Gagosian Gallery

The art of what used to be called (proudly by its fans, derisively by its detractors) the Ferus “boys club” is back. And it looks pretty damned good after the museum-quality exhibition of key work from Los Angeles’s breakthrough Ferus Gallery (1957–66) at Gagosian’s Chelsea branch. The show was curated by the former Ferus majordomo, kettledrum-voiced Cary Grant stunt double Irving Blum. The first thing you encountered, by way of introduction, was a spate of black-and-white photographs of young, raffish, ’60s-suave Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, and Larry Bell, all looking as smart-ass elegant as their art. And their art, along with that of John Altoon, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, and Ken Price, made Ferus the contemporary Kunstkapital of Los Angeles four decades ago. The gallery was started on La Cienega Boulevard in 1957 by the bombastic assemblagist Ed Kienholz and the flakily brilliant art historian Walter Hopps. Blum, a former Knoll furniture salesman recently smitten with modern art, arrived six months later and bought Kienholz’s share in the emporium for five hundred bucks. As its winkingly affable and intuitively decisive front man, Blum made Ferus a success. He mixed shows of local hotshots with exhibitions of current and crucial New York art (including Andy Warhol’s first solo show of Pop work, in 1962) that you could hardly see anyplace else in LA. Here’s how Blum—according to Roberta Bernstein’s interview in the show’s catalogue—did things off-the-cuff in those earlier, simpler days:

I went to Houston Street where [Jasper Johns] then lived in a refurbished savings bank and I remember as I walked in there was a little Schwitters on the wall. I continued on into the studio where he was organizing his small sculptures, including the Light Bulb, Flashlight, Ale Cans. I said, “Jasper, have you ever shown these?” He said that he hadn’t. I said, “I’ve got an idea that I’d like you to consider. Why don’t we do a show in California of your sculpture and include collages by Kurt Schwitters.” Jasper said, “Well, where can you get the Schwitters?” I told him there was a lady called Galka Scheyer who was a European expatriate living in Pasadena with a group of them and I was certain I could borrow them. He said, “Well, if you can get them, let me know and we’ll do the show.” So, in 1960, we had this beautiful exhibition of Jasper’s sculpture and Schwitters’s collages.

Blum (and Gagosian) can still get things done. “Ferus” includes the thirty-two Campbell’s Soup Can paintings Warhol showed at the gallery in ’62; Blum kept the Soup Can works together for himself and eventually presented them in 1996 to the Museum of Modern Art as a partial gift, reputedly receiving a cool fifteen million dollars in the bargain. (MoMA declined to lend these to the recent Warhol retrospective during its final stopover at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art.) The show also boasts Ruscha’s infamous 1965–68 painting Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The soup cans still look fresh and Ruscha’s canvas has the same sickly, pea green subversiveness (in the sky, over a pus-colored museum) it did when Ferus’s announcement for it noted that the city fire marshal would be present at the opening. Kauffman’s pearlescent wall lozenge and Ken Price’s Fabergé-delicious small ceramic sculpture look, if anything, better today than when they were fresh in the gallery. Altoon’s Gorkyesque biomorphism holds up well, as does Bell’s glass box (although one of the bigger ones without images on the surface would have been better). Bengston’s iconic chevron spray paintings, however, seem conservative thirty-five years on. They’re not nearly as radical as Bengston himself was as an avatar of the southern California “new artist”—prosperous and beachy instead of abject and pale, garden-party smooth instead of asocial and gnarly, and, above all, automotively well equipped.

In spite of the fact that only seven of the twenty-two artists in the exhibition are or were based in New York, the show felt skewed toward Gotham. Ferus’s impact on the national scene was to provide—in league with Artforum, which had its offices conveniently right upstairs from the gallery—a stage for new and inventive LA art; an exhibition purportedly about that doesn’t require all these Stellas and Lichtensteins. Second, analogous to that performance-art joke about pinning down the moment when Eric Bogosian became Elliott Gould, “Ferus” specifies the exact point at which Stella turned into Dale Chihuly: right between the big color circle-based abstraction Firuzabad II, 1970, and the big, color-plus-darkness circle-based abstraction Firuzabad III, made the same year. That revelation, while potentially informative, shouldn’t come at the expense of two superb smaller paintings ridiculously installed on short walls nearby—Bowl of Cherries, Irwin’s beautiful 1962 monochrome canvas with thin floating horizontal color bars, and Ruscha’s still-clever Annie, Poured from Maple Syrup, 1966.

If your estimation of art rides on how much influence it has on subsequent developments, the Ferus artists reside, in the longer run, among the defeated. Much if not most of today’s art looks a lot more like West Coast alumni Bruce Nauman and Martha Rosler than Billy Al Bengston and Robert Irwin. Hardly anybody but the occasional clinically obsessive MFA student goes in for making “fantastic objects” along the lines of Bell, Kauffman, or Price. Offhandedness (“hipster abstraction” by Monique Prieto and ironic riffs on ’50s Cosmopolitan magazine illustration by Karen Kilimnik, et al.) rules the SoCal roost. But, viewed in and for itself, and perhaps because it came so close to being sui generis, the LA art of Ferus’s heyday—of Price, Kauffman, and others in the ’60s—still looks terrific. The terrific look is due, in part, to the Ferus artists’ getting the message embedded in that 1960 Johns & Schwitters show: that modest size and delicate craftsmanship are not necessarily weaknesses in art objects. Whether 2002 New York will get the same message is anybody’s guess. My guess is that, although it’d do this place a world of good, New York won’t.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.