and Sober

Hopper officially bottomed out while in Mexico to play, of all things, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in a German film called Euer Weg Führt durch die Hölle (Jungle Fever). Folsom writes in his book, “Hopper found himself in his pajamas in the Mexican jungle after becoming fascinated with some outer-space holograms he saw flashing and dancing in his periphery . . . A few hours later, the sun came up on [Hopper naked] walking down a road into the Mexican city of Cuernavaca.” Soon he was on a plane to the States to undergo rehab.

“He had a lot of ups and downs in his career and made a wise decision to give up drinking about 30 years before he died because he could see that he needed to do that,” Israel notes. “I always admired that.”

From left: Ron Davis, Ron Cooper, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, and Larry Bell

Clockwise from top left: Art and culture critic Dave Hickey heads the August 1, 2009, panel discussion in conjunction with the Hopper at the Harwood exhibition. Also on the dais are Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Dennis Hopper, and Ronald Davis. Dean Stockwell with his piece Dice Cube, part of the exhibition at Ray Trotter’s R.B. Ravens Gallery, 2009. R.C. Israel at Dean Stockwell’s Ranchos de Taos home, March 2005. Henry Lee Hopper at his father’s studio at the El Cortez Theater.

Generous Genius

Hopper’s life can be read as a series of contradictory roles, from James Dean’s protégé to fanatical madman to sober Republican who backed both Bushes in their presidential campaigns. Yet, when speaking with people who knew him, two consistent personality traits emerge: generosity and genius, a true Renaissance Man. Says Dean Stockwell, “Dennis always had a big problem turning people down. He was very generous, both with his time and talent.”

Smith concurs. “With Dennis it was always about the art and the artist. He was an incredibly creative person with an incredible generosity of spirit. He liked to play with others, and he played with others very well.”

Similarly, artist Larry Bell recalls, “He was a good friend for about 50 years. One of the last things he did was to come and see a show I had in Los Angeles. He came to my first show in LA, too. I was very touched.”

While working with him on the 2009 Hopper at the Harwood events, curator Jina Brenneman recounts how impressed she was with his determination. “Every ounce of his being was focused on doing or promoting creativity and imagination and not letting any naysayer get in the way. He wasn’t afraid of bucking the system. It didn’t matter if the person he met was famous or unknown—if they were involved in the creative process they were part of his tribe.”

As for his genius, Ron Cooper says, “He was a very talented multidisciplinary artist. I actually think that the so-called failed movie that he made in Peru [The Last Movie] was completely Duchampian and completely Jasper Johnsian. It was brilliant! And the reason it failed as a commercial film was because it was high art.”

Left: Larry Bell at the opening of Dennis Hopper’s one-man show Out of the Sixties at Sena Gallery West. He is standing in front of his portrait, which Hopper took in Los Angeles in 1964. Right: Portrait of Jack Smith, taken by Hopper in 2008, at Smith’s Reed Street Studios in Taos.

“The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” Words and Music by Kris Kristofferson © 1970 (Renewed 1998) RESACA MUSIC PUBLISHING CO. All Rights Controlled and Administered by EMI BLACKWOOD MUSIC INC. All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured Used by Permission Reprinted with Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation

“It’s obvious that Taos is Dennis’s spiritual home. They say he spent his lost years there, but I think those years were anything but. In fact, they may have been the years where he found himself.” —Tom Folsom

Legacy Through a Lens

Though Hopper was most known for his work in film, many people have equal respect for his talent as a photographer. “His real passion was his character assimilation in his acting,” Bell says. “He had the same creative passion in his photography.”

Clearly the creative outlet afforded by this work meant a great deal to Hopper, who wrote in a curator statement of his 2009 Harwood Museum of Art show LA to Taos: 40 Years of Friendship, “I never made a cent from these photos. They cost me money but kept me alive.”

The subject of an early Hopper portrait, Davis recalls meeting him in 1966 or 1967. Vogue had commissioned Hopper to take photos to accompany an essay on Los Angeles artists by John Coplans called “Art Bloom.” Davis was one of the subjects. “Dennis came up to my studio in Pasadena to take a portrait, and asked me where I wanted to go for the shot. I said, ‘Well, there’s a mural on the wall of this deli with cows in a pasture and a ventilator in the sky.’ Hopper liked the idea. So I’m sitting there on a stool and he is lying in the gutter with a 35 mm camera rolling around to get a good angle. The connection was there between us. I was hysterical. He’d be like, ‘Move your hand over two inches’ or ‘do this.’ In other words, he directed.”

In 2006, Hopper prophetically told GQ of his photography: “I was doing something that I thought could have some impact some day.” A collection of photos chosen by Hopper and New York gallery owner Tony Shafrazi culminated in a volume titled Photographs 1961–1967 DENNIS HOPPER, published by Taschen. With essays by Shafrazi and Walter Hopps of Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery fame, the book captures a decade of cultural transformation from the mundane—strangers in everyday settings—to the monumental, such as Martin Luther King on the legendary Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.

“With Dennis it was always about the
art and the artist. He was an incredibly creative person with
an incredible generosity of spirit. He liked to play with others, and he played with others very well.”
—Jack Smith

Taking Every Wrong Direction on His Lonely Way Back Home

A wrong direction brought Hopper to Taos and on occasion he bemoaned his decision to live there, once telling Davis that he went up and sat in D.H. Lawrence’s chair and “it didn’t do anything for my career.” However, ultimately Hopper chose to be buried in Taos.

“It’s obvious that Taos is Dennis’s spiritual home,” says Tom Folsom. “They say he spent his lost years in Taos, but I think those years were anything but. In fact, they may have been the years where he found himself.” And, in doing so, significantly added to the Taos tradition of attracting trailblazing individuals.

“It should not be underestimated what Dennis did in helping to bring enormous creative energy to Taos,” says Smith. “Not just his own, but that of all the people who came to Taos to be a part of what Dennis himself created here. Without Dennis, Taos would have been a completely different place.”

Installation view of Dennis Hopper Double Standard at The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, July 11 September 26, 2010. Curated by Julian Schnabel, it was the first comprehensive photographic exhibition of Hopper’s work to be mounted by a North American museum. The photograph that inspired the name of the exhibition, “Double Standard,” encompasses one entire wall, at left.


“Biker Couple,” one of Hopper’s photos from the Hopper at the Harwood exhibition.

To mark the 40th anniversary of Easy Rider’s release, the town of Taos hosted a “Summer of Love 2009” celebration.At the heart of the festivities were two exhibitions at the University of New Mexico’s Harwood Museum of Art: Dennis Hopper Photographs and Paintings and L.A. to Taos: 40 Years of Friendship, which Hopper himself developed. As he told Rick Romancito of The Taos News: “When I first was told I was going to curate a show, I thought I’d start with anyone I had ever met in Taos. I’d start with Georgia O’Keeffe, and Andrew Dasburg and Dorothy Brett, and go all the way through. I suddenly realized that was a little ambitious, so I went back and I thought it through and realized that there were five guys that lived here that I had known for over 40 years.”

Those turned out to be Ron Cooper, Ron Davis, Ken Price, Larry Bell, and Dean Stockwell. “I wanted to show what they were doing then, and what they are doing now,” Hopper continued. “I wanted people to see how long they’d been doing what they’re doing and how important it is in the world.”

The Hopper at the Harwood exhibitions, as they became collectively known, were shown from May 8 to September 20, 2009. They garnered national attention and were widely attended. Curator Jina Brenneman told The New Neighbor filmmakers that she was surprised that Hopper, given his fame, would “give us the time of day.” Turns out he did more than that. “He became part of the Harwood family. He was very much at home here. He didn’t hesitate to spend time with us and to commit to being at the Harwood because he believed so much in the town of Taos.”

From the Summer 2013 issue

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