While Ferus was influential, it wasn’t the only hotspot of 1960s LA. Art critic Peter Frank explains.
Everything old is new again, especially in an art world that (literally) values its history but is always on the lookout for a good investment. So while bidding wars erupt over obscure contemporary artists because they come from the right school or gallery or country, whole movements and art scenes that hardly rated a footnote ten years ago are suddenly dug out of the basement, and artists whose phones haven’t rung since they were rotary suddenly have to get answering machines—and e-mail, and agents, and calendars. The cutting-edge artists of postwar Los Angeles, for instance, attracted much attention in their day, and not just locally; many Angelenos who emerged back then jumped from local group shows into Whitney Biennials and even enjoyed their first one-person exhibitions in NewYork galleries such as Pace and Castelli. Similarly, La Cienega Boulevard’s “gallery row” featured outlets vigorous, sophisticated, and well-supported enough to show the latest work from New York and San Francisco and even Europe.
So now the historians and the curators and the collectors and, inevitably, the dealers are digging up everything and everyone they can find, not only those whose names were household back in the day but also those who maintained respectable also-ran status. The winners then have stayed winners—the three-Edded monster, Ruscha, Kienholz, and Moses, opened eyes then and opens pockets now—but the other guys (and occasional gals) are receiving new accolades. One of the artists attracting the most attention in the Los Angeles County Museum’s SoCal show, for instance, is Norman Zammitt, a light and space painter-sculptor whose sensitivity to gradated color has been knocking show visitors off their feet. Additionally, Ron Davis, at one time considered the epitome of Finish Fetish artists, disappeared down a rabbit hole sometime in the 70s, but his current comeback has been abetted by his similarly powerful appearance in SoCal.
At this writing, SoCal, a spectacular rummage through LACMA’s storage, has provided the biggest look-back at what the Southland hath wrought.The Orange County Museum of Art’s ambitious, thematically focused Birth of the Cool (not yet opened at this writing) promises to up the ante, and Pepperdine’s Weisman Museum follows suit. But the whole card game, at least the big-stakes one, got going last year in Paris, with the Centre Pompidou’s omnibus plunge through the late-modernist era in Southern California.The show, controversial for all the usual reasons (slighted artists, slighted styles, slighted ethnicities,
slighted masterpieces) and a few unusual ones (artworks falling off the wall), demonstrated to a new European art public that artists were active in Los Angeles prior to 1990— and when the Europeans pay attention, the Yanks (or should we say the dollars?) prick up their ears.
As the principals involved in the postwar LA scene re-emerge, age, and leave us, the memories fog up, the legends harden, the myths start to accrue. One confabulation to have taken root crams the entirety of important Los Angeles art in the 60s into the Ferus Gallery. It’s an understandable fiction, as it’s based in fact: no gallery in town was more central to the presentation of a fresh local community of artists than was Ferus. Founded as an artists’ co-op in the late 1950s under the guidance of Walter Hopps, the gallery was responsible for airing the work of Kienholz (a co-founder of the gallery), Moses, Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Billy Al Bengston, John Altoon, Wallace Berman, Larry Bell, Kenneth Price, and a host of other rebels and experimentalists before it turned its sights outward and, thanks to Irving Blum, started showing New York Pop artists—not instead but as well, providing a crucial East-West link. Hopps and Blum were prescient presences in Los Angeles, one recognizing that the town was producing not just its own artists but its own kinds of art, the other recognizing that LA could maintain a give-and-take with New York (and the world) on an equal footing.
But Hopps and Blum were not alone, and the artists who passed through Ferus were not the only locals who mattered, nor the only imports who rated. Henry Hopkins—who, like Hopps, went on to a distin- guished curatorial career—had also been discovering artists of his generation early on at the Huysmans Gallery across La Cienega from Ferus, as had Everett Ellin in his La Cienega-adjacent establishment. Other galleries along La Cienega in the early-mid 60s—Felix Landau, Herbert Palmer, Joan Ankrum, Esther Robles, David Stuar t, Rolf Nelson—brought area ar tists, and often artists from elsewhere, to an enthusiastic public. Tony DeLap, a rising abstract sculptor-painter newly arrived from the Bay Area in 1965, for instance, was courted by Blum and upstart Nicholas Wilder, but had already committed to Landau. Wilder did land Joe Goode, and showed the quasi-Pop Angeleno’s first sculptural staircases. Charles Garabedian emerged from the funky-figurative Ceeje Gallery at the top of La Cienega. David Stuart, a.k.a. Primus/Stuart, featured
Bay Area sculptor Peter Voulkos and showed Dennis Hopper’s assemblages and foam-rubber sculptures. And where did one go to see David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, and even John Cage? Palmer—or Feigen/Palmer, as it was known, the association with New York dealer Richard Feigen serving as a pipeline to the New York mainstream.
Those were the days, my friend, spread all over the Boulevard—and beyond. Galleries such as Virginia Dwan and Sylvan Simone found neighborhoods such as Westwood and Mar Vista more to their liking. The Pasadena Art Museum became a hotbed of the new, especially once Hopps took over as director, and the little old ladies in tennis shoes ate up Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Even Orange County boasted a center for new art, the Newport Harbor Art Museum, whiched provided a counterbalance to the prevalence of plein air offerings at the Laguna Art Museum down the beach. And then, in 1965, LACMA itself emerged, escaping its stodgy downtown fortress and building itself a gleaming palace atop the La Brea tar pits, a stone’s throw from the burgeoning La Cienega strip.
Ferus Gallery was at the very core of this energy and, when Hopps graduated to Pasadena, the Ferus factor started spreading across the Southland. But, again, Ferus was first among equals—no more, no less. Only in its first year or two of existence, as a scruffy beatnik shack run by the artists it showed—a place for Venice and Topanga bohemians to hang out inland before or after hitting Barney’s Beanery—might the gallery have been a voice clamoring in the wilderness.The La Cienega strip staked out by Ferus’ founding fathers quickly blos- somed with galleries. Ferus was the leading man of La Cienega, to be sure, but its co-stars—the other galleries giving LA art, and LA collectors, a chance—were also getting the message out. With its many art schools and universities burgeoning with GI-Bill students, Los Angeles was a hotbed of artistic activity even in the depths of the Red Scare; Ferus was simply the first place this hot bed boiled to the surface.
What made Ferus first among equals was not its pro- prietary position on gallery row, but its own origins in the initiative of artists. It began not as a way to sell ar t but to show it, a place created by young cutting-edgers shaped around their con- ception of vital contemporary artistic practice and run according to their specifications, not those of commercial interests. The Ferus folks didn’t give a rat’s you-know-what about what their fellow Angelenos thought of them; they sought only to impress one another and who- ever might come in the door a second and third time. (When the Law walked in a second time, however, it busted Wallace Berman on obscenity charges.)They set the tone for a gallery scene, and an entire art scene, that didn’t bother to follow New York’s or Europe’s examples—at least until LA artists started showing, and selling, out of town.
Pictured: Kienholz show, Ferus Gallery, 1962. Photo by Seymour Rosen. Courtesy Tremolo Productions.