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Cover Story

An L.A. Art Story

A New York exhibition celebrates the brief but dazzling decade when Ferus Gallery introduced the best of a new generation of artists

September 22, 2002|BARBARA ISENBERG

Ask Irving Blum about running the Ferus Gallery, and he'll tell you right away that there's been too much speculation about Ferus and not enough appreciation. People are beginning to forget the now-legendary space that put Los Angeles--and Blum--on the art world's map in the early '60s.

Launched in 1957 by artist Edward Kienholz and museum curator Walter Hopps, Ferus was the right place at the right time, an important early incubator of contemporary and avant-garde art here. Besides introducing local talents Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha, the gallery also brought to Los Angeles audiences the latest work by such New York artists as Joseph Cornell, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

"When Ferus opened, it was the one really contemporary gallery dealing with younger Los Angeles and San Francisco artists; and that generation was the first, because of that support, to train here, work here, show here and make national reputations," says Henry Hopkins, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and what is now the UCLA Hammer Museum. "The result is that Ferus stands as a symbol of the transition of Los Angeles from provincial center to what it is today--an internationally recognized center for the arts."

There were major museum exhibitions about Ferus in Southern California in the '60s and '70s. But that was long ago, says Ferus director and, later, co-owner Blum, and there had been nothing in New York. So when New York-based dealer Larry Gagosian suggested a show, says the ever-dapper Blum, 71, "I just leaped at it. I think what was happening in California at that time needs to be celebrated."

The celebration, underway at the Gagosian Gallery in New York's Chelsea district, exhibits about 45 sculptures, paintings, drawings and other artworks by 22 artists shown at Ferus during its 10-year lifetime. Many of the works were first exhibited at the gallery; others represent the kind of work that made Ferus famous.

Assembled by Blum, the exhibition also includes Ferus Gallery exhibition announcements by Lichtenstein and others, several art scene photographs taken by Dennis Hopper, and an elaborate, 144-page catalog.

Highlights include Warhol's suite of 32 paintings, "Campbell's Soup Cans" (the ones MOCA couldn't get for the Warhol retrospective that recently closed here), on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Ruscha's "Los Angeles County Museum on Fire," on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. In all, Blum has gathered from one to four works by each of the 20 to 25 artists he tried to exhibit regularly at Ferus.

When he and Gagosian first agreed several months ago to do the exhibition, recalls Blum, "I went home and had to lie down. In order to make it real, there was so much I had to relive and think about and deal with and remember."

Born in New York City but raised in Phoenix, Blum went back to Manhattan in 1955 to seek work in the theater. But despite a lifelong flair for drama and a booming, Cary Grant-style voice, Blum began to spend more time in art galleries than theaters. In 1957, when "my nostalgia for the West got the better of me," he headed for Los Angeles and soon found his way to Ferus.

Blum arrived less than a year after Kienholz and Hopps opened shop behind an antiques store on La Cienega Boulevard. Ruscha has likened the gallery to a jazz catalog "where there are a lot of different voices under the same record label. Each had a very distinctive take on the world and on his work, and so that made it a very vital place to aspire to and to be."

Ferus was "a gathering place and macho intellectual gang bang," recalls Bengston, a Ferus regular. "It was a place to strut your stuff and be yourself. It was more important to be an artist than to be successful, because being an artist, there was no chance to be successful."

Sensing opportunity, Blum says he "quickly organized a meeting with Kienholz, who was desperate to get out of the gallery and spend more time in the studio. We agreed on a price of $500 for me to buy into the gallery--for nothing, there was no inventory--and Walter and I became partners."

In 1958, Hopps and Blum moved the gallery to a better space across the street, and, says Bengston, "Irving's passion and Walter's erudition were a hard act to resist." When Hopps left Ferus in 1962 for a curatorship at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), Blum took over the directorship on his own. With financial help from Los Angeles patron Sayde Moss, who became a silent partner, Blum began to move Ferus away from what was essentially a boy's club to a business.

He began adding New York artists, particularly those "who fell through the cracks. From being in New York in the '50s, I was familiar with Josef Albers, for instance, and thought he was enormously overlooked and cheap. I could buy his work with very little money. Cornell boxes were $500--now they're half a million and up."

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