Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, was buried in a private ceremony on April 23 in Lone Pine, Calif., a breathtaking site at the foot of Mount Whitney. His coffin was a marvelous Duchampian assemblage crafted by California artist Richard Jackson: A pine box with a lid made from a five-panel mahogany door from Hopps’ Pasadena, Calif., house, complete with round brass knob and metal plaque with Hopps’ signature.

Hopps, who died March 20 at age 72, began his long career as a brilliant if unorthodox curator in 1957 when he and artist Edward Kienholz founded the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles to spotlight progressive art by then unknown artists such as Robert Irwin, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

His 50-year career as museum director started at the Pasadena (Calif.) Art Museum, where he introduced the work of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell to the American public. He moved on to direct the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then to the Smithsonian Institution as curator of 20th-century art. He came to Houston in 1981 at the invitation of Dominique de Menil to direct the museum she was building. In recent years he was also adjunct curator for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Hopps not only championed art, but also the artists.

He died in California, where he curated a retrospective for the Santa Monica Museum of Art of West Coast assemblagist and art-world comrade George Herms. The artist gave the eulogy, a loving remembrance that also captured Hopps’ brilliant connoisseurship and his penchant for “stealing” art to make a point.

(Hopps “stole” an early assemblage from Ed Kienholz’s studio to prevent the artist from destroying it. Years later, to make a point about security, he stole a painting by Julian Schnabel from an exhibit at the University of Houston‘s Blaffer Gallery.)

Herms told the mourners that when artists enter heaven’s gates, instead of signing St. Peter’s book, they make drawings. After Hopps went through, Herms joked, St. Peter noticed that all the drawings were gone.

He added that the curator in Hopps is now looking around at cumulus clouds, saying, “We only need three clouds, and I know which three are the best!”

Another celebration of Hopps’ life will be held 6-8 p.m. May 17 at the Menil Collection. The Santa Monica Museum of Art honors him, as well, with a gathering this Wednesday.

Caroline Huber Hopps, Hopps’ wife, requests that in lieu of flowers, anyone wishing to make a gift in Walter’s memory make a donation to the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, established in 2001 by the Menil Foundation (1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400).