That Sunday afternoon in 1970, students and regular patrons in Fort Worth Art Center Museum had turned out for a show that seemed to encapsulate the age: Bellbottomed jeans and maxi-dresses mingled with the suits, minks and diamonds, when the photographer and now-director Dennis Hopper emerged, dressed in a gray pin-striped suit, Indian shirt and black western boots, his long hair flowing. Hopper had chosen more than 400 photographs out of some 10,000 he had captured and printed between 1960 and 1967. They were mounted in a succession of fascinating groupings, each image postcard-sized.
Billboards, car with fins and twinkling tail lights competed with romantic motorcycle and bullfighting tableaux; young actors and artists on the cusp of greatness were captured in their element with what appeared to be disarming ease. Hopper had been in the thick of this milieu for more than a decade, and his home in Los Angeles with then-wife Brooke Hayward, was both Pop Art carnival and part salon. They had been among the first to amass a significant Pop Art collection; they were the first to buy one of Andy Warhol’s tomato soup can paintings. The young couple were prime catalysts and connectors in a cultural moment, with their home a repository of one of the era’s greatest private collections of contemporary art.
During the mid-1950s, when Hopper was just 18, he performed in “Rebel Without a Cause” and came under the spell of the young James Dean. It was Dean who had seen in this younger man potential as a filmmaker and who urged Hopper to wield a camera. Hopper took to the art form with a vengeance. Using a 35 mm Nikon with a 28 mm lens, and shunning light and darkroom special effects, Hopper shot in black and white, asserting that this enabled him to focus on composition, form and content.
These uncropped images today loom as storyboards for what the writer Howard Hampton has described as “virtual stills from the greatest unmade film of the 1960s.”
Now through January 27, The New Britain Museum of American Art is showcasing “Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album,” a remarkable treasure lode, on loan from the Hopper Art Trust in Los Angeles. The NBMAA’s presentation represents the first time these works have been on view at an American museum in nearly 50 years.
Those of us who remember Hopper as an acclaimed filmmaker and actor but were unfamiliar with his work as a photographer, will see many similar threads in these evocative works. Lisa Williams, NBMAA’s associate curator, on hand for the installation a day before the opening, said among her excitement in overseeing this show is the chance to introduce this art to younger audiences in the months ahead.