L.A. Art Icons Remember Tina Turner, Lenny Bruce and Warhol's Cans
'Cool School' alumni Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston and Larry Bell gather to recall the city's art scene in the early 1960s.
It was mainly “Cool School” reminiscences of the Ferus days when founding fathers of the L.A. art scene Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha sat down for a chat with art historian Hunter Drohojowski-Philp at the Broad Stage on Jan. 18. Robert Irwin shared billing but, due to back pain, didn't make it to the event. And dearly departed like-minded modernists like John Altoon, Craig Kauffman and Ed Kienholz joined the gang only in spirit.
From 1957 through 1966, the Ferus Gallery, founded by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz in West Hollywood, was the center of a brash school of young artists. Working in isolation from the markets and modes of New York and Europe, they pushed the envelope with new concepts and new materials based on burgeoning automotive and aerospace industries.
“It’s almost impossible to remember how frugal it all was,” sighed Ruscha, a world-renowned artist who had his first one-man show at Ferus in 1963. “All my friends at this point made art that would blow your hair back and had fun doing it. But the idea of having a vocation and making a living at it was nonexistent. That’s just stuff that happened by accident. There were very few art collectors.”
Among the few was Dennis Hopper, who purchased Ruscha’s classic, “Standard Station,” the artist’s first sale. “I always felt like the movie industry, why wouldn’t they get our message?” wondered Ruscha. “We were able to get their message, but they never really got our message. It’s all changed today and it seems like the movie industry is interested, in general, in the art world.”
Vincent Price was a regular at the gallery, and Edward G. Robinson, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were visitors. Moses dated Marilyn Monroe before she became a star, and Bengston danced with Tina Turner at a club on Sunset Strip. “It’s intimidating,” he confided to the sold-out crowd. “I was afraid she was going to step on me with one of those big shoes.”
Sculptor Larry Bell recalled the time he closed for Lenny Bruce at the Unicorn Club in Hollywood. Bell is mostly deaf and chose to play a 12-string guitar because he couldn’t hear a six-string. When Bruce wouldn’t leave the stage after a three-hour set, the manager dragged him off, but the audience remained. So the manager asked Bell if he had his guitar with him. “He said, ‘Do a set.’ After the first song there was no one, the place was empty.”
Inch by inch, the outer art world crept into Los Angeles. In 1963, Hopps curated Marcel Duchamp's first career retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. And a year earlier, Ferus was the first commercial gallery to show Andy Warhol’s work. Moses recalled finding all the Campbell Soup cans disorienting. “Your immediate take was, 'I’m in the wrong place,' 'cause it didn’t look like an art gallery.”
Bell: “What’d it look like, a soup store?”
Ruscha: “Prices were outrageous.”
Bengston: “Twenty-five bucks a piece.”
Ruscha: “Fifty, you’re thinking about net to the artist.”
“They were $100 a piece,” interjected legendary art dealer Irving Blum, who happened to be in the audience. After the first year of Ferus, Blum took over for Kienholz, who chose to focus on his art, and co-managed with Hopps, putting the gallery on a more solid financial footing. “Andy would get half of that. We’d get the rest.”
Ranging from 78 to 90 years old, the Ferus guys remain active. Bell will be part of this Spring’s Whitney Biennial. Moses@90 is a touring retrospective of Moses' work, and he’s always producing new canvases. Just back from Hawaii, Bengston is sitting on a trove of works that have never been seen before. Ruscha showed new works at Gagosian, London, in fall 2016 and is on the board of directors of the new Coachella Art Biennial, Desert X, to coincide with the music festival in April. “I’ve been doing it for so long that I forget why I’m doing it,” he shook his head.
Moses agreed: “I never know what I’m doing or where I’m going. But I like getting up every morning and walking out to my studio and pulling canvas out and putting it on the floor and drawing on it.”