Review

The Cool School

2007, 90 min., Morgan Neville, Director
Ken Allan
The Ferus Gang (Group Portrait of Artists from the Ferus Gallery), 1962.

The Ferus Gang (Group Portrait of Artists from the Ferus Gallery), 1962. Clockwise from the upper left: Billy Al Bengston, Allen Lynch, Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufman, John Altoon, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses (center). Photo by Patricia Faure.

The late curator and legendary LA art impresario Walter Hopps once described the Ferus Gallery as it was run by Irving Blum as “slicker than deer guts on a doorknob.”1 A new documentary film on the 1960s LA art scene and the influential Ferus gallery, directed by Morgan Neville and written by Neville and Kristine McKenna, revels in the spirit of rebellion and self-promotion that defined the era. Of the recent returns to the 1960s that have been staged in museum exhibitions and discussed in the scholarship on Los Angeles’s art historical past, this snappy film best conveys to a general audience the flinty energy and classic story arc of the rise and fall of the Ferus Gallery and the characters of its now canonical L.A. artists.2 Well received by audiences at its world premiere during the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival and recipient of the Maverick Award for Best Feature Documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival, The Cool School shows how ripe this story was for the cinematic picking. Yet, given the distance we sit from this nascent period and the vastly more complex art world that has developed since the early 1960s (with Los Angeles now one of its major international centers), the film misses some prime opportunities to reflect more critically on the legacy of Ferus and the canonization of its artists.

Much of Neville’s previous work has focused on the rise of the popular music industry, including films such as the Emmy- winning Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues(2004) and the Grammy-nominated MuddyWaters Can’t Be Satisfied (2003), both part of the American Masters Series on PBS. His expertise in conveying the life stories of figures such as Brian Wilson, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach and Nat King Cole for a number of A&E Biography specials clearly comes through in his telling of the complex relation- ships surrounding the Ferus Gallery in its heyday. The film is outstanding in its portrayal of Walter Hopps in this respect and the interviews that were conducted in what turned out to be Hopps’ last years stand as a touching tribute to him.

Neville’s treatment of Hopps, in fact, gives an indication of the engaging visual style the filmmaker brings to the material. Most of the one-on-one interviews in Cool School are filmed entirely in black and white, but with Hopps the atmospheric effect of cigarette smoke curling around him as he sits in his office is enhanced by the fact that Neville adds color only to the embers of a cigarette that Hopps lights up during the interview. The intimacy of scenes such as this are balanced by bright, grainy sequences of the streets of LA in the 1950s, photographs of the artists at work and play, and excerpts of an early television special on Ed Kienholz in which we see him haggling in a junkyard for car parts for his assemblages. All of this adds up to an attractive portrait of the rise of L.A.’s 1960s art scene.

Walter Hopps, Co-Founder of the Ferus Gallery, 1957. Photo by Charles Brittin.

Walter Hopps, Co-Founder of the Ferus Gallery, 1957. Photo by Charles Brittin.

But given the familiarity to the L.A. art public of the Ferus stable, which included artists such as Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, John Altoon, Larry Bell, and Ed Ruscha, little new information is unearthed here. The title of the film borrows a label often used in the era to describe the stylistic combination of pop, hard-edged abstraction and minimalism found in the work of some of these artists and which marked a departure from the long reign of gestural painting on the West Coast. In his 1964 essay “The Cool School,” critic Philip Leider, managing editor of Artforum in the period when its offices were located above the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, characterized the “distance” that this new kind of work put between viewer and art object. This effect, he argued, was accentuated by Ferus’s clean, white-cube presentation of what Leider considered the only avant-garde art in Los Angeles. He defines the “Cool School” style in these terms: “A hatred of the superfluous, a drive toward compression, a precision of execution which extends to the production of any trifle, an impeccability of surface, and, still in reaction, a new distance between artist and work of art, between artist and viewer, achieved by jocularity, parody, the inclusion of irreverent touches and symbols, or, above all, by the precise, enclosed nature of the work of art itself: where an Abstract Expressionist canvas begs to be touched, a construction of Larry Bell’s, for example, cries: “Hands Off!” (This quality of distance, coldness, austerity has become the trademark of Ferus Gallery installations.)”3 Leider has in mind mostly the work of Irwin, Bengston and Kaufmann, as well as Bell. He also simplifies the underlying surrealism of work by Ruscha and Ken Price, for instance, and doesn’t consider the acerbic assemblage work of Kienholz as a part of this construct, of course. In appropriating this term for the film’s title, Neville perhaps unconsciously perpetuates Leider’s flattening of the multiplicity of styles inherent to the Ferus Gallery artists. Of course, the film’s title more easily alludes to the photogenic personas of the gallery’s artists and the dealer Irving Blum, as seen in a famous photograph by William Claxton on a powerboat named “Ferus” surrounded by models in bikinis that was used for a 1960 Artforum ad.

Although the impact of Ferus on the local art scene is well told, The Cool School perpetuates the hagiography of a group of artists, promoted by the gallery as “the studs” in one 1964 exhibition. The film never addresses the prevailing masculinist attitude and cultural dominance of this group of artists that would fuel a serious backlash when the first local retrospectives of the era were mounted in the 1980s. Brief notes of criticism and a glimpse at this larger context are supplied by figures such as John Baldessari, New York art dealer Ivan Karp, and perhaps most insightfully by art historian Shirley Neilson (the one time wife of Hopps and then, later, of Blum). The artist Judy Chicago is mentioned and seen briefly in footage, but her connection to this group of macho artists (she was a student of motorcycle-racing, pop artist Bengston) is not discussed. Given the role that feminist art such as Chicago’s played in reevaluating the gender and racial politics of the era epitomized by Ferus, it is surprising that Neville and writer McKenna do not use this opportunity to better contextualize their subject.

When the decade’s art scene was first surveyed by the Los Angeles County Museum’s 1981 show, Art in Los Angeles: Seventeen Artists in the Sixties, there was much controversy over the narrow focus of the exhibition solely on white, male artists, many of whom had been on the roster of the Ferus Gallery.4 Given the fact that The Cool School premiered in the same summer that Los Angeles audiences were being treated to a major retrospective of feminism–Connie Butler’s sprawling WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution–at the Geffen Contemporary, it might be productive to reflect on the legacy of this critique. The tone of these bitter battles of the ’70s and ’80s can be heard in Christopher Knight’s comments from 1981 regarding LACMA’s role in the local art world on the occasion of Seventeen Artists in the Sixties: “After a decade of neglect of contemporary art in general and L.A. art in particular, for LACMA to re-emerge into the field with an exhibition of artists whose rise to prominence was benignly assisted by common racist and sexist attitudes (especially when racism and sexism were highly visible concerns of the Los Angeles art community in the intervening decade) serves to reopen old wounds rather than celebrate an artistic heritage.”5 Neville and McKenna only obliquely allude to these issues through Baldessari’s comments and Shirley Neilson’s remarks on the “boys’ club” atmosphere of the gallery.

The Ferus Gang (Group Portrait of Artists from the Ferus Gallery), 1962.

The Ferus Gang (Group Portrait of Artists from the Ferus Gallery), 1962. (left to right: John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Allen Lynch, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston). Photo by Patricia Faure.

Art historian Cecile Whiting’s recent book, Pop L.A: Art and the City in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), gives a more inclusive account of the decade and might provide a nice pairing with the story told by The Cool School. Whiting frames her study of “the studs” of Ferus through discussions of the feminism of Judy Chicago and Womanhouse, the homosexual politics of David Hockney’s paintings and the community activism of Noah Purifoy’s arts initiatives in the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965. To my mind, if The Cool School were to convey a better sense of this historical context it would not detract from the sympathetic portrait of the film’s cast of characters, but would allow for a greater understanding of the sway that the Ferus Gallery held over the L.A. art community of the 1960s.

But The Cool School is clearly a celebratory film, not a revisionist one, and in this it seems best addressed to an audience outside of the West Coast. It is slated for theatrical release in New York for the fall of 2007 and will subsequently be aired on PBS. The response of this larger, national audience might prove more instructive as to the lessons of this important slice of L.A.’s recent past. For those interested in seeing the images of this golden era brought to life, The Cool School is not to be missed.

Ken Allan is assistant professor of Art History at Seattle University and is working on a book on art, social space and spectatorship in 1960s Los Angeles. His writing on art in postwar Los Angeles has recently appeared in Art Journal, Archives of American Art Journal, and X-TRA.

Footnotes

  1. Hopps used this phrase to describe the Ferus Gallery’s new space designed by Blum in 1958 in a gallery talk at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, March 8, 2005. See my “Reflections of Walter Hopps in Los Angeles,” X-TRA, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall 2005, n. 19, p. 36.
  2. Some recent examples are Los Angeles 1955-1985, Birth of an Artistic Capital, Centre Pompidou, 8 March-17 July 2006; Ferus, Gagosian Gallery, New York, September 12-October 19, 2002; Radical Past: Contemporary Art & Music in Pasadena, 1960-1974, Armory Center for the Arts/Art Center College of Design, February 7- April 11, 1999; Sunshine & Noir: Art in L.A. 1960-1997, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, May 16-September 7, 1997/ UCLA Hammer Museum of Art, Fall 1998.
  3. Philip Leider, “The Cool School,” Artforum, Vol. 2, No. 12, Summer 1964, p. 47.
  4. Ruth Weisberg, “Visiona Narrowsa and the Cowgirl Commandos,” Images & Issues, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1981, pp. 48- 49. The opening of the exhibition was protested by a hundred or so people wearing masks bearing the face of Maurice Tuchman, the exhibition’s curator, and passing out postcards identifying a “deadly curatorial disease” called “Visiona Narrowsa,” the symptoms of which include “inability to see Black, Latino/a or American Indian artists and the art they make…inability to see female artists…CURE: extended bed rest and reeducation can alleviate the symptoms temporarily but for a complete systemic cure the causes must be eliminated. PROGNOSIS: Maurice is regressing and requires immediate action. Send letters recommending retirement.” This special issue of Images & Issues includes a section entitled “Art L.A. The 60s: Multiple Views” which provides much coverage to these debates.
  5. Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, August 19, 1981, quoted in Ruth Weisberg, Bill Lasarow, “Bringing Up LACMA,” Los Angeles Artists Equity News, Vol. 2, No. 3, Fall 1981, p. 14.
Further Reading