Charles Brittin

In the spring of 2006, the Centre Pompidou in Paris launched the splashiest exhibition of L.A. modern art the world has seen to date, “Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital,” featuring 350 works by 85 artists. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa flew in for the opening, as did the collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, important dealers, curators, academics, and some of the artists whose work was featured. Ed Moses was among the artists, and the outspoken Venice painter, now 81, got up to address the group at one opening presentation.

As Moses remembers it, “Everybody was glad handling how wonderful they were, and how they’ve done this for [Los Angeles]. So I got up there and I shot ‘em all down. I said, the artists are the ones that do this, and you’re glad handling each other for putting this whole show on. And there’s all this emphasis on young artists; what about the old farts?” He chuckles. “The only people who liked it were the press. They gave a big round of applause. They wanted to interview me.” Continues Moses, who sold out a two gallery show of new paintings at Bergamot Station this past April, “Now they wanna talk to me. Before that they wouldn’t even lick my postage stamp.”

Today, Los Angeles is finally shedding the dubious distinction of being the “second capital” of American art after New York. Most people agree: what’s been perpetually “about to happen” is finally happening. Multiple gallery districts across the city are competing for hip crowds and high stakes, and according to a recent article in The New York Times, more than twice as many artists are moving to L.A. as are leaving for the East Coast. It’s a completely different climate than the one faced by young modern artists like the Long Beach-born Moses, coming of age in Los Angeles in the 1950’s. At that time, the city’s cultural institutions were so steeped in Red Scare propaganda that work which broke with “tradition” was routinely denounced as communist, obscene, or just plain garbage. And if the art wasn’t vilified, it was probably ignored. An important Hollywood collector couple, Walter and Louise Arensberg, wanted to donate their modern art collection to an L.A. museum or university in the early ‘50s, and they literally could not give it away – coming, as it did, with the stipulation that some of the work, including many of Marcel Duchamp’s seminal pieces, would be placed on permanent display (it went to The Philadelphia Museum of Art).

It’s enough to make any culture lover cringe, but of course this doesn’t tell the whole story. Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville has found himself in the role of “accidental apologist for Los Angeles.” His first documentary, Shotgun Freeway, tours the city with some of its great thinkers and writers like Joan Didion, James Ellroy and Mike Davis, and explores how history and mythology is written. His latest, The Cool School, zooms in on the L.A. modern art scene, chronicling its evolution through the story of the Ferus Gallery, which opened on La Cienega Boulevard in 1957 and closed in 1966.

“Everybody has a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles,” says Neville, the son of a rare book dealer who used to occasionally encounter Charles Bukowski at the family breakfast table. “But the one thing that always got me was the idea that L.A. didn’t have a history or a culture. So in a way The Cool School is part of this continuum, saying that there have always been very interesting things going on, but they’re under the radar, and particularly in an art world which is driven by perception – he who has the pen decides what is history – it was a way of resuscitating some really interesting work and some interesting artists who came out of the scene.”

Premiering this month at the Los Angeles Film Festival and airing in August on PBS, The Cool School paints a picture of an art fraternity of sorts and the two men – Walter Hopps and Irving Blum – who legitimized a new breed of California artist and introduced L.A. to New York Pop artists like Andy Warhol. Their gallery, Ferus, has achieved such mythical status that, says Neville, “I know a lot of L.A. artists that weren’t part of the Ferus scene who roll their eyes, like ‘God, you’re not gonna talk about Ferus again…’” But its impact was undeniable. Neville continues, “If you look at what existed in the L.A. art world the day the Ferus opened and what existed the day it closed, it’s 180 degrees opposite. It’s amazing the transformation in that 10-year period. That’s really why we talk about it being the birth of the modern L.A. art scene, because before there was nothing and by the end there was a museum, thriving art schools, collectors, and a magazine [Artforum, whose offices were above the Ferus Gallery].”

Ferus actually began in 1957 as an art cooperative of sorts that Hopps, a brilliant, self-taught curator and jazz aficionado who befriended the Arensbergs as a teenager, founded with the poet Bob Alexander and the assemblage artist Ed Kienholz. As Hopps, who passed away in 2005, told it, the gallery was named after a teenage artist who committed suicide (Alexander insisted it was a Latin word for a type of metal). They didn’t sell a single piece from the debut show, and another early exhibition featuring the work of collagist, poet, occultist and scene galvanizer Wallace Berman, was shut down by the Vice Squad on obscenity charges. Despite these inauspicious beginnings (and no doubt partly thanks to notoriety of the bust) the gallery quickly became a magnet for aspiring artists from all corners of the city: surfers from Venice, beatniks living in the canyons, and Echo Park denizens connected to the downtown art schools Chouinard (later to become Cal Arts) and Otis. As Ed Ruscha, who had his first solo show at Ferus in 1963, sums it up in The Cool School, it was “all the right people doing all the right things.”

An important part of the scene’s vitality was the simple fact that artists, for the first time, were staying in L.A. instead of migrating to New York. “They were the first generation who stayed here,” notes The Cool School’s producer and co-writer, journalist Kristine McKenna, “and they produced a style that was indelibly linked to the West Coast.”

That influence took many shapes. Ed Moses was exploring density with graphite drawings, while Robert Irwin kept reducing his paintings to the point where he began working only with light and shadow – helping to start a movement known as “Light and Space.” Ken Price glazed his ceramics in bright pop colors and advertised his first Ferus show with a photograph of himself on a surf board. Craig Kauffman’s abstract paintings evolved into shiny vacu-form plastic pieces, and Billy Al Bengston, a professional motorcycle racer as well as an artist, began to experiment with automotive paint finishes.

“I was working with standard materials,” Benston recalls, “and I would notice hideous cracks on old paintings. All the spray equipment was in the motorcycle shop and I thought, why haven’t they used this in the art world? There’s a lot of buzz about how a painting is made, but they never talk about anything other than these stupid materials that are hundreds of years old. I was looking at motorcycles and cars that are out in the sun, getting rained on, and they still look cool. Why the fuck am I not using this stuff?”

Also influenced by the the “kustom kar kulture” later immortalized by Tom Wolfe in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Bengston created luminous, glossy mandalas on masonite and gave them old Hollywood names like Buster and Busby. He, Kauffman, Price, and Larry Bell, who worked with glass, were the key figures in the movement dubbed “Finish Fetish.”

By contrast, Edward Kienholz’ work was gritty and un-pretty, crudely fashioned from trash, found objects, and sculpted elements. Back Seat Dodge ’38 shows a plaster-and-chicken wire couple entwined in the back of a blue car with beer bottles strewn about. The piece was considered borderline pornographic when LACMA displayed it as part of a 1966 Kienholz retrospective, and it was decided that minors wouldn’t be allowed to view it. The Cool School includes some eye-opening footage of L.A. Times art editor Henry Seldis proclaiming that Kienholz’ work had “no aesthetic value whatsoever.”

This summer, that once controversial piece will be part of the exhibition “SoCal: Southern California Art of the 1960s and ‘70s from LACMA’s Collection,” opening in August. As curator Carol Eliel observes, “It’s something today that nobody would even blink an eye at, but the ‘60s were a different moment.”

Another famous piece by Kienholz, The Beanery, recreates the unofficial Ferus clubhouse, the West Hollywood watering hole, Barney’s Beanery. The life-size sculpture includes liquor bottles, a jukebox, patrons with clocks for faces, and even a replica of the sign above the bar reading “Fagots – Stay Out” [sic] (which didn’t come down permanently until the ‘80s). Unlike the Beat poets, this crew was strictly heterosexual – to the degree that a poster for one group show proclaimed them “The Studs.” Dennis Hopper, a photographer and avid collector, was an important person on the scene, and his stylish black-and-white candids and portraits of his friends helped to cement the roguish, boys’ club image that still exists today.

A woman painter from San Francisco, Jay DeFeo, was sort of a satellite Ferus artist, but that was as close as the boys’ club came to having a female member. “They didn’t even bother to be apologetic about the fact that women were left out,” says McKenna.

“Really, it was a gang – an all-male club,” says Bengston, now 72. “As I recall, what we did was work our ass off and then try to get laid.” Occasional free drinks from a friend behind the bar, Dane Dixon, made Barney’s a very appealing destination for these up-and-comers who still did carpentry and drove cabs to pay the rent, and so did the women who were hanging around.

“There were millions of girls there,” says L.A. writer and self-described “art groupie” Eve Babitz, whose godfather was Igor Stravinsky. Remembering her first time at Barney’s she says, “We got there and there was Walter and Irving and Billy Al and Ed Kienholz and Wally Berman and Kenny Price. That was who I was introduced to in one night. And I thought, well, these are cute guys. Ed Ruscha wasn’t there yet, so I had to make do with these other guys.” Asked how many of the Ferus fellows she dated, Babitz, who in 1963 was photographed naked, playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, giggles. “As many as I possibly could! As many as I could hand over fist yank in!”

Many visual artists since have been called the rock stars of their craft, but the Ferus artists were creating the template of the brilliant, bohemian bad boy before Dylan even thought about plugging in. Babitz, who also dated Jim Morrison a few years later, agrees with the rock star comparison. “Except they were funnier. They were funnier than anybody else I’ve ever met, and I’ve met everybody. You just sit there and laugh your head off for four years.”

Of course, that could get exhausting after a while. Notes Neville, “Hanging out, drinking every night, making art and acting like a frat is one thing, but at a certain point everybody has to grow out of that mentality. Especially in the art world, once you’re getting museum-sized retrospectives and being taken seriously it’s hard to go back to that b.s. I think in the beginning they gained a lot of sustenance and energy from each other, but at a certain point all the negatives of that cliquey-ness made it not worth it.”

Moses says bluntly, “We were communal socially but we were always jealous of each other.” He compares the dynamic to primitive cultures. “In a tribe there was usually one magic man and he was a seer; he transmitted information about things we couldn’t understand, sort of like a shaman. He rubbed the sticks together and brought rain, brought fertility. If there was more than one they became competitive. And it has been this way since time immemorial.”

In the Ferus tribe there were essentially two magic men, Walter Hopps and Irving Blum. The artists may have been rubbing the sticks together, but Hopps and Blum brought the rain and the fertility – and the gallery could not have flourished without both of them. Hopps, as described by Neville, “could see the bigger picture. He could see the connections between jazz and art and avant gardism and could walk freely between these worlds of rich collectors and beatniks and cafes.” Blum, a dashing New Yorker with a voice like Cary Grant (a detail that is echoed by many subjects in the film), partnered with Hopps in 1958 when Kienholz left Ferus, and so began the shift from an artist’s co-op to an elite gallery.

Hopps and his wife Shirley, a PhD candidate in art history whom he married at the Watts Towers, had been privately teaching collectors about modern art. “But,” continues Neville, “Irving was the one who could invite people into that world he created and make them feel safe spending money. Basically that’s what it’s about.”

When Ferus gave Andy Warhol his first L.A. gallery show in 1962, featuring all 32 of the Campbell’s soup cans, it was hardly a rousing financial success. Priced at $100 each, only a handful sold, and Blum asked the buyers (including Dennis Hopper) to return them so he could keep the set together. He then bought them for his own collection, paying $1000 for the lot, and sold them three decades later for many millions.

“Without oversimplifying it because it’s not fair to Walter or to Irving,” says Neville, “the elements of what they both bring to it – a sense of commercial savvy and money making and then Walter’s idea of just fostering the art for art’s sake – is the perfect kind of yin and yang of the art world. It dawned on me while making [the film], that a gallery is inherently a self-contradicting enterprise. You’re trying to do something that’s artistically pure and you’re trying to make money, and those two things are inherently in friction with each other.”

It’s the age-old debate about selling out, and McKenna sees similarities with the punk rock scene. “I have to say, having sort of come of age with the first generation of L.A. punk, once money becomes involved everything falls apart. Because at first nobody has anything to lose. You know, when bands in L.A. started getting signed that’s when there started being rivalries and resentments. Same thing.”

By the time of the Warhol show Hopps was already on his way out of Ferus, heading to Pasadena to be the director of the Pasadena Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). And Shirley had begun an affair with Blum, whom she also married – a fact that is distinctly downplayed in the film.

“We wanted to strike a balance between art history and gossip,” says McKenna when the conversation turns to the love triangle. Other things are played down in the film as well, like Hopps’ speed addiction and the outright animosity between him and Blum. “They hated each other,” she states bluntly.

McKenna, whose lavishly illustrated Ferus oral history will be published by Steidel next spring, notes that a 2002 show at Gagosian Gallery in New York called “Ferus” all but left Hopps out of the history. But according to both her and Neville, it’s Shirley Nielsen (Hopps Blum) who probably should have gotten more credit than she did. Fortunately, in The Cool School she does.

“Shirley, Irving and Walter to me were the key three figures,” says Neville. When he scheduled his first interview with Shirley, who now lives in upstate New York, he recalls thinking, “Who is this woman that managed to land these two icons of American art? And after meeting her I was thinking, Who are these guys to catch a woman who’s this brilliant and warm and everything else? I really like Shirley,” he grins.

McKenna also points out that Shirley was the only legitimate art historian of the three, but when it comes down to it, Ferus was really more a product of the 1950’s than it was of the ‘60s. The gallery’s ethos upheld the Picasso-inspired ideal of the macho genius with a beautiful woman on his arm, and Blum, who liked to stage photo shoots on yachts and beside Rolls Royces, clearly wasn’t about to go hippie.

“The world changed around them,” says Neville. “It was a time, by 1967-68, of feminism in the arts, and Ferus had become an elite unto itself. Part of what made that scene disintegrate was that the art world wasn’t gonna tolerate a boys’ club like that throughout the heyday of the late ‘60s.”

But of course the end of a scene doesn’t mean that artists stop making work (with the exception of John Altoon, who died of a heart attack in 1968). LACMA’s upcoming “SoCal” show will include some later pieces by a number of Ferus artists like Robert Irwin (who famously went on to design the Getty gardens), and Ed Moses, who was working with chalk and resin in the‘70s.

Carol Eliel points to the vitality of L.A.’s contemporary art scene as the reason this particular time period feels ripe for rediscovery. “I think that as the contemporary art world has enfolded Los Angeles as a great artistic center it just became natural to think, well, if they’re making this great stuff here now, what were they doing earlier?”

In the words of Ed Moses, “I guess every dog gets its day.”