Contact Kathryn at:

My Discovery of Dennis Hopper as Artist-Photographer

Among the responses to my recollections of Dennis Hopper was a letter from my friend from Hollywood days, Ellyn Mosbarger. She’s actually the mother of my friend and fellow actor/bartender Dana. I still keep in touch with her and Dana’s Dad, Dick Mosbarger as well as Dana.

Mrs. Mosbarger sent me a review of a Dennis Hopper art retrospective with these words:
“Found this in the local paper and thought you might enjoy it. I know how much you like this boy and wondered if you knew about this aspect of his life. He does sound like an interesting person.”

I just knew Dennis as a regular guy at the West Beach Café bar and restaurant where I worked when I lived in Venice Beach.  He was someone who went to bat for me with my boss a few times. We would hang out and talk about life in general, but I didn’t know about the long-term love he had for art and photography. I am thankful to Mrs. Mosbarger for pointing out this aspect of his life.

I went on line with Herman in search of commentary and reviews of his art show. Christopher Knight reviewed the  art show featuring Dennis Hopper’s work for the Los Angeles Times "Dennis Hopper Double Standard." It opened July 11 at the Geffen Contemporary, the Museum of Contemporary Art's Little Tokyo warehouse in L.A. and runs through Sept.

As Knight says:
“A sense of melancholy hangs over the late Hollywood maverick's photographs, paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works. Hopper, 74, died in May from complications of prostate cancer.

In the late 1950s Hopper was among a rambunctious group of like-minded young actors, all movie and TV stars during their youth. With Billy Gray, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and the late Bobby Driscoll, he developed an avid interest in bohemian L.A.'s small but unruly art scene.
Hopper painted. It was the cusp of the 1960s counterculture, and a reputation for being difficult had stalled the young actor's budding career. So he had lots of free time.”

In the piece Mrs. Mosbarger sent me, L.A. Times’ Jessica Hundley wrote about Dennis’ photography, since she was helping Hopper put out a book on his photography. She quotes Hopper as saying to her, “Do you really think anyone will want to read about me?”

Hundley definitely thought people would want to read about Hopper. She said Hopper took his camera with him everywhere he went in his early days in Hollywood. As she said:
“Perhaps his most surprising persona was Hopper as dedicated visual artist, passionate and curious about the world around him.”
That is the Dennis Hopper I remember. We didn’t talk that much about “the business” of acting and movies. We talked a lot more about things in the local area and life in general. He never spoke to me about his artwork or his photography. He might have mentioned it in passing, but I don’t recall it.

But Hundley makes the case for Hopper as artist and patron of the arts, “a creator, collaberator, connector and avid collector who helped to form the foundation of the Pop Art movement.”

Hundley relates a story Hopper told her about buying an original Andy Warhol.

“When Warhol had his soup can show, I bought one from John Weber, who was running Virginia Dwan’s gallery in Westwood. It was hanging over his desk and I said, ‘What is that?’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s the first soup can oil painting of Andy’s,’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well how much is that?’ And he said, ‘$75.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll take it, because Irving Blum is selling them for $100.’”

I have read that Dennis lost the painting in a divorce, one of several he went through. I also hear he made and lost fortunes in his life as he made friends and enemies in his chaotic life and career. I’m glad I learned this aspect about him now that he’s gone. And I’m glad I counted him as one of the good guys, and my friend.


Photos: Martin Luther King Jr. photographed by Hopper in 1965.
1956 painting by Hopper called simply “The Chevy Piece.”

Martin Luther King

The Chevy Piece

About Kathryn Spira

Kathryn Spira, a native of Cleveland, OH who pursued an acting career in NYC and Los Angeles, now pursues freelance writing from Caroga Lake in Fulton County, New York. Previous columns may be accessed at her web site