Walter Hopps: Redefining the Art World (text)

30 November 2017

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Walter Hopps: Redefining the Art World

Walter Hopps entered the art world during one of the most historic sociopolitical

periods in America: President Truman, without the approval of Congress, committed American

troops to battle; the Vietnam War was prolonged; Senator Joseph McCarthy began his

communist witch hunt; the abstract expressionist movement was in full swing; President

Truman ordered the construction of hydrogen bomb; Truman signed a Peace Treaty with Japan,

which officially ended WWII; Joseph Stalin died; the Iron curtain went up; segregation was ruled

illegal in the U.S., Disneyland opened, Abstract Expressionism faded, Pop-­‐art became huge, civil

rights activist, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and

Water Hopps painted the art world with broad strokes-­‐-­‐from Los Angeles to Washington and

onward to Houston, Texas.

This paper is about Hopps, the artist-­‐curator, whose contributions indispensably

elevated the appreciation of modern art in America. With insightful commentary by his widow,

Caroline Huber, my objective is to shed light on the legendary Hopps who redefined the way

the art world examined art and embraced his genius.

According to Huber, the mold was broken with Hopps. When it came to art, he was

interested in anything, and everything-­‐ he loved it all. He loved artists, whom a lot of curators

dont. He loved working with the objects and he had a great eye. He was competent and had an

insatiable intellectual curiosity. Hopps knew art history and was confident, smart, and

unfettered by what anyone did, said or thought. He was not stifled by conventional theories or

canons and surely wasnt afraid of his own convictions. Passionate about 20th century and

 


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contemporary art, Hopps derived the greatest pleasure from being around artists, working on

their shows, as well as, toiling in the historical aspects of art, which is where he excelled the

most. 11

Born in Eagle Rock, CA, he was the fourth generation Hopps in California. They started

out as shipwrights and gold miners, and by the 1890s the entire Hopps family entered

medicine; both his grandparents and parents were physicians. In fact, his great-­‐grandmother

was the first female trained surgeon in the state and there was no question that young Hopps

would pursue the family tradition. 2 2

At the early age of fourteen, Hopps was already a savvy photographer. With the luxury

of having his own darkroom on the second floor of his parents home, he had the opportunity

to develop a body of conceptual work and beautiful still life photographs. He was a scholarship

student at Polytechnic school, a science magnet school in Pasadena. After being diagnosed

with Rheumatic Fever, he was in and out of instruction until his freshman year of college. As a

brilliant pupil his instructors tried to direct him into the sciences, but he reached a crossroad

and settled on fine art. Huber suggests that it is one of the reasons why he really worked so

well with artists. He could relate well, and possessed the insight to anticipate developments in

their work that the artist didnt have, which is why he was so masterful at art installation-­‐-­‐he

himself was an artist, and innately understood the material, said Huber.

Notwithstanding his exceptional mind, Hopps education was met with several

interruptions. He intended to go to Yale, but his teachers redirected him to Caltech; however, a

last minute negotiation sent him to Stanford to study physics to the end of becoming a doctor.

With only a few credits away from receiving his Bachelors degree, he was asked to apologize for

 

 

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some jokes that he had written in a humor magazine called the Stanford Chaparral, but in an

act of rebellion he refused because he hated Stanfords arrant conservatism and unfathomable

bigotry. It is unclear whether or not he was expelled, but he transferred to UCLA and became a

self-­‐supporting student. 33 His refusal of financial assistance led to a drug habit as he struggled to

maintain an overcommitted schedule. He started doing speed and living an indigent lifestyle. 44

He was in college full-­‐time, working two or three jobs to support Syndell Studios, and he didnt

sleep.

His girlfriend Shirley, whom he later married, completed her undergraduate coursework

at UCLA and went on to graduate school to study art history at the University of Chicago. Only

a couple of credits away from graduating, Hopps skirted finishing his degree. I had a bastard

career and education. I was hopping from school to school and was unsettled in any one

program. I followed Shirley to Chicago and was a bootleg grad student in art history. 55 In one of

those classes, he met Professor Joshua Taylor, who would later become an important ally, art

historian, and director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, which has been renamed, The

Smithsonian Museum of American Arts. 66

It is hard to pinpoint who most influenced Hopps beyond his mentors, L.A. art collectors,

Walter and Louise Arensberg. He met them during a weekend field trip with other gifted

children to see their art collection. Ever the incorrigible twelve year-­‐old, Hopps, asked if he

could return and, since they did not have children, Hopps visitations were welcomed. That

fortuitous meeting permanently changed the path of his life and the course of art history. Being

in the company of the Arensbergs, he inevitably learned about their extensive art collection.

Eventually Hopps dropped out of the field trip program and, unbeknownst to his parents, he

 

 

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continued to visit the Arensbergs each Saturday for lunch and to absorb the art filled

environment.


Over time Hopps expanded his art vocabulary. During a conversation with his father

about the artist, Mondrian, the abbreviated response sent a signal that his father did not

possess all the answers, said Hopps. That pivotal moment was the necessary impetus for him

to follow his heart and commit his life to the arts. The Arensbergs took him under their wings.

Around the same time Duchamp was living in their home and acting as their art consultant.

Huber reflects on a time when Walter was reading in their library and a man walked in wearing

a purple bathrobe and said, Im so sorry, excuse me. Later, Hopps learned that the

gentleman was Marcel Duchamp. The two would later reconnect. 77

Prescient Hopps saw the Southern California art world crumble. 88 The Chairman of the

Board of Regents at UCLA, Edward Dickson was the single killing force behind keeping the

Arensberg Collection 99 from settling in Los Angeles due to his own skewed politics and lack of

appreciation for contemporary art. Huber explains that in the 1940's the Arensbergs began to

look for a permanent home for their collection. In 1944, they signed a deed of gift with UCLA,

which incorporated the proviso that the University would build an appropriate museum to

house their collection within a specific time frame. By the fall of 1947, three years later no plans

had been drawn and the contract was immediately nullified. Subsequently, the Arensbergs

opened negotiations with other art institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the

Denver Art Museum, and Harvard University. After many extended discussions and visits from

the Philadelphia Art Museum Director, Fiske Kimball and his wife Marie, the Arensbergs

presented their collection of over 1000 objects to the museum on December 27, 1950. At one

 

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moment the collection could have gone to the Pasadena Art Museum, but Norton Simon did

not like modern art.


According to Hopps, Ed Dickson hated modern art. His elitist attitude towards

conceptual art left Hopps reeling when the art facilities at UCLA were named after him! Hopps

had access to the Arensbergs until they passed on. 10 10 In his senior year of college, Louise

succumbed to cancer and Walter died of a heart attack within months of each other. The

Arensbergs' home in the Hollywood Hills had been a destination for West Coast modernists

such as Knud Merrild, Lorser Feitelson, Rico Lebrun, Oscar Fischinger, Beatrice Wood, Helen

Lundeberg and Edward Weston and for precocious local high-­‐school students like Philip Guston,

Jackson Pollock and Walter Hopps. The Arensbergs were among the Modern Institute of Art's

biggest supporters, lending generously to its exhibitions around the country. 1111

Hopps opined that it had been difficult for Los Angeles to live down the loss of several

art collections, one being the Arensberg Collection, which had provided a mind-­‐expanding

opportunity to see in-­‐person what only could be read about in art magazines. 1212 Another

important art collection that Southern California had first right of refusal for, but lost out on for

similar political reasons was the Ruth Maitland Collection, which was broken up and sold.

Fortunately today, the Galka Scheyer Collection 1212rests at the Norton Simon Museum. Hopps

 

 

 


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said that all three of the aforementioned collections combined would have founded a modern

museum in Southern California with comparable holdings to MOMA, every bit as significant,

and provided a different view as to what 20th century art was. 1313

At the time there were a couple of notable art galleries in Los Angeles-­‐-­‐Paul Kantor and

the William Copley Gallery in Beverly Hills. Copley describes how he showed Magritte, Tanguy,

Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Matta and Max Ernst in that order. They sold only two pictures. He

was trying to sell a Cornell for $200, but it never happened, so he went out of business. 1414

According to Huber, these were incredible shows that people scarcely went to see. Copley

amassed a substantial art collection due to low sales. In the 1940s California did not support

new art and there were no economically viable galleries in existence for the new Surrealist or

Post Surrealist work. Shows of Abstract Expressionists were rare until the late 1950s, although

Jackson Pollack, Philip Guston, and other major artists had begun their careers in LA. 1515

Young, entrepreneurial and precocious, 20 years-­‐old Hopps, opened an art gallery called

Syndell Studios in Brentwood, CA; once it opened people just started showing up. 1616 His stable of

artists included Ed Kienholz and Craig Kaufman, and only three or four artworks were ever sold.

Hopps also operated a jazz music business that he co-­‐founded with James Newman, called the

Concert Hall Workshop, an agency for concert bookings. 1717 To his misfortune within a few

months of opening the art space Hopps was drafted into the Army, where he served for six

months before receiving a medical discharge.

 

 

 

 


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Hopps loved San Francisco and Northern California artists. In Hopps forthcoming

Memoir, he reveals I became so enamored with the new art I had seen in the Bay area that I

dreamed up the idea of putting together a big independent exhibition in L.A., so I started

gathering work; I pitched a horse and trailer with a canopy like a covered wagon and

transported art from the Bay area. 1717 The artists in Hopps group stable were Sonya Gephardt,

Paul Sarkasian, Ed Moses, James Kelly, Julius Wasserstein and Gilbert Henderson. It was the

first time that many of thosee artists had a window into southern California.

When Syndell closed, artist Ed Kienholz, who operated the Now Gallery, won a contract

to put on something called The All City Arts Festival. 1818 In 1957 Hopps and Kienholz joined

forces and opened the Ferus Gallery, and the true L.A. art scene began. Hopps-­‐Kienholz

mounted what would be the first of many large exhibitions and surveys West Coast abstract

painting. The first show was called Action I, which was held at the Santa Monica Pier in the

merry-­‐go-­‐round building. Then they organized Action 2 which took place at the Now Gallery in

the Turnabout Theatre on La Cienega Blvd. This festival marked the collaboration between

northern and southern California art galleries, which were marketing their businesses as

vanguard sites for eclectic art.

Keinholz was a reluctant businessman, who preferred to devote his time developing his

artwork. He wanted out of the retail art business. He did not have the personality or the

patience for dealing with the public, and art collectors like Hopps, so Irving Blum a former

salesman for Knoll Furniture bought Kienholzs share of the business for $1700 and later joined

Ferus Gallery.

 

 

 


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Chelle Barbour


The laid-­‐back bohemian gallery exhibited the work of California artists like Kienholz

(known for producing an assemblage in 1959 called, Walter Hopps, Hopps, Hopps, a portrait of

Hopps personified as a street hustler hawking paintings from under his jacket). Other artists in

the Ferus stable were John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin and Ed

Moses. In the first incarnation of the gallery, Hopps worked with East Coast gallerist, Sidney

Janis who had a great gallery and a notable stable. Hopps and Kienholz would buy a painting

with a rubber check on Friday and hope that it would sell by Monday morning. Although they

eventually sold the art, they acquired a lot of pieces that were unaffordable. They had

Chutzpa! 1919

In the early sixties Abstract Expressionism lost its charge as the emerging pop artists

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, rose to popularity on the East Coast. On the West

Coast, pop artists like Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Bruce Conner, Joe Goode and Kenneth Price were

gaining momentum and eventually joined the Ferus Gallery.

Ferus played a pivotal role in marketing many East Coast Pop artists. It was one of the

first galleries outside the nucleus of NY to exhibit Jasper Johns groundbreaking show called

Johns/Schwitters in September 1960. Then in 1962, Ferus was the first gallery to show Andy

Warhols Campbell Soup cans, as well as, the work of other New York artists like Roy

Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Donald Judd. Johns and Warhol showed work there repeatedly

throughout the sixties. Ferus was the agent by which the East and West Coast pop-­‐style fused.

In fact, the first comprehensive museum exhibition of work that considered mass-­‐produced

sign-­‐systems as art was mounted at the Pasadena Art Museum (PAM) called The New Painting

 

 

 


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of Common Objects. It was the first American survey of Pop Art curated by Walter Hopps in

September 1962. 2020

As curator and founder of Ferus Gallery, Hopps was the spark that fueled the gallerys

success. And through its second incarnation Hopps and Irving Blum mounted the first West

Coast exhibition of the New York School artists, the Andy Warhol Soup Cans, Roy Lichtenstein,

etc. When Hopps decided to become a full-­‐time art curator at the Pasadena Art Museum, he

sold his shares of Ferus to Blum, who was left with an impressive stable of artists including:

Bob Irwin, Ed Moses, Craig Kaufman, Billy Al Bengston, Kenny Price, Larry Bell, Edward Jay, John

Mason, and John Altoon.

Hopps hit his stride as a curator. Some of his seminal curatorial credits at the PAM

included organizing the first influential retrospectives of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and pop

artist Frank Stella. Under the curatorial direction of Hopps, the PAM would become ground zero

for vanguard art exhibitions, which signaled the rise of American Pop Art. After a major shakeup

in the organization, Hopps resigned from the PAM in 1967 and accepted an associate fellow

position at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC. A few years later PAM took a

financial dive; Norton Simon bought the bankrupt art institution, assumed leadership, and

eventually warehoused the Modern Art in the basement. Hopps did not like the direction that

the PAM had taken and did not care for modern art. The irony here is that Hopps had a history

with the Simon family. He assisted Marcia Weisman (Norton Simons sister) and Fred Weisman,

in accumulating an amazing collection, which was one of the best in the country and certainly

the best in California. The Fred Weisman Collection was subsequently split in a divorce and

Marcias part of the collection now resides at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), 2121 in

 


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Los Angeles, where she was one of the original founders, along with renowned businessman

and art collector, Eli Broad the founding Chairman.

Hopps career took a steady climb up with interesting twists and turns. Every step of the

way, he left a trail of towering stories and mythic experiences, which catapulted him into

cultural icon status. During a twelve-­‐year period, from 1967 to 1979, Hopps blazed a trail

through the art world, as the director of Washington Gallery of Modern Art, director of special

projects for the Corcoran Dupont Center, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and senior

curator of 20th Century American Art at the National Collection of Fine Art, under Joshua Taylor.

He was always hired for his brilliance, and then forced out of organizations because of his

eccentric habit of disappearing for hours and even days. I tracked one ex-­‐Corcoran Gallery
Public Relations executive, Leroy Woodson, journalist, photographer and founder of

MilitaryWeek.com, who currently resides in Paris. He gave a first person account of working

with Hopps:

Sometime in 1970, Aldus Chapin, the President of the Corcoran convened a critical

meeting to discuss among other things the imminent unionization of the security
guards, the loss of insurance covering the collection by our carrier and other fairly
weighty matters. The meeting was scheduled for 10AM. As we staffers gathered round
the conference table wondering where Walter was, his secretary, a young woman
from West Va. entered in her teased hair, boots and mini dress and wearing a stricken
look announced that Walter would not be attending as his cat had taken ill!

 

The real untold Walter story involved his girlfriend at the time that chose the black tie
opening of the Paolo Soleri exhibition with 2,000 people in the building to slash her
wrists in Walter's executive toilet. My date that night was Hillary, a beautiful Ethiopian
who was a trained Midwife. She rushed in wearing her gold ball gown to put
compresses on her wrists while I sprinted up 17th street in my tuxedo to intercept the
ambulance and get them to turn off their siren. We hustled her out there discreetly
and the press never found out about it. Walter disappeared for two weeks and we had
to line up at the phone when he called in to speak with him.

 

 

 

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Hopps leveraged his bad behavior with the production of museum books that illuminated

his genius. One of his most impressive achievements was his seminal work on Rauschenberg,

The Early 1950s published by the Menil Collection in 1991. It is considered one of more

important exhibition books ever printed; and now out of circulation. It was significant in that

Hopps found art that Rauschenberg did not even know he had. Hopps changed the information

that was recorded in art history about Rauschenberg. He corrected dates and corrected the art

history, in a way that none had ever critically explored. It was a killer book and topic to do,

but when it was completed it was an incredible exhibition book that demonstrated how Hopps

changed the canon once again. 2222

Hopps had an unrepressed work ethic. Huber said that her initial experience with Hopps

was at the National Collection of Fine Arts during the preparation of the exhibition, Robert

Rauschenberg: A Retrospsective, for the 1976 Bicentennial Exhibition of the Arts. He was

mounting Rauschenbergs work, which he deeply admired. There was one piece called Minutia,

which is a very fragile Combine that Rauschenberg had lent to Merce Cunningham for an early

dance piece. On this unexpected occasion PBS was organizing a feature production on the

Cunningham Dance Company. Although he and Rauschenberg had a long endearing friendship,

there was a question about the ownership of Minutia. So, in the midst of coordinating the

opening night of the Rauschenberg exhibition, Cunningham wanted his Minutia back for the

broadcast. There was a big stalemate on to how to proceed, but due to the structural frailty of

Minutia, Hopps suggested making a replica of it for Cunninghams PBS production.

 

 

 

 


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The Combines are very complicated, layered art pieces, and the notion of duplicating

Minutia would be a monumental task. Hopps corralled a sculptor and a team of artists to work

on it. According to Huber:

There was a silkscreen shop in the basement of the museum, so they

immediately started working on the task as well. After one week of production,
there was 24 hours left to replicate the Combine; so they worked all night long
at the museum. When it was finished, it looked just like the real piece. Even
to the trained eye, it was unbelievably identical to the original artwork, so
Hopps put all the participants names on the back so no one could ever mistake
it for the real thing. The major difference was that the silk fabric section was
new, whereas, the original fabric section is frayed and worn. Hopps conjured
up the idea, which seemed like an unbelievable feat. What made him

extraordinary was that he inspired people to do the imaginable, which was a
reflection of his legendary willingness take risks and to solve problems. It was
like he was a master puppeteer in the most positive way; he could sit there and
orchestrate situations that yielded the most fantastic results. He made things
look easy; he could make anything happen and I think that was a genuine
strength. 2323

When I asked Huber to cite one of Hopps most fulfilling curatorial endeavors, she

explained that his achievements were large and probably more grandiose when they were

happening. She opined that his greatest accomplishment was his approach to his life and his

work, which facilitated the development of a myriad of important exhibitions including the

planning and development of the building of the Menil Collection.

In 1980, he was hired as a curatorial consultant at Rice University Museum, and in 1981 he

assumed the directorship role. During that period Dominique de Menil revisited the notion of

building a museum in her family namesake, which she and her husband John de Menil,

conferred on before his passing (which represented the first of several setbacks on the project).

It was not until the mid eighties that the plans were rolled out again and that the Menil

Collection was erected.

 

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Building the Menil was a dream come true. Hopps was presented with an opportunity to

work with the great patron, Dominque de Menil (progeny of the affluent Schlumberger oil

services magnet), who had an intellectual curiosity and vigor that was rare, although not unique

in her. To be able to design and to build a museum from the ground floor; to select the

architectural firm of Renzo Piano on his first American commission and to have influence over

the program and how the galleries would look was something Hopps had always wanted to

achieve and finally it came to fruition-­‐-­‐full multi-­‐level participation with an arts organization.

According to Huber, the Menil is one of the most beautiful museums in the world. Its

innovative design has a glass roof, steel, and concrete louvers designed to minimize the

Southwestern heat. It is hard to go to another museum after spending time at the Menil, and

actually enjoy the architectural space as much as the Menil. It is so perfect. It has such a serene

quality that incongruent with most museums purposes today, which possess a pretentiousness

or an extravagance that is all too consumer directed. Building the Menil was not Hopps

greatest accomplishment; however, it was probably the most fulfilling endeavors to which he

contributed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Hopps California days were very momentous and history making, but he had spent

twenty-­‐five years in Houston and he loved what he accomplished in the art community. He

spent twelve to thirteen years in Washington, DC, where he had established a noteworthy

career at the Corcoran Gallery. He made a major impact there and was a catalyst for change in

the DC art scene as well. Palpably, Hopps managed to effect change wherever he was, in large

part because he connected with artists in the community.

 

In the twilight of his career, Hopps was a senior curator at the Menil and a senior

curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, which he engineered simultaneously. A lot of

the shows he mounted were overlapped at the Guggenheim or they were co-­‐productions with

the Menil. Hopps worked with the Menil Foundation until 89 and then resigned, as he found

himself engaged in administrative functions that were not his preference and, more

importantly, that they no longer represented his strengths. He was better at orchestrating

exhibitions and designing catalogues. Hopps always had a keen sensitivity to what was

appropriate, within the spirit of the institution and the place (geographically) where he was,

said Huber.

 

Hopps final curatorial commission before his death at the age of 75 was George

Hermes Hot Set, a survey of his large-­‐scale assemblages and wall works installed at the Santa

Monica Museum of Art. Walter Hopps, the legend had come full circle, back to the city where

he launched his remarkable career. He died in Los Angeles on March 20, 2005 due to

complications with pneumonia.

 

 

 

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Endnotes


1 Caroline Huber interview with Chelle Barbour April, 2004
2 Hopps , Oral History Archive UCLA

4 Ibid

5 Hopps Interview

6 Huber

7 Ibid

8 Hopps interview

9 Philadelphia Art Museum website

10 Hopps interview

11 Philadelphia Art Museum website

12 Online article, Art in America by Michael Duncan

Galka Scheyer In 1953, her collection of over 500 artworks and 800 documents was given to the Pasadena Art Institute. Scheyer was largely responsible for introducing Americans to the works of the "Blue Four": Paul Klee, Alexei Jawlensky, Lyonel Feininger and Wassily Kandinsky. Her enthusiasm was for European Expressionism and California modern art. She became familiar with the works of Klee, Feininger and Kandinsky, who were teaching at the Bauhaus. She acquired much of her collection from these four in the early '20s, also buying works directly from Archipenko, Schwitters, Kirchner, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, Reichel and Schlemmer. From various German and French dealers, she obtained works by Dix, Kokoschka, Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff, Leger and Picasso. Feininger suggested that she exhibit them as "The 4," a rubric--according to Barnett's catalogue introduction--to which he thought Americans would respond because of "The Big 4" railroads. The group's name was then adjusted to become the Blue Four in order to capitalize on Kandinsky's and Klee's association with the Blue Rider Almanac, the 1911 journal that had helped define German Expressionism.

13 Ibid
14 Oral History Interview with William Copley

15 Edward Kienholz: A Remembrance, Walter Hopps.

16 Hopps

17 Huber

18 Hopps

19 Huber

20 Huber

21 Huber

22 Huber
23 Ibid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REFERENCES:

 

 

Blum Irving: Irving Blum: Interview At the Ferus Gallery: Interviewed by Joann Phillips and Lawrence Weschler. Copyright 1984 Completed under the auspices of the Oral History program, University of California, LA.

Copley William: Oral History Interview with William Copley, Interviewer Paul Cumminngs, January 30, 1968, Smithsonian Art History Archives

Duncan Michael, Cosmopolitan Californian: the Norton Simon Museum, Art in America, March 2004

Kienholz: LA Art Community: Group Portrait/Ed Kienholz interviewed by Lawrence Weschler Completed under the auspices of the Oral History Program, University of California Los Angeles, Copyright 1977, The Regents of the University of California Los Angeles

Hopps Walter: Pasadena Art Museum: Walter Hopps, Interviewed by Joanne L.Ratner. Completed under the auspices of the Oral History Program, University of California Los Angeles, Copyright 1990, The Regents of the University of California Los Angeles

Huber Caroline: Walter Hopps: An interview with Caroline Huber, Interviewed by Chelle Barbour April 21-­‐23, 2006

Kienholz Edward: Edward Kienholz: A Remberance, Walter Hopps. American Art, Vol. 8 No. 3/4 (Summer-­‐Autumn, 1994), pp. 122-­‐124.

Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Art in the West Coast, 1945-­‐1970, Peter Plagens, University of California Press.

Philadelphia Art Museum website URL: http://www.philamuseum.org


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