The exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s photographs at the Royal Academy is made up of three large rooms lined with vintage photographs in a fairly simple hang. The photos, modest in size, are mounted on boards without frames and placed behind vitrines. I commend the Royal Academy for showing only vintage prints – which were selected by the artist for his 1970 exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Center in Texas – and for noting the medium and technique.
All the pictures were taken between 1961 and 1967, interestingly covering so many of this decade’s facets. The exhibition starts with the more documentary photographs, in which Hopper captured portraits of his fellow artists and now-iconic scenes of this era’s cultural phenomena: Hell’s Angels, the hippies, Civil Rights movement. Hopper was one of those photographing the Montgomery march and Martin Luther King’s speeches.
Art (and of course particularly photography) exhibitions being morphed into historical documentaries and pretexts for a good revision session of art VIP names of times past are not rare these days. This easy utilisation seems to be a recurring characteristic of photographers’ retrospectives, as it was the case at the Man Ray exhibition and David Bailey’s Stardust, both at the National Portrait Gallery. I am just observing a recurring pattern here, but don’t get me wrong: these historically relevant photographs, documentary in style, are visually interesting and convey Denis Hopper’s artistic vision.
My overall impression was that his work looks very much in line with that of several photographers of the post WWII era. His attention to street scenes and decisive moments, and his generally “humanist” shots recall Cartier-Bresson. The way he observed homely American scenes while on the road calls to mind Robert Frank. Then one could not help but think of Aaron Siskind when reaching the second half of the show and the more abstract images of damaged walls and torn posters.
You can sense the influence of early pioneers of abstract photography such as Paul Strand and Moholy-Nagy in Hopper’s explorations of patterns, textures, geometry and framing, while his attention to typography links him with Walker Evans.
While we don’t know how much of these artists’ pictures he had seen, we can only grasp, upon visiting this exhibition, that his work is in constant dialogue with that of his contemporaries. This contributes to our understanding of the photography of the 1960s, and more broadly of the way people looked at the world in America in the after-war period.
Amongst his incredible output, we also find documentation of performance art such as the 1964 giant plastic bag by Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham. The mention of this artistic duo is not without bringing to mind the very novel and eye-opening show “The Bride and the Bachelors” at the Barbican last year. Sadly the Dennis Hopper exhibition gives little context on the artistic production of the time and one could only rely on its own knowledge to make connections between artists and movements. For instance this sentence vinyled on one of the walls:
“I am an Abstract Expressionist and an Action Painter by nature and a Duchampian finger-pointer by choice.”
Other than instagramming this [on the sly] as a “good artist quote”, I suspect that few would have actually gone to the core of its multi-layered references.
Hopper is of course best-known for his films, including Easy Rider. This side of his work was touched upon in this exhibition, but understandably not made the main focus. Therefore the film excerpt, screened in a loop, mainly brought a rather repetitive soundtrack to the show without making articulated sense with the rest. This hesitation in the discourse around his creative range did not make for a particularly entrancing show. In the same way, dividing his pictures in broad, juxtaposed themes appeared slightly superficial.
As Mark Brown of the Guardian notes: “Marin [Denis Hopper’s daughter] said when she first went through them they seemed like movie storyboards. ‘If you look at them from beginning to end, you feel like you’ve travelled in a time capsule of America.’” This undoubtedly remains the strength of this exhibition, which should definitely be credited for pleasantly bringing Hopper’s photography career to the public eye.
Dennis Hopper, The Lost Album | 26 June – 19 October 2014 | Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens