Hopper on Art, Commerce, Death & Legacy
Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, (1971)
Anticipating the premier of Hopper’s follow-up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie (1971), James Stevenson profiled the young director in a 1971 issue of The New Yorker.
The Last Movie has since been canonized in cinema lore as an infamous popular and critical failure. It was essentially the end of his career as a director despite a few scattered attempts in Hopper’s later career.
The legacy of The Last Movie makes this piece especially poignant. Stevenson captures Hopper in an archetypal moment: the artist on the verge of exhibition, attempting to both understand his need, and summon the courage for it.
“Our Local Correspondents: Afternoons with Hopper,” by James Stevenson
The New Yorker, November 13, 1971
“There’s a story about van Gogh and Gauguin,” said Dennis Hopper, standing in front of a van Gough on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, “that they were both starving, and Gauguin lent van Gough his shoes, so that van Gough could walk through the snow, try to sell one of his drawings, and bring back the money. Van Gough put on the shoes, went off, and sold a drawing for a penny, but on the way back he ran into a beggar and gave him the penny. Gauguin was furious. ‘That’s the last time I lend you my shoes’ he said.”
“I didn’t think [The Last Movie] was going to be financially successful, but I thought it would be a classic. When the people at Universal saw the movie, they were horrified. They wanted me to recut it. I said no. They didn’t want me to go to the Venice Film Festival with it, and they wouldn’t allow it to be entered in the New York Film Festival….I don’t respect anyone at Universal except Jules Stein, and he’s not really in it anymore. Well, the movie’s in their hands now, and their hands are full of blood. Corporate blood.” He smiled. “I’m afraid it’s like what one of the Universal executives said to me—‘Art is only worth something if you’re dead. We’ll only make money on this picture if you die.’”
Hopper on his experiences raising money for Easy Rider with Peter Fonda:
“Huntington Hartford said to us, ‘Levitate yourself and I’ll give you the money,’ and we thanked him and walked out into the snow, and we saw a pigeon with a broken wing, and then we saw a German band marching on the street, and then we met James Baldwin in a bar and he talked about black power, and we saw helicopters landing on a roof, and we went to a gallery where there was a show of broken mirrors, and the gallery owner was crying. All his famous artists had left him that day and gone to other galleries. ‘I’m ruined,’ he said. ‘They all left me. What will I do?’ We went to a girl’s apartment and saw a painting that looked like a copy of one panel in the Merode Altarpiece, by the fifteenth century Master of Femalle, Robert Campin. ‘It’s not a copy,’ said the girl. ‘The other two pieces of the triptych are somewhere in the closet.’ Campin was the man who gave art a second chance by using oil paint, which had been used previously for sketches, and gave religion a second chance by depicting Christ born in a Flemish kitchen. Then we went to a church, but it was locked and then we went to a hotel, and in the lobby a prostitute handed us a copy of ‘The Gospel of Thomas.’ I was an atheist at that point, and it was pretty far out, but we read it aloud, and I couldn’t find anything in it I couldn’t believe. Doubting Thomas—he was the one who stuck his hand in the Wound. It starts out, ‘These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke. Whoever finds the explanation of these words will not find death.’”
“I’m a compulsive creator,” [Hopper] said. “Rilke asks, ‘If it were denied you to create, would you die?’ If not, then don’t create. Do something else. I have to create. Otherwise I couldn’t justify my insanity.” He laughed delightedly. “The important tings to me are: Did you make the effort, and did you have the courage of your convictions? You know that quotation about ‘Give me the wisdom to accept that which I cannot change?’ Well, I’d like to change that, because that’s a piece of crap. It doesn’t amuse me to think there are things I can’t change. The people I admire took those chances and made those movies.”