The Cool School: Story of the Ferus Art Gallery
Along with Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, the PBS documentary film, The Cool School tells the compelling story of the Ferus Art Gallery and brings the drama of the Los Angeles contemporary art scene to light. I highly recommend seeing this film as an accompaniment to those attending any of the collective shows for Pacific Standard Time. For those not planning on attending, this might be incentive to go see it to learn more about the important creative talents and the art history of Southern California.
Seemingly cast like a group of “Real World” characters, the trailblazers leading the charge for the LA art scene from 1955 to 1985 are a motley set of personalities that are as diverse and unconventional as the artwork being produced. The ground breaking efforts of the Ferus Gallery disseminates the emergence of a distinctly Southern California led movement, but both the restrictive New York critics and the conservative Los Angeles public attempt to suppress its momentum. Luckily, Walter Hopps’ willingness to go to any lengths to back the art, paired with Irving Blum’s ambitions to sell it, fuel the cultivation of a visionary group of LA based artists. Ultimately, the conflicting personalities lead to a partnership meltdown, but by then, the resulting group of artists have graduated to venture out into their own directions.
As being presented in the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, Southern California had its own distinct styles and categories. The Ferus was one of the galleries that played a pivital role in the careers of many influential artists of the era, including some that have been mistakenly grouped with New York artists or movements. The development of Artforum into the leading global contemporary art magazine as well as independant work of artists, such as Simon Rodia, who built the Watts Towers, puts Southern California on the map in art. While California’s characteristically laid-back attitude might have prejudiced many against it having a formal “cultural” atmosphere, the talent and caliber of creative work behind the art created here is evident in hindsight. The colorful personalities of Ferus in contrast to the backdrop of conservatism in the core, middle class community of Los Angeles contributed to the suppression of this distinct group of artists.
This film and the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions finally bring to light the talent that resides in Southern California. There have been many discussions and stereotypes by ardent New Yorkers or Europeans that California, especially Southern California and Los Angeles, is void of culture or creativity. Ironically, Los Angeles, being the world famous home to the film industry, has been remiss (until now) in documenting the talents and history that exists in its own backyard: Frank Gehry, John Baldessari, Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Begston, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufman, Ed Ruscha, John Altoon, Ed Bereal, Wallace Berman, Ken Price, Charles and Ray Eames, Dennis Hopper, as well as many others that were not part of the Ferus Gallery. The film also points out that even New York notables, like Andy Warhol, had his first solo exhibition in Los Angeles: the now famous Cambell Soup Can series. Also of note is Marcel Duchamp’s first retrospective and the launching of Lichtenstein’s career.
While this many not present new information for those studied in the Los Angeles contemporary art scene and it’s not groundbreaking in the genre of documentary filmmaking, it is a well made film that brings together important historical footage and interviews with the artists, some of whom have already been lost. The film could have included a few of the other galleries, artists, movements and schools that were also from LA during this time period to provide a more complete picture of the scene but it does capture the story of the Ferus Gallery and it’s key figures. I found the film interesting and engaging throughout. I know I am in the category of people passionate about art and film, but I think others interested in documentaries, California, history or art in general will also enjoy this film. I commend the filmmakers for putting together this important historical record of the people and art in Southern California and urge those living in California or studying art anywhere to see this film as well as take advantage of the current Pacific Standard Time exhibitions to learn about the wealth of inspiration derived from the California Art scene.
The film is narrated by Jeff Bridges and is currently available on DVD or iTunes