Ferus by Roberta Bernstein & Kirk Varnedoe

Los Angeles, California is not generally thought of for its art, or at least not for its art world. Indeed, rather than art, Los Angeles is about the cultures of movies, kustom kars, surfers, rock bands, rappers, bikers, and cults. Between the extremes of a fascist Chamber of Commerce, a notoriously violent police, and a slate of fringe subcultures seeking utopia in the sun, it makes sense that the reflective, inward-looking intellectual cliques incubated in the cramped streets of Paris and New York would find it hard to take root in a horizontal land of strip malls and hot dog stands.

For all the myths of lone geniuses, developments in the forms of art actually happen in small, intense groups that together find collective focus and provoke a resonance to speak the languages of art in new ways. Such groups provide the indispensable contexts necessary to first create and then understand new developments in art, and so both informal and formal institutions are the powerful ground on which artist heroes stand. Without them, there are dozens of famous names we would never hear about because those artists, including famous names like Pollock and Warhol, couldn’t have worked it all out alone. Though few outside of the art world ever suspect this, as artists themselves aren’t generally giving away much credit for works that actually demanded the nurture of community.

New York had that nurture, with the power of its art bars like the Cedar, museums, famous dealers like Ivan Karp and Mary Boone, and a network of wealthy collectors to keep the artists fed. In contrast, LA in the 1950s was a vast cultural wasteland, at least for serious painters in particular. Ferus Gallery would change that, and the institutional power of its founder Walter Hopps, along with his suave marketer Irving Blum, focused the West Coast art scene of the ’50s and ’60s, defining a clique, and making art stars and fortunes.

Walter Hopps and Irving Blum at first seem utterly antithetical. Hopps was an earnest, be-speckled young man majoring in Bio-Chemistry but sidetracked into art when he met Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art famous for his Fountain and Bicycle Wheel ready-mades. Fiercely intellectual, serious, soft-spoken, and as eccentric as obsessive, Hopps turned his fascination with Duchamp into a hunger to find the most interesting artists around him in LA.

Remarkably, he did just this, becoming a link between some 70 West Cost figures in the late ’50s. With assemblage master-sculptor Ed Kienholz, Hopps founded the Ferus gallery in 1957, but it was less a commercial enterprise than a kind of beatnik happening, with dozens of artists showing their work, lounging around at all hours, and generally scaring off the rich patrons that are, for better of worse, the lifeblood of fine arts.

Together Hopps and Kienholz provided LA painters a focus, bringing together the West Coast Abstract Expressionists into a community, and more or less pulling together the best energies of the Venice Beach bohemian scene into one space. This is no small accomplishment, and it was crucial if these isolated artists were to develop an LA style to compete with New York and find collectors and curators to first keep them fed and later make them rich. Hopps seemed to have a kind of antennae for the energy of art, and artists themselves respected his keen understanding of their own difficult abstraction.

Hopps, however, was no salesman, more often than not making would-be buyers nervous. One day, Irving Blum wandered into Ferus. Fashionably dressed, suave as Cary Grant, and shepherding a few wealthy people through the LA Art scene, he took them through Ferus like he owned it. Hopps felt the potential and the energy, pulled him aside, and began a partnership that would make Ferus an institution.

Blum put his mark on Ferus. From a roster of ’70 artists, he whittled it down to 12, among them Ed Kienholz, Billy Bengston, Jay DeFeo, John Altoon, Ed Moses, Hassel Smith, Bruce Connor, and Ed Ruscha. He moved the gallery across the street to a clean beatnik-free zone, put his background in Modernist severity to work with the minimalist decor and iconic Ferus sign, and began courting the rich. Blum wasn’t yet rich himself, but he strived to seem so.

He contrived terrific publicity stunts, like having himself photographed with beautiful models on the “Ferus” yacht, or being photographed in front of a conveniently parked Rolls Royce, and amazingly it worked. He began to sell, and between his smoothness and Hopps’ work as a teacher and scout, the gallery began to flourish. One key move was to bring the best of New York to LA, and thus put West Coast art on a level with the East Coast establishment.

It was this combination of insight and hustle that one-up’d New York itself when Ferus gave Andy Warhol his first one-man show and introduced his soup cans to the world. Ferus would end up making art stars of Ed Kienholz, Billy Bengston, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Ken Price, and more. Blum was the taste maker, finding the money, softening up the marks, and Hopps provided the education, explaining the contexts of the work, the connections to modernism, the avant-garde, and abstract expressionism. Eventually, Hopps would leave Ferus to become one of the most important curators in America, putting up shows that framed the meaning of modernism. Blum would go on to make stars and amass one of the finest personal collections of Pop art in the world.

The story of Ferus is exciting, seductive, and instructive. It gives a deeper context to understanding American art, and to understanding art in LA in particular. The trouble is, that the story I’ve just told I learned from an entirely different book, now long out of print, entitled,The Last Time I Saw Ferus, and even more from the fantastic 2008 documentary The Cool School, directed by Morgan Neville. Indeed, The Cool School is remarkable for its range of interviews, including Ferus scenester and artist Dennis Hopper. The book under review here, Ferus, assumes that you already know this story. While it reproduces many of Hopper’s photographs, they are without context of his, or indeed anyone’s, comments.

Throughout, Ferus is light on copy, providing exactly one interview with Irving Blum and one essay about Warhol’s soup cans. While Roberta Bernstein’s interview is very good, a reader new to Ferus would think that Blum was the only mover behind the gallery, would miss the role of Venice Beach bohemia entirely, and would find no context whatsoever to understand the art so lovingly reproduced in a series of gorgeous color plates.

Similarly, it is an odd choice to highlight Warhol in the only essay. Ferus may have scooped New York with that first show, and Kirk Varnedoe’s essay is great, but Ferus was really a West Coast phenomena. Surely we don’t need to read yet another full-length essay on Warhol when so many great West Coast artists, from the disturbing work of Kienholz to playful Ed Ruscha’s distinctly California pop art aren’t nearly as well known or commented upon. Indeed, what made Ferus special was its ability to find and help define California pop art, with the bright colors of kustom kars and surf culture, junk yards, and freeways, and while the color plates show us this work, the book says nothing about it.

Instead of the kind of comprehensive curatorial essay contextualizing and explaining the work it reproduces, the book makes the worst mistake of art world insiders, assuming that list of unadorned, unexplained names tells a story. In place of that essay, the reader is given a timeline. To those who lived it or study it, the names on that line do tell a story, but only to those already initiated. For the new reader, the book is simply unreadable, indeed, there isn’t much too read! The book gives short, turgid summaries of individual artists, and then reproduces a few representative works. This writing is equally useless to both experts and those new to West Cost art.

The book would have benefited from better essays that would tie all the work together. That is, ironically, exactly the problem of context and understanding to which both Hopps and Blum devoted their lives. The heart of their story is the struggle to find and then understand the newest energies in art, and then to find ways to make that art important and understandable to people outside its small world. While they were widely successful in that endeavor, this book is not.

While the story of Ferus needs to be told, while its artists are exciting, and its institutional figures profound in their influence, this book is not the place to start. Perhaps the forthcoming catalogue, The Ferus Gallery: A Place to Begin will live up to its title. In the meantime, interested readers would do well to screen The Cool School.

RATING 5 / 10