Left: Irving Blum, 1962. (Photo: Ken Price/ITVS) Right: Ferus Gallery artists, 1962. From left: Ed Kienholz, Allen Lynch, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John Altoon. (Photo: Patricia Faure/ITVS)

THE COOL SCHOOL is Morgan Neville’s snappy eighty-six-minute documentary about the emergence of an art scene in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, specifically about the circle of artists and supporters associated with the Ferus Gallery. Period photographs and film clips, together with the “cool” jazz on the sound track, transport viewers to Los Angeles of the 1950s and ’60s, with its notable storefronts (May Company and Eat in the Hat restaurant), its cars barreling down brand-new freeways, and its bohemian enclaves, including Venice, then home to derelict buildings and neglected canals. Extraordinary footage of the nascent art scene includes Ed Kienholz at the local watering hole Barney’s Beanery; visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art commenting on Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1964; Marcel Duchamp interviewed at the opening of his retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963; and a young Andy Warhol at his second show at Ferus, also in 1963. Many of the era’s heavy hitters—now in their sixties and seventies—consented to interviews, including Irving Blum, Dennis Hopper, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, and Frank Gehry. The film also contains poignant clips of Walter Hopps speaking at the opening of a George Herms retrospective, the last exhibition he curated, twelve days before he died in 2005.

In 1957, Hopps and Kienholz joined forces to open a gallery devoted to contemporary art from Northern and Southern California. Many of those interviewed revere Hopps and credit him with being the spark that ignited Ferus, if not the entire Los Angeles art scene. Eventually, Kienholz left the gallery, and Blum fortuitously partnered with Hopps. Blum, repeatedly described as the Cary Grant of the art world, engineered a distinct shift in the gallery’s program. Moving it across the street to a sleeker storefront space, he radically pared down the number of Californians affiliated with the gallery and invited artists from New York to exhibit, famously giving Warhol his first solo gallery show. As collector Donald Factor puts it, “Wealthy people felt comfortable. . . . Whereas if it had been left up to Walter, it would have been full of students and beatniks.”

By including many photographs depicting the antics of Blum and his artists, the film highlights the importance of publicity in promoting the gallery. The men played up their machismo, presenting themselves as “The Studs,” but at points the aging artists let down their guard; Billy Al Bengston, for instance, flatly confesses his distrust of Blum’s maneuverings. Self-promotion, celebrity, and, of course, talent all put Ferus at the center of the city’s burgeoning contemporary art world and led to the gallery’s demise when the group inevitably splintered. The end of Ferus, in 1966, presaged the beginning of a new, vibrant moment in feminist, performance, video, and Chicano art in Los Angeles, developments touched on only briefly by The Cool School.

Left: Walter Hopps, 1957. (Photo: Charles Brittin/ITVS) Right: Ferus Gallery reunion, 1994. From left: Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Craig Kauffman, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell.

The interviewees repeatedly cast Los Angeles as culturally barren until the arrival of the visionary (if idiosyncratic) Hopps and the ascension of Ferus. Bengston calls the city a wasteland, and narrator Jeff Bridges asserts, “Los Angeles built an art scene from scratch.” No doubt Hopps generated interest in contemporary art by collaborating with young artists in Los Angeles and San Francisco, by mounting groundbreaking shows at both Ferus and, later, the Pasadena Art Museum, and by grooming potential collectors at his UCLA extension course on contemporary art. And no doubt philistinism and censorship were prevalent in the city: In 1951, as recounted in The Cool School, city officials derided a painting of boats for purportedly secreting a hammer and sickle on a sail, and in 1957, the vice squad raided Wallace Berman’s show at Ferus and arrested the artist for obscenity.

Nonetheless, it is also true that there is a long history of modernist art production in Los Angeles. Ferus didn’t operate in a void. Other galleries, such as Dwan, Felix Landau, and Primus-Stuart, exhibited contemporary art in the ’60s, and alternative circles of artists, musicians, writers, and independent filmmakers also established niches for themselves. By focusing only on the Ferus artists and by minimizing the disagreements among them, The Cool School offers a somewhat one-dimensional narrative of the city’s art scene, even as it provides a lively and clear account of that seminal group.

The interviewees often allude to the towering presence of New York. At points, artists dismiss the New York art world altogether, while at other times, they claim Los Angeles outstripped New York or at the very least shared the limelight with Manhattan. Snippets from an interview with Ivan Karp, former director of Leo Castelli Gallery, may explain why the West Coast artists have chips on their shoulders. Karp’s dripping condescension toward Los Angeles and its artists is extraordinary, matched only by the disdain for the locals expressed during the ’60s by Henry Seldis, the homegrown Los Angeles Times art critic. These attitudes point to why the story of Ferus needs to be told again. The special contribution of The Cool School is that it preserves the vivid recollections of those who were intimately involved in the gallery at a time when it helped make such high-handed dismissal of the Los Angeles art scene a sign not of sophistication but of cultural na´vetÚ.

CÚcile Whiting

CÚcile Whiting is professor in the Department of Art History and the graduate program in visual studies at University of California, Irvine, and the author of Pop LA: Art and the City in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2006). A sixty-minute version of The Cool School premieres on PBS on June 10. Click here to check local listings, and click here to watch the trailer.