In fact, he was painting before he was contracted at the age of 18 by Warner Brothers. He had his first solo photography show in 1961; and the roll call of his exhibitions, paintings, installations, collaborations and art-japes is exhausting. Now, perhaps mindful of the passing of time, he wants to claim his due.
Every year the medieval town of Cahors in southern France is the hub of a two-week photography festival, lavishly sponsored by the Cartier Foundation. Hopper is this year's special guest, showing highlights from a 40-year passion: his biker-gypsy studies of a counter-culture both hellish and angelic; larky portraits of the Sixties art scene; and more personal, recent work like the painted triptychs of blown-up film-stills. Set against the gimmicky, solipsistic and low-tech offerings from the other artists at Cahors, Hopper's work is sophisticated and powerful.
Hopper himself is guest of honour at a vast afternoon barbecue, hosted by the Festival's Presidente, Marie-Therese Perrin, at her nearby chateau. Everybody sits at round tables under the trees in the orchard, sipping wines from the Perrins' own vineyard, and trying not to stare too hard at Hopper. Our rendez-vous is the Perrins' large, shady sitting-room overlooking the pool. Hopper, tanned and wiry, darts in. "First I gotta pee," he says, in that terrifying, wacked-out, Frank Booth whine.
He's on a high: "Right now it's very intense. I had a show that travelled Germany, about 15 different museums. Sunday we go to Denmark; I'm showing the early assemblage I did in 1961 which was the signal for conceptual art. I'm just two days there, then I'm going to Venice to meet Julian Schnabel - Count Volpe's given us a place to paint in Giudecca. Then I'm going to Documenta in Germany to hang another show, then I go back to LA on the 21st and start a film on the 23rd. I'm doing three films in a row, two weeks on each film with just a coupl'a days in between. Then in August, Hewlett Packard is giving me one of their new computer printers - there's only two in the world right now - so I'm having August and September working on that, because I'm turning a lot of stuff into computerised images right now."
Interviewing Hopper is not a matter of conventional questions and answers. He talks, you listen. You can occasionally jump him onto another line of thought with a well-timed interjection, but fluff it, and he stares at you silently for a few moments with that reptilian gaze. It's nerve- shredding. But still, some of his assertions require a bit of amplification. Is he seriously saying he "invented" conceptual art?
"I made photographs and paintings before I was an actor in films," he insists. "I was working with neon, plastics, photographs in 1959 before anybody else. The first photographic piece I put together involved this machine you print linoleum with. I photographed it on canvas, and I printed with it on the photograph, and I put the object itself there, and called it 'The Proof', and they're saying now this probably predicted all of, like, conceptual art."
From an early age he was making connections, cultivating friendships, buying art. His photographs of Sixties artists are relaxed, revealing - and blokey. "The art world was an all-boys club and basically still is. At the time there was Louise Nevelson and Georgia O'Keeffe ... I had far too much respect for Georgia O'Keeffe, okay, to take her picture, I really did. I wanted to so bad, and I thought, I can't ask this woman, I just couldn't do it."
Suddenly he's up on his feet, remembering his 1967 installation Bomb Drop ("a poignant and timely evocation of the two defining themes of the late Sixties: anti-war activism and Pop banality" as his art CV has it). "I was out junking and I found this bomb switch that had these big balls on it and this big fail-us" (his sinister, Frank Boothian pronunciation of phallus). "I made it the size of this couch" - he gestures - "so the balls were enormous, and this big fail-us would go from ARMED to SAFE and it said '500 bomb drop! 500 bomb drop!' There was this champagne cocktail party, everyone came in tuxedos and stood around. Not one word. They didn't say, you've really lost your mind, this is the ugliest thing I've ever seen, this is incredible. Nothing. And then I went off and made Easy Rider."
So he abandoned the art world to work on Easy Rider, The Last Movie and Out of the Blue. But he never forgot Bomb Drop, which had been left to rot in the New Mexico desert. Fifteen years later, a new art-stunt presented itself. "The basic theory is that dynamite won't blow in on itself, so if you put 20 sticks of dynamite in a circle around you, all you have to do is keep your head down in the middle and it creates a vacuum. I mean, if three don't go off it'll suck you out and kill you, but basically
"So anyway, I bussed a load of people out to the Big H speedway outside Houston and blew myself up. The Bomb Drop itself is totally trashed, there's fibres in it, leaves ... I put it on a beautiful marble pedestal - these big balls, heh-heh - and stood it in front of this computerised picture of me on my hands and knees waiting to be blown up. And over here is a 16mm projector showing me actually blowing myself up, getting there, setting up, and coming out of the smoke going 'AAAAAAAARGH!' "
Eat your heart out, Young British Artists. !Reuse content