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Dennis Hopper’s History With San Diego Arts

Above: Dennis Hopper as Lorenzo and Roxanne Haug as Jessica in The Old Globe's 1954 production of "The Merchant of Venice," directed by Allen Fletcher.

Anyone who saw the photographs of Dennis Hopper getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in March could see that Hopper was not long for this world. The actor and artist died on Saturday at the age of 74 from complications of prostate cancer.

Hopper, best known for his roles in "Easy Rider" and "Blue Velvet" (along with some hard living) grew up in San Diego. Hopper's family moved here when he was 13 and he attended Lemon Grove Junior High and Helix High School in La Mesa.

It was here in San Diego that Hopper discovered his interest in acting. He studied at The Old Globe and acted in the following productions: "A Christmas Carol" (1949), "The Twelfth Night" (1954), "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1954), "Othello" (1954), and "The Merchant of Venice" (1954).

He also acted at the La Jolla Playhouse in the 1958 production of "The Skin of Our Teeth," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Thornton Wilder. Hopper starred with Cloris Leachman in that production (he played her son).

Hopper left The Old Globe and moved to New York, where he began studying at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg. He went on to a long career in film and television.

"Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967" published by Taschen.
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Above: "Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967" published by Taschen.

Hopper was also an accomplished artist. As reported on Culture Lust, his work was shown at the i Gallery in La Jolla in the early 60s, thanks to the gallery's iconoclastic, progressive gallery owner, Marlene Williams. The i Gallery was part of a burgeoning scene of modern artists in San Diego, which included John Baldessari and Richard Allen Morris.

Hopper continued to make a name for himself in the art world as a painter, photographer and collector. At one time he owned an original Andy Warhol "Campbell Soup Can" which he bought for $75. Unfortunately, it was destroyed along with much of his early collection in the devastating Bel Air fire of 1961.

In 1996, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego organized a Hopper film retrospective in Sherwood Auditorium. A survey of his artwork, co-curated by MCASD director Hugh Davies, was shown in conjunction with the film series.

Thirty works were on view, all chosen from different stages of Hopper's career, beginning with a 1957 painting and continuing through his black-and-white photographs from the 1960s. Also included were later examples of Hopper's figurative and abstract color photography, large-scale mixed media canvases and paintings. Hopper attended the opening of the exhibit with his then wife, Victoria Duffy.

The Daily Beast has a great slideshow of Hopper's photographic portraits and paintings of various art luminaries, including former UCSD professor and seminal "happenings" artist, Allan Kaprow. There's also a painting of Robert Fraser in 1965 Tijuana.

A major retrospective of Hopper's work, curated by Julian Schnabel, will open at the the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in July.

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