He started young. Just a teenager in the 50s, Dennis Hopper made his film debut in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar and became hard and fast friends with James Dean while working on Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Even before Easy Rider, he was getting a reputation as a tough guy to work with. His insistence on employing the improvisational techniques he learned with Lee Strasbourg at the Actors Studio was not greeted warmly by Hollywood in the 1960s.
But you know the legend. Shot for a mere $400,000, Easy Rider shocked the studios by becoming an all but immediate critical and box office smash. Unfortunately, success, drugs and alcohol went to Hopper's head. A cult favorite for some, The Last Movie, his follow-up is generally regarded as an aimless mess. Following a long hiatus in Taos, New Mexico, Hopper staged a quiet comeback as a director with Out of the Blue and a raging comeback as an actor in Blue Velvet.
Relatively few people realize that Dennis Hopper is also an accomplished artist. Who also happens to have hung out with several of the greats. As he sees it, his work in painting and photography goes hand in hand with his work as an actor and director. "A System of Moments" is a show that could have been called a retrospective, though it hasn't been, at least overtly. Gathering decades' worth of photos, paintings, objects and films (including The Last Movie), the show opened late last year in Vienna, which is where Nina Rehfeld caught up with him.
A couple of places to browse samplings of Dennis Hopper's art online: The Center for Photographic Art in Carmel has six pages of very fine photos; ArtNet offers a wide range of paintings -- as well as a nifty shot of Hopper as an art dealer in Basquiat alongside David Bowie as Andy Warhol.
You've said that actors never really get taken seriously enough for their art. Is that a motive for you to go back to other artistic fields?
No. No, I never stopped doing work. What I was trying to point out was that in the United States, and probably in the world today, if you haven't gone to college and have some sort of credentials that say you are an artist, it's almost impossible for you to get shows. Unless you have a body of work that is so staggering that they just say, "My God, I've got to have it!" It was very difficult for me to get shows because the artists I wanted to show with had already established themselves as artists.
They weren't famous yet; I mean, Andy Warhol, when I first met him, was not famous, and Rauschenberg and Rosenquist and Oldenburg and all these guys I took photographs of... Jasper Johns. Well, Rauschenberg and Rosenquist were, but when I photographed them, they'd graduated from Black Mountain College, or they'd been here or they'd been there and they had credentials and they were getting grants and foundations were helping them. And in my life, I never had any foundations, I never had any grants, and it was very difficult for me, especially when I was younger, to get any kind of shows at all. Finally, I started showing with Ed Ruscha and with William Burroughs, but it was tough. That's what I was trying to point out.
So you're now not only showing your artistic works from the 60s, you're also showing contemporary work and you're also showing, which is very interesting, your film works in this studio installation. Is this something like a preliminary summary of your artistic life?
Yeah, I think so. The big billboards are really going back to the 60s, with photographs that I took in the 60s and rendering them as billboards. Because I spent a lot of time in the 60s in the billboard factory. I photographed Rosenquist in the billboard factory in 1964, the same place that I painted these billboards. And Henry Geldzahler, who was then the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum.
I think of my environment in Los Angeles as a car culture. So a lot of these things, the billboards, the big man selling you Mexican food, the Salsa Man, as I call him, and Bob, the big Mobile Oil man selling you gasoline. These are all things you see in your car as you drive on the freeway. Detroit, where they make the cars, decided it would be a good idea not to put a transit system in Los Angeles, so more people would buy cars. So this has sort of sabotaged the environment in LA. I think, as an artist, I feel a responsibility to show the place and time that I live. That's the best I can do.