Legends of the Early L.A. Art Scene to Hold Rare Reunion

© The Dennis Hopper Trust, 2011

Ahead of a talk featuring Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin and others — sponsored by The Broad Stage and Sotheby's Institute of Art — veterans of the Ferus Gallery recall the early days of the L.A. art scene and the new administration's possible threat to free speech.

In the mid-1950s, art impresarios Walter Hopps and Jim Newman were on a cross-country road trip to L.A., where they would open an art gallery. Along the way, they accidentally hit and killed a man who was crossing the street. “His name was Ferus,” recalls artist Ed Moses. “So that’s why they named the gallery the Ferus Gallery.”

It opened on La Cienega Boulevard in 1957, establishing the roots of a contemporary art scene with a core of brash young local artists like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Ed Moses and Robert Irwin. L.A. Legends: A Conversation With California Art Icons at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, on Jan. 18, will bring the artists together for a chat with art journalist Hunter Drohojowska-Philp about the mid-century origins of the L.A. scene, and a legacy that has spawned the city’s current art boom.

When they talked to The Hollywood Reporter in the days leading up to the event, the artists shared fond memories of the old days, but also concerns about free speech under the upcoming Trump administration.

As for his opinion on the president-elect, Moses put it tactfully: “We’re less than satisfied that he even exists.” Bengston put it bluntly: “I would like something in reaction to that asshole.” And Bell mixed hope with fear: “I’ve been disappointed more than once in an election, but I’ve never had any apprehension about it,” he sighs, yet he thinks the polarizing new president might have a positive impact on the arts community. “The things that inspire artists to be spontaneous, intuitive and improvisational come from a lot of different sources. And the general malaise is also a potential inspiration.”

Although they came of age amid the sociopolitical turmoil of the 1960s, none are considered political artists. Before the fame and money, they all were struggling to make ends meet, hanging out at Barney’s Beanery, across the street from the Ferus Gallery. “There was lots of beers, too many, and Kienholz was the one who had too many,” says Bengston of artist and Ferus co-founder Ed Kienholz, whose 1965 installation, “The Beanery,” is inspired by the restaurant.

“We were really close and we competed and chased the same girls,” recalls Moses, whose early graphite markings evolved into gridded canvases over the decades. He was the group’s top lady-killer (dating Marilyn Monroe), rivaled only by John Altoon. “He had a fantastic imagination and presence,” Moses said of Altoon. “He could talk to girls like no guys could and get away with it.”

Bengston was known for artwork using industrial paints and materials associated with two items close to his heart — motorcycles and surfboards. “Finish Fetish,” just one of several popular genres originating from Ferus, employed industrial resin, paints and plastics to achieve pristine textures.

Bell used various coatings on his glass cubes in order to alter their reflective and absorptive qualities, straddling the line between “Finish Fetish” and “Light and Space,” a genre that sculpted with light and shadow, a specialty of fellow Ferus artists Irwin and Craig Kauffman.

Ferus was the first gallery in the West to show Andy Warhol’s Campbell's Soup Cans, which thrilled the L.A. artists even as it served as a stark reminder that they were a long way from the action. While it might have seemed a liability at the time, such isolation played a large part in their unique methodology, uninfluenced by the modes and markets of New York and Europe.

“We were thinking in terms of New York, of course. And we thought we were better than the New York artists, and of course they thought they were tops,” shrugs Moses. “[Claes] Oldenburg and [Robert] Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all part of that first wave in New York and we knew them. They would come out from time to time and we would get together and tell lies with them.”

Today, Bell works mainly out of his space in Taos, N.M., though he keeps a studio in Venice. Bengston works in Venice, and Moses has a two-lot compound there. Ruscha, who was forced out of his Santa Monica studio in 2011, now owns a space in Culver City. Ferus Gallery closed in 1966, and these days there’s not a lot of time left for chasing girls and downing pints at the Beanery.

“It seems to me the buoyancy of the alleged markets has turned everybody into commercial rats,” Bengston jokes of his old friends and the newfound prosperity in the art markets.

“Chance and circumstance calls all the shots,” sighs Moses. At the age of 90, he still works the same rigorous schedule he did in the '60s. “It was really something, but it’s only a memory now.”