By KATHERINE JANSZKY MICHAELSEN, May 2019
Curt Hoppe’s doubleheader, “Downtown Portraits,” at Howl! and Bernarducci Gallery, is a rogues’ gallery, so to speak, of talented, self-confident, creative, seasoned artists -- women and men whom Hoppe met in the 70s and 80s. He catches them at a critical moment: they are at a point in life when they’re casting backward glances, evaluating, consolidating, exhibiting and publishing, in an effort to set down their legacies. They’ve been around the block more than once, but they all still have twinkles in their eyes, and many stories to tell. They may be closer to the end than the beginning of their lives, but they’re not done yet, and I bet they still have a surprise or two up their sleeves.
On a more somber note, just this weekend The New York Times published the obituary of Susan Springfield, one of Hoppe’s subjects. They chose two photos, one of Springfield in her youth as a member of The Erasers, and a recent photo that Hoppe shot for this portrait series.
Katherine J. Michaelsen: The lineup of 105 photographs at Howl, and the 24 huge paintings at Bernarducci are truly breathtaking. The amount of work you put in must have been staggering.
Curt Hoppe: I can tell you right now that when I started back in 2010, it was far easier for me to climb up that ladder than it is now!
KJM: Tell us about how the two mediums fit into your work. Describe the process of how you get from color photograph to black-and-white painting.
CH: I’ve always liked photography and probably did photography before I did paintings, but I always hated the darkroom, so when digital photography came along it made photography much more enjoyable for me.
I’ve always used photography. For me the photograph is basically my sketch, it allows me to reproduce the person, and if it gives me an idea of what I want to pursue visually, I usually try to make it into a series of paintings. And that’s what I did with the portraits. I started doing one, then two, and then it just became this crazy series.
KJM: How do you get from color photograph to black-and-white painting.
CH: That’s a pretty simple process these days with Photoshop. What I do is, I'll convert the files to the size I want, and then I’ll do a quick color correction, and then I convert it into a black-and-white photo, which probably doesn’t take me no more than seven minutes. When that’s done, what I do, because I’m still old school, is I send a disk off to the fellow who converts the digital photos into the old 35mm slide. It’s quite complex and it takes time, and there are very few people doing that conversion anymore. I’ve worked with old-fashioned 35 mm Kodak slide film all my life, and I’m stuck in my ways.
But what I do when I project large is I also grid part of the photograph to tighten things up a little bit, from the bottom of the nose to the bridge of the nose, or from one pupil to the other pupil, and that way it’s a little sharper for me to work with my paint.
KJM: Back to color, you’ve not always been a black-and-white photorealist.
CH: I always worked in color brush but this series is all done with an airbrush, which gives you a continuous tone, a photographic quality.
I don’t know how I got out of color. Maybe it goes back to my admiration of guys like Avedon and Chuck Close; that’s maybe why I eliminated color. Also, it’s more dramatic. You get more insight into a person in black and white than you do in color. It’s the first time I’ve made a series in black and white, and it sure saves a lot of money in paint!
KJM: I agree the airbrush makes these paintings have an uncanny effect, they look like huge blowups of photographs. It's so compelling, especially in a crowded gallery, where these people’s heads are above our heads, and that they seem to be looking down at us. How did you decide on the scale?
CH: Well, when I did the first painting of Arturo Vega, I just did it that size, and when I did the second one I kept the same scale. From the very beginning I wanted to paint very large. I hadn’t intended on doing 24 of these portraits, but then it snowballed into this huge project.
I remember I was up at DIA one day, a year into the project, looking at Blinky Palermo [2011 retrospective] and there was this group of abstract paintings all the same large size, one right next to the other. I was counting them in my head and there were 15 of them, and as I looked around the DIA space it was like when you walk into a church and these saints are all up there looking down at you. I saw it as kind of religious. That is how it came into my head, how I wanted my series to look. I wanted the paintings to consume the crowd rather than have the crowd consume the paintings.
The scale gives the people in the paintings the stature that they deserve. Even if you don’t know them, or what they’ve done, you get a sense that there must be some reason why the artist painted them, that they must be of some importance. And then there’s the camaraderie, they all know one another, they’ve all crossed paths, so it all works very well together.
KJM: Didn’t the size of your studio also have something to do with the size of the paintings, since you were projecting slides on the canvas?
CH: Yes, but I could actually have made them bigger. The thing that prohibited me was that the stairway in my building has a clearance of exactly 70¼-inches. It’s as simple as that. I also knew I couldn’t take the canvases off the stretchers and roll them because I use so much gesso when I’m painting; I don’t use any white paint at all, so all the white you see is the under-painting.
KJM: Another question concerns the choice of mid-calf length for the figures.
CH: I like to steal from Avedon. I’ve always loved his photographs, the thing I admire about him is the hand gestures, the movement of the person’s body, and I think you can get more insight into people that way than by just looking at their faces. I deliberately kept the basic shot from about mid-calf up.
But in the case of Penny Arcade, she’s very, very large in the painting, she looms larger than anyone else because her personality is very large, and she has a stage presence. But she is actually a very tiny woman, and I liked the idea of making her really large to conform to her personality.
KJM: Talk about not being a “stylist” but a “realist.”
CH: The whole thing about this show is I‘ve grown up with these are people from my mid-twenties, it’s like a class to me, and the catalogue was designed around the idea of a yearbook of the class of 1983 when the art world changed and money started flowing into it.
When I was younger I used to have great pain when I invited people over to see their portraits because they were so real, and vanity would come into the equation. In this case, I was left alone to do anything I wanted and nobody insisted on changing anything. My approach was that at this stage in our life vanity is one of the things that we should be able to shed. Your face is a roadmap of your life and I didn’t want the self-absorption of the selfie generation. I want you to come as you, wear whatever you want, come as yourself. I didn’t go into the project worrying about any reactions. I picked the photos that were the people as I see them.
KJM: Is there anything that you would like to add that you haven’t had a chance to say?
CH: I’ve been thinking that what I’ve done is put out a record. It’s just one piece of the larger puzzle, and maybe down the road someone will want to explore in more depth this mini renaissance that happened on the Lower East Side forty years ago. I’m leaving behind a record.
Five of the people are no longer with us: Arturo Vega, Richard Hambleton, Brian Butterick, Bettie Ringma and Susan Springfield.
What I’m feeling sad about at the moment, and this maybe post-exhibition depression, is that once the paintings are taken down it will be some time before they are seen again as a group. I’m not sure when they will resurface.
The exhibition “Curt Hoppe: Downtown Portraits” is accompanied by a fully illustrated 100-page catalogue with essays by Marc. H. Miller, Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick. Available online: https://issuu.com/modernidentity/docs/hoppe_issuu. WM
Katherine Jánszky Michaelsen is a Professor in the History of Art Department at Fashion Institute of Technology/SUNY.view all articles from this author