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Galleries fostered the L.A. art scene

Ferus is best known, but there were several others. Does the Getty's Pacific Standard Time underestimate their role?

January 01, 2012|Scott Timberg
  • Ferus Gallery opened in 1957 and showed work by artists including Craig Kauffman and Wallace Berman before closing in late 1966.
Ferus Gallery opened in 1957 and showed work by artists including Craig… (The J. Paul Getty Trust )

It's hard to imagine now. But one fact about the early years of the post-World War II art scene in Los Angeles that has been brought into focus by the Pacific Standard Time initiative is that there was no real art museum in what was becoming the nation's second largest city.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 05, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Art galleries: In the Jan. 1 Arts & Books section, the caption for a photograph with an article about influential Los Angeles art gallery owners during the years covered by the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions misidentified a woman at Henry Miller's opening at Gallery 669 as Riko Mizuno. She was Junko Kawai.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 06, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Art galleries: An article in the Jan. 1 Arts & Books section about the role of gallery owners in Los Angeles' postwar art scene misspelled the last name of Ace Gallery owner Doug Chrismas as Christmas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 08, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Art galleries: A caption that ran Jan. 1 under a photograph with an article about influential Los Angeles art gallery owners during the years covered by the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions misidentified a woman at Henry Miller's opening at Gallery 669 as Riko Mizuno. She was Junko Kawai. Also, Ace Gallery owner Doug Chrismas' last name was misspelled as Christmas.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art did not exist as a separate entity until it opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1965. The Museum of Contemporary Art's Grand Avenue location was years away.

Much of the energy, then, in the city's art scene in the 1945 to 1980 stretch came from private collectors, artists' collectives, print shops, art schools and especially from commercial galleries.

A handful are talked about with the most conviction. "When you look back at a mountain range you've come through, you can see the big peaks, but not the smaller peaks, or the valleys, or the flatlands in between," says art critic Peter Plagens, the author of "Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970."

He's talking about the Ferus Gallery, arguably the era's steepest peak.

Ferus -- which must by now be the best-chronicled gallery in the history of the region -- was arguably the first Southland art space that tapped into the art world's currents and channeled them in new ways. At the time, Los Angeles was provincial compared to Eastern cities or San Francisco, and the city's art world was small and not terribly distinctive. Abstract art was a shock to many, and though some galleries concentrated on, say, Austrian expressionism or French painting, there was not much sense of a Los Angeles school.

When curator Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz opened Ferus in 1957, there was nothing like it along La Cienega Boulevard or, perhaps, in the rest of the country. "The dominant style in New York, and around the world, was second-generation Abstract Expressionism," recalls the space's former director, Irving Blum, who took over from Kienholz a few months later. (Hopps later moved to the Pasadena Museum of Art.)

"In Spain, France, everywhere -- pale copies of what was going on in New York," Blum says. "The New York artists had angst and ambition -- the West Coast people had neither."

But along with a scandalous show by the monastic artist Wallace Berman, which ended with his arrest for obscenity, and shows by the more extroverted Billy Al Bengston and Craig Kauffman, Ferus injected energy into the scene with Andy Warhol's first-ever solo show. Warhol's appearance helped galvanize a sense that Los Angeles -- a new city, steeped in popular culture and shiny materials like plastic -- could become a pop art capital. And the careers of major figures such as the deadpan Ed Ruscha developed with Ferus as a showplace.

Finish Fetish -- a style that emphasized gleaming surfaces -- and Light and Space -- art about perception -- were other Ferus-bred styles that allowed L.A. to distinguish itself from the rest of the art world.

And Ferus' artists -- as chronicled in the engaging 2008 documentary "The Cool School" -- were cocky and charismatic. Its stable, critic John Coplans wrote in Art in America, was marked by "an aggressive and high-spirited arrogance that only young and talented men could have."

Blum thinks the Getty-funded extravaganza has overlooked the galleries. "The lack of emphasis on Ferus, Virginia Dwan's gallery, Felix Landau, Nick Wilder and others in Pacific Standard Time is pitiful," he says. "I've been virtually completely ignored. The Getty is very busy saluting its own achievement. We all did very important work for the period they're trying to document."

The Getty does include some text and photographs of Ferus and other galleries in its PST catalog, particularly in the chapter "For People Who Know the Difference: Defining the Pop Art Sixties." Several exhibitions -- including the Getty Research Institute's "Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950-1980" -- consider galleries, a crucial part of building a contemporary art scene in a city with a younger, more fragile art infrastructure than traditional art capitals.

Near the end of the gallery's run, LACMA -- previously just part of what is now the Natural History Museum -- opened on Wilshire. The museum put on important exhibitions -- including one of Kienholz assemblages nearly shut down by the county. But the institution saw itself as encyclopedic, not an art space devoted to contemporary West Coast figures.

Plagens recalls "tremendous dissatisfaction" with the new LACMA and its contemporary curator, Maurice Tuchman, who was considered to be in thrall to New York and its critical schools. "There were meetings in artists' studios and lofts, with trustees," he says. "But Maurice could not be gotten rid of." Various artists groups and spaces, among them the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, of which Plagens was a member, were founded out of this frustration.

LACMA's initial effect on what was happening on La Cienega's gallery row, Blum says, was "not much."

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