Independent Lens: The Cool School

Art offers the possibility of love with strangers.

— Walter Hopps

Change in an instant,

The days change at night.

— X, “Los Angeles”

“Even though we didn’t have enough evidence,” says Robert Irwin, “We were completely confident that we were on the right track and that everyone else was full of shit.” Irwin and his fellow egoists were artists in Los Angeles during the 1950s and ’60s. Ever aware that they were not in New York, the mecca of the self-regarding art world, or even in San Francisco, where the Beats congregated, the southern California artists developed their own sorts of groundbreaking work and complex mix of attitudes — ranging from rebellious to defensive, innovative to their own version of “macho.”

Their erratic efforts to create an art world of their own are tracked in Morgan Neville’s The Cool School, a 60-minute version of which is airing 10 June on PBS’ Independent Lens. When artists like John Baldesarri and David Lafaille see their environment as lacking history — at least in the sense that New York artists had “history” to confront and reject — the documentary takes them at their word, suggesting only that post-WWII “renegades” embraced LA’s “ugly boulevards” and “automobile graveyards,” the impermanent surfacey stuff the city churned out reflexively. In bed with the movie business, and so, pop by definition, LA rewarded self-performance and artifice, forward motion and consumption. As phrased by Ed Bereal (the film’s only black figure, who speaks only once), the LA scene “dumped on New York and New York ends up dumping on LA, and all of a sudden, it’s there! The lights are on the camera’s rolling, the sound is cool, and somebody says, ‘Okay guys, you’re on!'”

The film does not take up such grand vision or sense of urgency in its own format, which is mostly conventional — talking heads (rendered in black and white until film’s end, when a shift in circumstance brings the story into the present), zooms into and out from archival photos, snippets of found interviews when the artists were young and cocky. In juggling style and substance, the film reveals the tensions inherent in art as a profession.

These become clear in the observations by and of Walter Hopps, founder of the Ferus Gallery, where many LA artists found one another and shared ideas, stories, and long nights. Here they felt part of a group even as they endeavored to achieve their individual reputations, sought creative freedom while hoping as well to make a living. Hopps, who founded the gallery with the installation artist Ed Kienholz (1927-1994), appears repeatedly striking a kind of “cool” pose, cigarette smoke wafting from below his frame, carefully choosing his words, rehearsing his multifaceted career and exceptional energies (a particularly striking effect in this black and white shot has his cigarette tip burning orange). “I got started,” he says, “Because in my generation, there were very few who were even responding to the art I was interested in.”

Deciding he wanted to show abstract expressionists in LA, Hopps went to work building a scene, assembling the necessary “pieces” — artists, galleries, critics, museums, and collectors — in order to start circulating ideas and money, even if only among the artists invested in the process. In order to create such a world, he brings in Irving Blum as curator and gallery director. At once affected and smart (several speakers remember how much he sounded like Cary Grant), Blum brings some measure of order to the group, organizing shows, fundraising, and selling art. Hopps complains later in the film when the Ferus began to turn a profit and attract celebrities, Blum “suddenly realized there’s money to be made in all this,” using the familiar argument against him, that art sold is art sold out. (Their falling out is laced through with multiple sorts of betrayals, with one being extremely personal, as one interviewee notes, almost as an afterthought: “Irving married Walter’s wife and I think you’re gonna have a little trouble there.”)

As it focuses on Hopps’ role in the scene (Dennis Hopper, cigar in hand, says, “He’s the engine everybody’s riding on”), the film makes other gestures, resisting in-depth discussion of most points it raises. While some artists note in passing their formal influences (“All the artists were interested in jazz during that period,” insists Craig Kauffman), other participants reflect on style (Vivian Rowan, one of only two women interviewees, both identified as “ex-wives”: “What caused them to be so macho was probably that they didn’t have much control over anything, their careers or their lives, but they could control what was immediately around them and boy, did they”). Still other observers lament late contributors (Frank Gehry, who hung out with the artists because they were “friendly” and the architecture world was not, says John Altoon’s drawings “were just like nervous energy, the most direct from mind to hand to thing I’ve ever seen, with no filtration in between, nothing”). These sorts of comments are at once irrelevant and fascinating, but the film doesn’t pull them together into an analysis of what formed the cool school. It’s great to see the artists talking with and about one another, but they don’t offer much detail about the art. You’re left to wonder, what makes it so obviously, so perversely, and so exhilaratingly LA?

One of the few speakers to articulate this notion is Shirley Neilson Hopps, whose idiosyncratic and poetic description does the art some complex justice. “What I think Los Angeles brought to the art community was a new sense of light,” she says.

If you’re raised in Southern California, you know it’s a city of light and air and reflection and scintillation of surface. And what happened is that they began to play with qualities of perception. Instead of it being what the impressionists tried to do, which was to see the effect of color on light, light itself became a palpable experience of the object itself.

Her explanation is illustrated in a series of paintings and collagey artworks, and augmented by brief narratives of “process” by a couple of artists. (Larry Bell recalls, “I’d stick a piece of glass into one of these things and it looked great. Then I eliminated the canvas and just went to the glass.”) In these moments, The Cool School is energized, its imagery and storytelling of a piece. When it lapses into the story of how commerce trumped art, it’s revisiting familiar ground. Billy Al Bengston mourns the loss of the Ferus, or more precisely, the moment enshrined in the film: “I thought all of us artists were brothers, you know, and we were going to elevate art or something to the highest level. He sighs, surrounded by gallery light. “And it took me quite a few years to realize that all’s we were was whores and Irving was the pimp.” Even this sad clich√© doesn’t stem the film’s general sense that the art, conceived and nurtured in a community, and a delight in rebelliousness, however illusory, made the Ferus special, exhilarating, and even illuminating, for a time.

RATING 6 / 10