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The Exhibitionists of Ferus Gallery

In the 1960s, a constellation of artists and a little-known LA gallery created a brand of West Coast cool that’s only improved with age

  • Messrs Warhol, Blum (in background), Al Bengston and Hopper at the Duchamp exhibition opening, the Pasadena Art Museum, LA, October 1963 Julian Wasser

Long before the frenzy of Art Basel and Frieze, before the amped-up swagger of Messrs Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami and the flood of hot, new money into contemporary art, pop was a much cooler affair. It was cool in New York, where Messrs Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol gave abstract expressionism the polite but unmistakable finger. But it was really cool on the bleached-out sidewalk of North La Cienega Boulevard outside a sparse little gallery called Ferus.

Every Monday night, the painters and sculptors who made up what could barely be called the “Los Angeles art scene” gathered to drink and smoke and wonder if the patrons and critics of New York would ever pay them much attention. A hyperactive young actor named Mr Dennis Hopper darted through the crowd, snapping pictures with his Nikon 35mm: pictures of Hollywood actresses such as his wife, Ms Brooke Hayward, and artists such as Messrs Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston – barely out of art school – surprised by Mr Hopper’s intruding lens. Overseeing the whole production was a young dealer from New York, Mr Irving Blum, all but broke, but beautifully dressed, charming and eager to make it.

Mr Ruscha, whose paintings of gas stations would one day line the walls of the world’s major art museums, said Ferus was like a jazz catalogue, with different artists on the same label not limited by a house style, all allowed to express themselves. Mr Bengston, a moustached motorcycle-riding painter-sculptor who lived out at the beach in Venice, called it a “macho intellectual gang bang”, a place “to strut your stuff and yourself. It was more important to be an artist than to be successful because, being an artist, there was no chance to be successful.”

  • Clockwise from top left: artists Messrs Al Bengston, Blum, Moses and Altoon outside Ferus Gallery, LA, 1959 William Claxton/ Demont Photo Management

Just as there was no one artistic style that epitomised their work, the young painters all had their own accidentally chic dress codes that half a century later look remarkably cool and au courant. Whether it is Mr Bengston’s biker leather and denim, Mr Ruscha’s gingham-check grandad-collar shirt or conceptual artist Mr Neil Irwin’s long-sleeved baseball T-shirts and grey sweatshirts.

The Ferus Gallery had been opened in 1957 by the curator Mr Walter Hopps and the artist Mr Edward Kienholz in a room behind an antiques store. For all the cultural sway of Hollywood, Los Angeles was irrelevant to American painting and sculpture. The action was all in New York and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco. Mr Blum had grown up in Arizona and after a few years working for Knoll Associates in New York, he missed the weather back west. He had developed a love for contemporary art from visiting the galleries in Manhattan, but hadn’t the money to open his own there. Los Angeles was cheaper and so far undiscovered by art dealers.

Three months after Ferus opened, Mr Blum walked in. Mr Kienholz was bored of sitting around a gallery. Ferus had scarcely any clients, though the best was the actor Mr Vincent Price. Mr Kienholz sold his interest to Mr Blum for $500. Over the next few years, Mr Blum moved Los Angeles from the fringes of the art world to its blazing-hot centre. Mr Hopps brought the erudition, but Mr Blum brought the savvy and showmanship to Ferus. With his buzz cut and bespoke suits, he dressed like a mod and partied like the best Hollywood producers. He used Mr Hopper’s photographs to promote Ferus as a place for gorgeous young Hollywood to slum it with paint-spattered young artists, still reeking of turpentine as they necked their six o’clock beer. After LAPD officers arrested and charged artist Mr Wallace Berman with obscenity over his artwork (and the gallery was temporarily closed), it only heightened the cool factor.

  • Mr Berman (crouching) and other artists examine Mr Wally Hedrick’s “Sunflower” during the LAPD obscenity arrest, Ferus Gallery, LA, 1957 Charles Brittin/ The Getty Research Institute/ Hedrick: Private Collection/ © Wally Hedrick Estate

Ferus spawned its own styles, the Finish Fetish artists who covered their works with gleaming resins, plastics and glass, and the Light and Space school, which began in Southern California in the early 1960s and has reached its apogee with the spectacular works of Mr James Turrell. Mr Ruscha had his first solo show at Ferus in 1963, revealing strong graphic works such as “Oof” and “Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights”. These helped define the art of Los Angeles and root it in the city’s unique visual culture.

Mr Blum was born in 1930 and was much closer to his artists’ ages, temperaments and ambitions than the wizened Europhiles who ruled in New York. He didn’t just give them shows and connect them with collectors. He gave them a great time. As well as promoting Californian artists, he showed the New York artists whom he felt were overlooked or forgotten, such as the Bauhaus professor-turned-painter Mr Josef Albers and the assemblage artist/ surrealist film-maker Mr Joseph Cornell. Or those in need of West Coast exposure, such as Messrs Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Roy Lichtenstein. He became the West Coast channel for Mr Leo Castelli, then the leading contemporary art dealer in New York.

That Mr Warhol – the quintessential New Yorker – should have his first one-man show in Los Angeles was testament to Mr Blum’s taste and persuasive powers. Mr Warhol and Mr Blum had met in 1961. Mr Blum had been charmed but baffled by Mr Warhol’s eccentricity. A few months later, they met again in Mr Warhol’s studio and Mr Blum saw he had painted six canvases, each showing a different flavour of Campbell’s soup. Mr Warhol explained he wanted to paint all of Campbell’s 32 flavours. Mr Blum felt the idea had potential and offered a summer show. When the paintings arrived, he decided to show them side by side on a shelf running round the gallery, as if the cans were in a grocery store. When he saw them laid out like that, Mr Blum sensed their value as a set and bought them for $1,000. Mr Warhol agreed to accept payment in 10 monthly instalments.

  • Mr Blum on the Ferus Gallery boat with Ms Peggy Moffitt and others, LA, 1962 William Claxton/ Demont Photo Management

By 1967, Mr Blum had tired of the financial strain of running a gallery in a town whose collectors would still rather buy a third-rate impressionist than a new American artist. He closed Ferus and moved back to New York. Artforum magazine, which had moved from San Francisco in 1965 to be in offices directly above Ferus, followed him. In 1996, Mr Blum sold his set of 32 Mr Warhol soup cans to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for $15m – discounted as a philanthropic gesture. That bit of Ferus now hangs on a museum wall. Meanwhile, Ferus style is very much alive on the streets.

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