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February is Women's History Month!

Meet the eye-opening curator behind hundreds of modern art exhibitions

John R. Gossage, <em>Portrait of Walter Hopps,</em> 1969. Photograph. The Menil Collection, Houston, Promised Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps.
John R. Gossage
John R. Gossage, Portrait of Walter Hopps, 1969. Photograph. The Menil Collection, Houston, Promised Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps.

I wish I'd known Walter Hopps. I was in Washington when he was director of the Corcoran Museum from 1967 to 1972. He clearly was a fascinating visionary, who garnered many adjectives in life and death. When he died in 2005, the Washington Post obituary said that he was "sort of a gonzo museum director —elusive, unpredictable, outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules." I tend to like people like that. When they're not making me crazy.

Alas, I never met him.

Rebecca Rabinow, director of Houston's Menil Collection, which Walter Hopps helped to found in 1980, says he was a force in art — ahead of the trends. "He had an amazing eye." Younger artists intrigued Hopps. She says that he had "an amazing ability to look at what artists were creating."

Joe Goode, <em>Untitled,</em> ca. 1962. Oil paint on canvas, wood, and glass milk bottle, 27 × 25 1/2 × 6 1/4 in. (68.6 × 64.8 × 15.9 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps.
Caroline Philippone / Joe Goode / The Menil Collection
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Joe Goode / The Menil Collection
Joe Goode, Untitled, ca. 1962. Oil paint on canvas, wood, and glass milk bottle, 27 × 25 1/2 × 6 1/4 in. (68.6 × 64.8 × 15.9 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps.

Since late March, the Menil Collection has been showing works by 70 artists Hopps spotted, acquired, encouraged or enabled as a curator. I see a palm tree in that Joe Goode piece above. And growing up in palm-land Los Angeles may have been part of Hopps' attraction to the work.

John Chamberlain, <em>Rooster Starfoot,</em> 1976.Paint and chromium-plated steel, 79 1/2 × 737/8 × 44 in. (201.9 × 187.6 × 111.8 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Heiner and Fariha Friedrich. Conservation was funded by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project
/ The Menil Collection
/
The Menil Collection
John Chamberlain, Rooster Starfoot, 1976.Paint and chromium-plated steel, 79 1/2 × 737/8 × 44 in. (201.9 × 187.6 × 111.8 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Heiner and Fariha Friedrich. Conservation was funded by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project

Sculptor John Chamberlain is in this exhibition. He's in lots of major museums. I first saw a Chamberlain at the Dia Beacon galleries in upstate New York. It looked as if he'd shredded an automobile and welded the shreds together. I shook my head over it for years. Had the same reaction to my first Jackson Pollack. And Andy Warhol's soup cans. What in the world!? How is that art?

Andy Warhol,<em> Big Campbell's Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) [Nineteen Cents],</em> 1962. Casein and graphite on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston.
Caroline Philippone / The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Andy Warhol, Big Campbell's Soup Can, 19¢ (Beef Noodle) [Nineteen Cents], 1962. Casein and graphite on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston.

Then, someone said all Warhol's soup cans were his still lifes for the 20th century. Which helped me think Chamberlain was taking on American traffic and traffic jams, and our obsession with cars. And maybe destruction. It took a long time to puzzle that out. Truth to tell, I often have such takes-awhile reactions.

Walter Hopps had a much quicker eye, made faster connections and brought challenging works into museums. Today, we'd call him an influencer. Menil director Rebecca Rabinow says others caught on — quickly or over time — because Hopps got it.

"He was an influential curator through the 20th century," she says. He's still influencing today's artists.

Keep scrolling to see more of the works currently on view at The Menil Collection:

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Gilliam, <em>The Saint of Moritz Outside Mondrian,</em> 1984. Acrylic on canvas and metal. The Menil Collection, Houston.
Caroline Philippone / Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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Sam Gilliam / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Sam Gilliam, The Saint of Moritz Outside Mondrian, 1984. Acrylic on canvas and metal. The Menil Collection, Houston.
Linda Connor, <em>Untitled</em>, ca. 1967-1969. Oil on photograph. The Menil Collection, Houston, Promised Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps
/ Linda Connor
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Linda Connor
Linda Connor, Untitled, ca. 1967-1969. Oil on photograph. The Menil Collection, Houston, Promised Gift of Caroline Huber and the estate of Walter Hopps
Joseph Cornell, <em>Discarded Descartes,</em> 1954- 1956. Glass, paint, wood, and rubber balls. The Menil Collection, Houston, Anonymous gift in honor of Walter Hopps
Paul Hester / The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
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The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Joseph Cornell, Discarded Descartes, 1954- 1956. Glass, paint, wood, and rubber balls. The Menil Collection, Houston, Anonymous gift in honor of Walter Hopps
Robert Longo, <em>Master Jazz,</em> 1982-1983. Graphite, charcoal, ink, dye, and acrylic on paper; lacquer on wood; silkscreen ink and acrylic on hardboard; graphite, charcoal, and dye on paper. The Menil Collection, Houston.
Paul Hester / © Robert Longo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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© Robert Longo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Robert Longo, Master Jazz, 1982-1983. Graphite, charcoal, ink, dye, and acrylic on paper; lacquer on wood; silkscreen ink and acrylic on hardboard; graphite, charcoal, and dye on paper. The Menil Collection, Houston.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.