With the exception of a handful of gallery shows in California and New York, and a major 2006 retrospective, "Los Angeles 1955-1985," at the Pompidou Center in Paris, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the Los Angeles art scene of the 1950s -- evidence, perhaps, of the East Coast-centric art world's disbelief that any such scene could ever exist, let alone deserve notice. Emmy award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville's short history of the Ferus Gallery -- the tiny L.A. showplace that that until its 1966 closing was the flashpoint for a vibrant scene -- is a bit cursory, but it's thoughtful and thought-provoking place to start.
Neville begins with descriptions of L.A. in the post-World War II years, a "wasteland of conservatism" where French restaurants were non-existent, local newspapers didn't even have arts sections and whatever cultural action there was in California was happening in San Francisco. The then au courant Abstract Expressionist movement was condemned as a Communist plot against American values, and what was considered acceptably "modern" in L.A. was restricted to safe, ersatz Klee doodles and faux Cubist canvases. And then in 1957, Walter Hopps and Ed Keinholz – respectively a bespectacled failed med student with a great eye, and a wild and wooly assemblage artist with connections throughout the artistic community rooted in the "backwater bohemia" of run-down Venice Beach -- opened a tiny storefront gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. A theretofore unheard of phenomenon was born: L.A. art. A year later, Keinholz left Ferus to pursue his own work full-time, and his replacement -- the larger-than-life, Cary Grant-esque Irving Blum – transformed the gallery away from hip hangout to a cultural and market force with which to be reckoned. Neville focuses primarily on the core group of artists -- the self-proclaimed "studs" -- who came to represent Ferus and the scene at large: John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston and, later, Edward Ruscha. Their work helped define a West Coast style that valued precision, light, plasticity, innovation and surface, and unabashedly drew inspiration from movies, custom car culture, surfing and the city itself. Anticipating aspects of pop art, the scene's death knell ironically began to toll the day Blum curated Andy Warhol's first gallery show -- the series of 100 Campbell's soup cans.
Happily, many of the figures spoken about throughout the film are still with us -- Neville is even able to reproduce Patricia Foure's famous group photo with most of its original subjects. Their opinions and insights, as well as the reminiscences of scenemakers like Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, are scintillating. Meanwhile in New York, the acerbic comments of critic and gallery owner Ivan Karp are a vivid reminder that East Coast art snobbery is not only real, but alive and well. One basic problem with surveys of this sort is that they inevitably leaves one wondering about the finer details of individual lives, but it's a great place to start. Neville, who directed several documentaries about music giants, from Muddy Waters to Hank Williams, includes songs by the Monks, the Trashmen and X on the suitably wild soundtrack.
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