Jack Hooper, Painter

Jack Hooper is a celebrated artist: painter, muralist, sculptor, printmaker. He is prodigious, amazingly inventive, and complex and he has been creating for over 60 years. Now living in rural Mexico, he paints or draws every day and while various themes have been reworked and revisited over the years, his work remains fresh and alive.

Born in 1928, he grew up in Los Angeles, and after graduating from high school, joined the Army Air Corps just at the end of WW II. After his military service, he attended and graduated from Los Angeles City College. As an eager young artist, he sought a first-rate art education, and he was drawn to the vibrant art scene of Mexico. These were the years of intense artistic and political dynamism, dominated by three brilliant painters and muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clement Orozco and David Alfaro Siquierios.

In Mexico City, Hooper enrolled at the College of the Americas and became a mural assistant to Siquieros. He was there for two years, studying and absorbing the art scene. He recalled, “I became close to Siquieros, though he was in and out of jail a lot of the time I was there.” As the leader of the Communist Party of Mexico, Siquieros was subject to frequent arrests by the authorities. Hooper knew many of the artists of the period, including Frida Kahlo who would become the subject of many of his portraits and studies over the coming decades.

Hooper’s painting was never overtly political nor didactic, despite the prevailing ethos of “art for the masses,” and by the time a new generation of Mexican painters had emerged with whom he had more in common, he had left to study in Europe. This new movement in Mexican art called the “Ruptura” challenged the older political generation and asserted that the artist’s subjectivity is the starting point for authentic creativity. Hooper shared with the Ruptura artists an attitude that is paradoxically more subversive than the overtly revolutionary art of the muralists: by insisting on a deeply personal expression, he challenged the dominion of all authority that proposes to assign preconceived functions or messages to the artist. This attitude of the Ruptura artists is congruent with many European trends of the middle 20th century and we could think of Hooper who lived and studied in both Mexico and Europe as expressing the aesthetic and even philosophical currents of both.

In Europe from 1952 – 1955, Hooper attended the Academie Julian, an important art school in Paris that is a kind of “alternative” to the official Ecole des Beaux Arts. Henri Matisse was one of many great artists associated with the school and Hooper considers Matisse to have been an important influence in his development. Another alumnus of the Academie was the cubist sculptor, Jacques Lipschitz. Hooper’s heads often have a sculptural quality that is reminiscent of Lipschitz work. Both Hooper and Lipschitz deconstruct the form, but never dissolve the image into abstraction.

During this same period, California artists were beginning to challenge the hegemony of abstract expressionism in American art and reintroduce the figure. This was a risky move in that the ideology surrounding abstract art in general, and abstract expressionism in particular, consigned figure painting to conservative or even reactionary trends or mere illustration. Yet many of the artists associated with this new movement had been prominent abstract painters themselves and they highly valued the gains and artistic achievements of abstract expressionism. Hooper returned to the US in 1956, where he found a natural affinity with the Bay Area Figurative movement. The gestural spontaneity and the emotional vibrancy expressed through bold brush strokes, brilliant color and the incorporation of chance elements dance between abstraction and representation of the subject.

From 1956-58 he was an Associate in Art at UCLA and was a studio assistant to the painter Rico Lebrun. This was a period of intense creativity and recognition. He had many shows in important museums and galleries and continued to receive awards. In 1960 he was invited to become a Visiting Professor of Art at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In that year alone, he participated in, among others, Invitational Shows at SF Museum of Modern Art, the Seattle Museum of Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, and UCLA Art Galleries. Only 32 years old, his work was already documented in the Historical Archives of Contemporary Art of Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil.

After his year in Colorado, he returned to Los Angeles and was appointed Assistant Professor of Art at UCLA and again participated in important shows throughout the US. The following year, he became Assistant Professor Art at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles and later became the Chairman of the Art Department and the Director of Galleries there. Some of the notable shows he participated in during those years were: Primus Stuart Gallery, Los Angeles, Everhart Museum, Scranton, Pennsylvania, La Jolla Art Center, La Jolla, California.

In 1962, Hooper was featured in the exhibit: Fifty California Artists at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA, at that time, purchased one of his portraits of Frida Kahlo. His work as a sculptor was also recognized. He was featured in a special Issue of Art Forum on Sculpture in California for his Plastic Relief paintings. He also revisited his work as a muralist; between 1967 and 1969 he executed 14 murals in Los Angeles. During this time he co founded Arts Control with the architect, Frank Gehry to facilitate collaboration between artists and architects. For the next 25 years, Hooper participated in dozens of solo and group shows in galleries and museums throughout the US and Mexico. (For a complete list of his credits, go to Career Summary.)

In the 1980’s Hooper painted a series of portraits of artists–these portraits honor his artistic progenitors and give us a glimpse of his profound knowledge of the history of painting and its aesthetic and emotional concerns. (Some of these portraits can be found on our website.) His work lives in a tradition of art as an expression of affects, subjectivity, and emotional truth.

The end of the decade of the 1980’s marked an abrupt change in his life when he left the realm of galleries, dealers, museums and the trappings of the official art world. He and his wife, the painter Melvinita Hooper, returned to Mexico where they now live at the foot of a volcano at the edge of a lake. In the words of an eminent gallery owner of Puerto Vallarta, Jan Lavender, “Jack and Melvinita live as real, old–fashioned artists...by themselves, dedicated to their art and unconcerned with the market and the prices and the trivia of the fashionable art world.” Still a vibrant artist, now into his eighties, his paintings become increasingly personal and emotionally resonant.