What would the soul of an actor be like whose two most memorable roles were those of bottomlessly mad men? The world will remember Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) as Frank Booth, the S&M monster in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, addicted to a mysterious gas mask and tenderly savaging Isabella Rosellini to a dreamy Ray Orbison number. Or as Kurtz’s disciple and wild-eyed photojournalist in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, who feels he ought to have been “a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas”. But if Hopper himself had been asked, he would have answered unabashedly that he had the soul of an artist. “I was born in Dodge City, Kansas, and am really just a middle class farm boy at heart,” he tells his friend and contemporary, Ed Ruscha, the book artist, “I really thought acting, painting, music and writing were all part of being an artist.”
DENNIS HOPPER: ON THE ROAD (Museo Picasso Málaga, 29.95 euros) is the book accompanying an exhibition that explores every aspect of Hopper’s multi-facetedness. Brilliantly curated by José Lebrero Stals, who also edits the book, On the Road is part of the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Museo Picasso in Málaga, Spain, and closes on September 29. It brings together, through an ingenious use of exhibition architecture and multi-media technology, Hopper’s photography, relevant sequences from all the major and minor films he had directed and acted in, the music he had created or used for these films, and some of the art that he had collected — made by his friends, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, among others, all of whom became legendary Conceptual artists and/or Abstract Expressionists — after his own paintings were burnt down in a fire in 1961. Hopper had starred with Jimmy Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and then directed and acted in the iconic Easy Rider (1969). Walking through this show is a bit like finding oneself in one of these road movies, slowly blazing one’s way through shimmering landscapes of imagery, sound and utterance, in which an entire deadpan yet death-wish-driven generation — like the “prophet-tribe with burning eyes” in Baudelaire’s “Bohemiens en voyage” (Les Fleurs du Mal) — wreck and ruin their way through a wager with creative and existential freedom that strains, at its best, towards the rigour of great art.
“You haven’t made a mistake,” Hopper had told Lynch after being cast in Blue Velvet, “because I am Frank Booth.” But behind Booth and the Kurtzian photojournalist hovers the ghost of Billy, the mind-blown motorcyclist in Easy Rider, “this sort of rough-house guy who keeps moving alone despite everything… always trying to make sense of the mayhem around me.” For Hopper, in those years after World War II, “the whole country seemed to be burning up — negroes, hippies, students. The country was on fire”. Photography, cinema, music and — literally, for him — painting become ways of documenting that fiery inner and outer mayhem. They are inextricable from one another, and from the web of cities — LA, New York, Las Vegas — and friendships within which they explode into compulsive experimentation and play in Hopper’s life. “The second I saw your words,” he tells Ruscha in 2000, “I saw Andy Warhol’s soup can…I saw Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoons, man, I said, this is a return to reality. This is really it, whether people accept it or not. And this is really where we are, what we are.” So, Hopper’s photography not only takes on history (JFK’s funeral, Martin Luther King in Alabama, the Montgomery civil rights march) but also participates in the making and breaking of art: Allan Kaprow’s ‘happening’ with giant blocks of ice, the performances of Merce Cunningham and Rauschenberg, his artist friends at work, portraits of Marlon Brando and of Paul Newman wrapped in the shadow of chain-link fencing that “means, Keep Out!”
Left: Hopper’s Andy Warhol (with flower), LA, 1963; right: Andy Warhol’s Dennis Hopper, 1971.