SFMOMA Director Dies Leaving Ruscha Painting Buried

Henry T. Hopkins, the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art who died over last week at age 81, played an instrumental role in the development of the Los Angeles art scene, including establishing Ed Ruscha as a critically important artist. While at SFMOMA, Hopkins green-lit the first major retrospective of Ruscha’s paintings in the early '80s, but his history with the artist begins two decades prior. In 1959, Hopkins bought one of Ruscha’s first word paintings, Sweetwater, for $200 (on a $10-a-month payment plan). The autobiographical work, depicting the then-little-known painter’s path from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles art school, eventually became something deeper to uncover. In a 1980 oral history he gave to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Hopkins explained how an UCLA art student took the then-teaching assistant Ruscha's painting from his office and, deeming it unfinished, painted “with two-foot thick pigment” over Sweetwater. Fifteen years after the incident, Hopkins cleared his conscience and finally told Ruscha of the artistic tragedy.