PRINT January 1969

Late Fifties at the Ferus

THE INSTALLATION OF THE EXHIBITION at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has none of the vigor or clarity that was the trademark of the Ferus Gallery in the fifties. Furthermore, the catalog introduction by James Monte clearly indicates to me that he must know something about painting in California in the late fifties that none of the painters I knew at the time (and still know) knew.

1. Robert Alexander. As I recall, he never had a show in the gallery but printed the announcements and had a hell of a lot to do with the early monkey business that went on at the openings.

2. John Altoon, Fay’s Christmas Painting, 1958. It has always been my contention that John Altoon is one of the most underrated living artists and that the painting in this exhibition (which could be any one of hundreds he painted at that time) stands as a monument to the idea that one man’s unique personal vision is greater than the importance of fashions in art or mainstream type philosophy.

3. Billy Al Bengston. A painting from my first show at the Ferus Gallery and not one of the best. I own the good ones but wasn’t asked to lend.

4. Wallace Berman. A photo of the installation of his 1957 show, closed by the police because of a pornographic drawing by Cameron that would go into Heidi today. Too bad no works but most, or all, from the late ’50s were destroyed in a mud slide that took his house with it.

5. Jay De Feo, Veronica, 1957. Never look at just one of Jay’s paintings. She had style, moxie, natural beauty and more “balls” than anyone. She also produced a large amount of art that should be and should have been seen but wasn’t and isn’t. Her attitudes and life style were an important source of inspiration—so beautiful and human that they can’t be written about without sounding corny.

6. Richard Diebenkorn. Void. He was never a member of the Ferus Gallery Group; had shown at Paul Kantor’s Gallery in Los Angeles for as long as I can remember.

7. Sonia Gechtoff. A good painter of the era but the work in the exhibition appears to have been chosen arbitrarily, without regard to esthetic or historical value.

8. Robert Irwin. Void. Not in by the deadline. The painting in the exhibition was done in late 1960 or early 1961 (maybe 1962?).

9. Craig Kauffman, Tell Tale Heart, 1958. A blockbuster and still right on. Kauffman was the first southern California artist ever to paint an original painting. His paintings of ’57 and ’58 proved we had to wash our hands, throw away our dirty pants and become artists. Prior to these works every southern California artist in the Ferus Gallery was suffering from a bad case of northern California sensibility—probably bred out of a misunderstanding of the paintings of de Kooning, Kline, Still and Gorky.

10. James Kelly. A strong 1954 painting by a painter who got lost in the shuffle and I wonder where he is.

11. Edward Kienholz. Co-founder of the Ferus Gallery and known, in the early days, to sport a blank pistol in his belt. When he left, the “go fuck yourself” attitude of the gallery changed to “go fuck yourself” with an English accent, Cary Grant style, via Arizona. Leda and the Canadian Honker—I remember splitting a gut laughing when he first told me the title in 1957 and it still gets me. Even if it weren’t such a good construction it would still hold as a title.

12. Frank Lobdell. He was one of the most influential and emulated artists on the West Coast and there is a lot of student work around to prove it. The work in the exhibition, February 1959, is owned by the Los Angeles County Museum and is not one of his best. This again leads to the critical point of selection of works to be included in the exhibition. It seems mostly to have been a matter of their geographical proximity to the Museum building at the time the idea for the exhibition was conceived.

13. John Mason. Spear Form is a ceramic sculpture, a little over five feet high, that, if shown correctly, which it isn’t in this exhibition, could turn some heads. Dated 1957 in the catalog but it looks like 1959 to me.

14. Edward Moses, Rafe, 1958. Named after a bull terrier he owned at the time and still today carries a picture of in his wallet, it is a painting that looks a lot more like Moses and a lot less like Kauffman than most of us thought it did in the good old days.

15. Kenneth Price. A “turda force” and I love it and I own it and it’s not for sale. I’d like to kick whoever installed the show in the head. It’s an awful installation (and infuriating).

16. Arthur Richer, Clown. An apt title, for that is more or less the way Artie was considered. Too bad one of his bigger paintings isn’t in the show, but it wouldn’t have made a difference, even to him (R.I.P.).

17. Richards Ruben. Another latecomer to the gallery. A 1959 painting titled Claremont #47 and it takes a discerning eye to tell it from Claremont #24 or Claremont #97.

18. Paul Sarkisian. A black and white painting of stature. Paul was, in the early fifties, the most mature of all artists in the Los Angeles area, and that was a scary place to be.

19. Hassel Smith. Represented by a sort of typical abstraction of 1952, it’s a long way from the really great ones he was doing at the time. Why didn’t the County Museum borrow the painting which can be seen at the David Stuart Gallery?

If dealer/museum collusion had been eliminated or if the proper amount of time and energy were spent in honestly researching the late fifties at the Ferus Gallery it would have been a significant exhibition. Too bad Chico1 didn’t do it.

Billy Al Bengston



1. i.e. Walter Hopps.