Dennis Hopper was in Paris recently for the opening of his photographic exhibition “Out of the Sixties” – a propitious title for a show of images that not only document the free-spirited, boundary-bursting, and truth-seeking period that created them but also act as a visual reminder of how far we’ve veered from idealistic pursuits. Out of the Sixties, although published first as a book by Twelve Trees Press in 1986, applies as much to the origin of the pictures as to the current status of the viewer. Gallery owner Thaddaeus Ropac called the exhibition “a time capsule.”
It is 1992 and Dennis Hopper is standing in an elegant Halston suit and flowery silk tie in front of a row of his black-and-white photographs. There’s a young Warhol with a flower. Rauschenberg’s tongue is covered in ballpoint pen ink. A black youth is captured beneath a paper hat marked Full Employment. Bruce Conner sits in a bathtub surrounded by three half-naked women, one is whom is the actress Teri Garr. These were the days of experimentation and protest, of social upheaval, of psychedelic experiences. Drugs were visas to new untracked lands, and sex was the open expression of at least momentary love. And art flowed from some fertile source while artists spoke about inspiration and creativity without irony.
But what do the sixties mean in the nineties? And what does the current ’60s revival in France say about the present. (Remember, last month an exhibition and auction of vintage Levis attracted thousands of denim aficionados and a single pair of 1956 jeans commanded as much as 18,000F. Wow, man.) Ropac, who introduced Hopper’s sixties photography first at his Saltzberg gallery, has no personal recollection of the period his artist is documenting; Ropac, whose elegant but conservative attire speak of Swiss banking rather than art, admitted he’d “missed the sixties.” At a recent screening at the American University of Paris of Dennis Hopper’s major directorial debut, “Easy Rider,” the 1969 picture that won for him Best New Director at Cannes, only 9% of the attending students liked the film. The others complained bitterly that the film was “boring.” “Nothing happens,” complained a student from Madrid. “They’re animals,” commented a 20-year-old business major. She was referring to Hopper and Peter Fonda, the two pot-smoking bikers that patch out across the American South in search of meaning and bliss.
The film is caught up in a universe that, ironically, is so far removed from present day reality that most university students can’t even recognize one positive aspect of Captain America’s and Billy’s quest. Perhaps even more alienating than the ideological hopefulness is the “datedness” of the filming technique. In 1969 “Easy Rider” was hardly void of action; this was a motorcycle escapade. But for today the camera moves too slowly, the cuts don’t come fast enough, and the pace of the plot dangerously approaches that of real life. As a result viewers weaned on Madonna, Arnold Schwartzenegger and Tom Cruise tend to yawn at such visual flatness. The music of the sixties, the rock ‘n roll punctuated with soulful folk ballads that connect with the transcendental and contemplative lure of the rural American landscape, can just not compete with the rhythmic pounding of the likes of M.C. Hammer or Guns ‘n’ Roses. The quality or “authenticity” of the acting also contributes to the contemporary alienation from the cinematic experience of the sixties. Hopper in his candid 1989 interview with Garrett White and Michael Wilmington in the magazine “L.A. Style” called today’s stars “a lot more professional than perhaps we were. They might not have the passion that we had, but maybe you don’t need it,” he concluded.
The fact remains that people are coming to re-visit the last period of hope and freedom which Hopper’s 100 large-format photographs capture. There’s a sentimental buzz to be had. Others, like Ropac himself, too young to have lived it, are driven by curiosity and envy to see what they missed. “It’s interesting to look at things historic,” he adds in earnest as if another century was being examined. History, in a sense, is on trial. And the connection between history and its icons reveal this. At a brocante show near Fontainebleau last week one vender was selling a seltzer bottle from Brooklyn for 250F. “It’s a nice piece,” she argued, “it’s real glass.”
The brisk sales of the Hopper photographs, printed in limited signed editions of fifteen and selling from 11,000F to 28,000F each, suggest the colder reality of the nineties: the sixties are a marketable and collectable commodity. Explaining that the interest is not just the cultist glitter of stars and personalities, but the lasting value of their achievements, Ropac can’t help from smiling. “They’re selling well. Mostly by collectors of photography.”
Many of the photographs that Hopper is now showing survived the 1961 fire that ruined his Bel Air home, including hundreds of his original canvasses. Hopper’s work in the plastic arts has been central to his vision since the fifties. “I had a photographic show that night so all my negatives were saved,” he explained in an interview in “Frank.” In 1967 he stopped taking photographs altogether. After a long personal hiatus he started to use his camera again by taking surveillance-like photography accompanied by grafitti-inspired paintings whose aesthetics seem related to his immediate environment in Venice, California, a neighborhood that hosts not only drug- and race-related violence but a wide gamut of diverse illicit exchanges. Several new works in this vein accompany the Out of the Sixties show and, according to gallery-owner Ropac, reflect Hopper’s “next step.” One thing is for sure, the mixture of the well-composed images from the sixties and the turbulent assemblages remind the viewer that Dennis Hopper’s commitment, through an eclecticism (ether-eater in “Blue Velvet,” crazed cameraman in “Apocalypse Now,” burnt-out hippie in “River’s Edge,” director of “Colors,” painter, photographer) that in an age of grotesque over-specialization is often viewed in a disparaging light, remains on the edge of ground-breaking creativity.
“There’s a difference between talking about freedom and living it,” explains a young Jack Nicholson playing an alcoholic Southern lawyer in “Easy Rider.” The poignancy increases with time.
“Out of the Sixties,” until October 13 at Galerie T. Ropac, 7, rue Debelleyme, 3e, tel: 42.72.99.00.