The Return of Cool
“The Cool School” presents a cinematic take on the explosion of the Los Angeles art world at midcentury. Director Morgan Neville discusses the film, its significance, and why he chose to point his lens at SoCal.
A half a century ago, Los Angeles emerged from its origins in the artistic blasé to become the embodiment of art world hip. Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper, Larry Bell and Ed Kienholz, to mention some of the coolest cats, threw the art world for a loop, managing to nudge the NewYork crowd off its perch at the art world mountaintop.
Last year, the French staged, in rare homage to things American, a retrospec- tive exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris titled Los Angeles: 1955-1985; the show welcomed hordes of visitors and was a resounding success. Back in the states, as a number of Southland museums (three, to be exact) have undertaken their own Los Angeles retrospectives this fall, an Angeleno filmmaker has submit- ted his own portrayal of the growth of the scene’s preeminent gallery.
Clearly, Los Angeles at midcentury has come back into the limelight. In the pages that follow, Art and Living takes a close look at the explosion of LA’s art community, examining the how’s, when’s, why’s and what-have-you’s that 50 years ago transformed a small circle of renegade artists into instigators of a world-class art scene and today have brought the movement back to the forefront.
On the Screen
In the late 50s and early 60s a gallery called Ferus shook up the traditionalist landscape of Los Angeles to become the nexus of the artistic avant-garde in California.AbstractExpressionism,Minimalism,AssemblageandPopArtwould call it home.Among many others,Kienholz,Ruscha,Kauffman and laterWarhol and Lichtenstein made it their showplace. It defied the traditions and expectations of the establishment in New York, cut a bold path all its own and was a major player in the creation of a world-class art scene in LA.Today, few would dispute that, by the time Ferus closed its doors in the mid sixties, this scene—and more impor- tantly, the art it produced—had changed the art world forever.
If you haven’t heard of Ferus Gallery, you’re not the first. Despite its monumental role in shaping the LAart scene, by the early 2000s the defunct gallery had become all but a historical footnote, a La Cienega relic lost to the sands of time. Nevertheless, the gallery’s tale offered an enticing opportunity for filmmaker Morgan Neville, whose documentary “The Cool School” celebrates the growth of the Los Angeles art scene (via Ferus) with a detective’s loupe for the facts and an art lover’s appreciation of nuance. Narrated by Jeff Bridges and moving deftly from past to present, the film offers insightful commentary from gallery owners, art historians, collectors and artists themselves, managing to infuse an impressive amount of historical perspective into its 86 minutes.
“When I first started to understand the story of Ferus, I was just amazed nobody had told it before,” says Neville, an engaging man in Buddy Holly specs. And choosing to tell that story proved to be a timely endeavor. The documentary is slated for release just as several Southern California museums mount major exhibitions showcasing the period.
“We’re now beginning to see the boomerang effect here in LA with all these shows,” says the filmmaker, referring to exhibitions going up in LA this fall and other recent retrospectives, most notably L.A. 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capitol, put on at Paris’ Pompidou Center last year. “The value of the art that’s being sold by these guys in the past five years—it’s all gone through the roof. In the four years we were making the documentary, even in that time…watching how the perception of LA art changed has been surprising.”
Conventional wisdom goes like this: Los Angeles has no memory.It’s ugly.A cultural wasteland. But Neville won’t buy into that—not entirely, anyway. Contagiously curious, the native Angeleno chooses to dig deeper.
“I’ve always been this kind of accidental apolo- gist for LA.,” says Neville, whose very first documentary, “Shotgun Freeway”, was a paean to the city’s undiscovered history.“It’s not like NewYork (where) you’d walk out the door and there it is. Here you might have to find it.You choose to find it.”
In that sense, Neville’s journey of discovery in The Cool School is also one of kinship with the artists and gallery owners he features. He is quick to point out his familiarity with the SoCal landscape that so inspired Los Angeles’ artists in the 50s and 60s. “Carwashes, coffee shops, vernacular architecture—the building is the billboard. LA is the ultimate high-low city,” Neville argues. “From the ugly boulevards and the trash bins they [LA- area artists] found something beautiful.”
As a result, says the filmmaker, the 50s and 60s in LA were a time of intense camaraderie, competi- tion and voluminous exhibition. For Neville, that “these artists operated in very different aesthetic modes” belies the deeper connection between them. “That commonality came down to listening to your environment,” he says.
As with most documentaries, Neville’s story telling burden is one of weaving drama out of a history lesson. The history lesson itself begins with Walter Hopps, by consensus the visionary behind the scene. Unlike Paris and New York, with their rich and storied histories, LA in the 50s had little to offer on its gallery walls past the safe reflection of its conservative self; LACMA may have owned a Jackson Pollock, but it remained in the stacks, well out of view.
The canvas was blank then for a small group of disparate artists flopping under the oil derricks in Venice or in flats in Echo Park. But Hopps changed all that. He “was the person that brought it all together…saw what it could be,” says Neville, echoing the conviction of the vast majority of those with an opin- ion on the subject. A romantic at heart, Hopps loved art. No one was showing the art he wanted to see. So, Hopps simply did it himself.
The Ferus scene began with dozens of California artists exhibiting in near obscurity in a small gallery on La Cienega.The time was as romantic as it was exciting. The artists—a hard-drinking, hard-working ram- ble of renegades—produced art far afield of what Los Angeles could easily accept. Nobody was inter- ested. The business of the art was a bust. “Hopps couldn’t think about money. He just wanted to see things happen. He was always supporting people to make sure they got out there,” Neville explains.
Enter Irving Blum, Hopps’ new partner. Blum would concentrate the artists represented by the gallery to just over a dozen and move the gallery to a more visible space on La Cienega’s gallery row. Slowly, people began to take notice and became more comfor table appreciating ar tists like Ed Kienholz, whose assemblage installations the LA Times once deemed as having “no aesthetic value.” Soon Pop artists out of New York— Warhol and Lichtenstein, among others—helped cement the gallery’s foothold in art history.
Few know, for instance, that Warhol’s first showing of the infamous, now-ubiquitous Campbell’s Soup Cans premiered at Ferus.“It’s the NewYork-LA thing. NewYork writes our history and they aren’t willing to cede much ground… New Yorkers don’t want to acknowledge that things didn’t happen in New York,” he smiles.
With the documentary in the can and having seen the movement formally recognized around the world, Neville’s reflection on the legacy of the Ferus scene’s success is tempered by nostalgia for a lost romantic ideal. “To me the whole thing is in the yin and yang of what Walter and Irving represent in the art business: creativity and prosperity. Irving is the template of a modern art dealer that we see today in every art gallery,”he cites.“But you don’t see aWalter Hopps in every art gallery, certainly not running [one] in SoHo because they can never make the rent.”
Until recently, students at art colleges in California were told that if they wanted to make it in the art world, they had to move to New York. “That’s no longer the case,” says Neville. “You can be a working artist in LA and sell in New York or around the world.” For him, the Ferus “Cool School” played a vital role in making that reality possible and he’s only too happy to make more people aware of it.“Ferus planted the seed and now decades later we’re able to finally eat the fruit,” Neville concludes.“And it tastes good.”
Pictured: Sideyard of Ferus Gallery’s first location, 1957. Photo by Charles Brittin. Courtesy Tremolo Productions.