From its humble origins as a commercial enterprise up and through the mid-'50s, art was always associated with one main locale - New York. Sure, the Europeans had their bastions of consensus classicism - Paris, Florence, Barcelona - but when it came to the new frontiers in Western works, Manhattan's snobbish boutiques were the place to be. Of course, this made creators from other parts of the country seem shallow and unimportant, their lack of Big Apple kudos sealing their critical fate. But all that changed when the Ferus Gallery opened in Los Angeles. Stealing some of the spotlight from aesthetic state neighbor San Francisco, this experiment in expression provided a port of call for a budding Left Coast unconventionality. Now, a new documentary on this Cool School of artistic thought illustrates just how important the simplistic storefront was to both those who filled its walls - and those inspired by what they saw.
To ex-medical student Walter Hopps, art was everything. It was the air he breathed. It was the sustenance that nurtured him. It was the philosophy he lived by. And when he met radical sculptor Ed Kienholz and saw the surreal "found object" works he created, he knew it would be his life's work. Creating the Ferus Gallery out of a small commercial space off the beaten path, he gathered together many of California's most radical and exciting artisans. Soon, the stable of talent included Allen Lynch, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John Altoon, and Wallace Berman (among others). Even with all this outsized imagination and invention, the gallery struggled for an image and identity. Then the slick, suave - and somewhat shady - Irving Blum came along. Partnering with Hopps, he turned the floundering enterprise into a celebrated haute happening. Of course, celebrity came at a cost, and soon the principles upon which Ferus was founded were being undermined. After a little less than a decade after it began - 1957 to 1966 - Hopps was out and Blum took the name to New York, where it slowly faded away. Until now.
One of the best facets of the documentary form is that it can introduce a viewer to individuals and ideas that you normally would never know about. Take Walter Hopps, Irving Blum, and LA's Ferus Gallery. Without this amazing film by Morgan Neville, few would have known about this influential enterprise, the stellar talent who fueled it, and the two men who made marketing and maintaining it their life's work. Thanks to some incredible archival footage, intimate access to those still living who were part of the studio's sensibility, and an inherently intriguing premise, Neville warps us back in time. It's a trip through ego and enlightenment, snobbery and an almost slapstick disrespect for all things non-New York. One of the best sequences in Cool School deals with this 'us vs. them' clash, a prominent Manhattan dealer stating unequivocally that, if it's outside the East's sphere of influence, it's junk. He is particularly harsh on Kienholz. A goateed giant with a matching appetite for life, this dumpster diving genius used garbage and other discarded materials to make the kind of social comments that the radicalized '60s would incorporate as their own. Here, he is often the source of spite or outright ridicule.
Blum is also an intriguing character, the quasi-villain to all the heroes honing their craft. Though he is around to speak for himself, Cool School tends to paint him as an opportunist and fame whore. He takes up where Hopps left off, pushing Ferus more into the direction of commerciality, trying to make the gallery as viable financially as it was aesthetically. He even ends up stealing his partner's wife (something that even in light of the era comes across as rather crass). It's Blum's incorporation of the New York scene (Ferus featured the first West Coast shows for Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein) that many inside see as the ultimate betrayal. Instead of letting his own artists stand for themselves, such a strategy suggested that LA needed New York to seem viable. In fact, the mainstreaming of the abstract expressionists along with the growing disdain/acceptance of pop flew directly in the face of the more original Ferus vision. From fascinating glass cubes to works based in words, the group collected by Hopps was more than revolutionary. They were literally redefining expression (and its reception) for the rest of the 20th century.
As a film, Cool School is the liveliest of history lessons. It's fun to watch devotees like Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell show off their abject admiration, and with the exception of Kienholz (who died in 1994), most everyone else is available for added substance. Neville doesn't try to dress up his narrative. We don't get the standard hippy dippy montages meant to showcase the coming of the peaceniks. Instead, we follow the insular landscapes created by the Ferus gang - canvases crying out for acknowledgment as aging faces remember the difficulties that drove such ideas. The archival footage is very bohemian, monochrome memories of a time when people smoked pipes, played bongos, and walked around like street people - shirtless and unencumbered. In fact, one could argue that the "Cool School" itself marked the moment when art finally went wholly for profit, when ability could be matched to marketing to get everyday Joes to pay attention. Aside from all the amazing artworks on display, the recognition of this important business model moment may just be this film's lasting impact and import. It adds a layer of wonder that supports Cool School's ultimate resonance.
Offered up by Arthouse Films and Curiously Bright Entertainment, the technical aspects of The Cool School are rock solid. This is a polished DVD, the 1.33:1 full screen image loaded with sharp whites and deep blacks. The transfer does revert to color toward the end, and it is a little disconcerting. After all, we find ourselves lost in the dramatic flair of the old look visuals. Once the blue of the sky and the gray of the beards become apparent, the film looses some of its edge.
Employing a mock rock soundtrack meant to mimic the particular eras without resulting in sizable rights issues, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is quite good. The dialogue is easily discernible, the ambient elements expertly placed in the proper background position. While it would have been nice to hear the actual Byrds vs. their generic, public domain substitute, the aural aspects of this release are perfectly acceptable.
There are three main bonus features here, each one adding necessary context to the decidedly dense story being told. Walter Hopps on "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps" by Ed Kienholz offers the Ferus founder defending an artwork based on himself. The World of Ed Kienholz shows the agent provocateur working on a sculpture of a TV host while being interviewed, and the Ferus Artists Reunion is an extended look at the moment in the movie when most of the living members of the gallery return to participate in a little rarified reminiscence. All three extras provide an additional half hour of insight into how these men turned the tide of West Coast aesthetics from afterthought to forerunner.
Though some might find fault with the lack of narrative clarification (we do get quite a few names and acknowledgements thrown at us in rapid succession) and others may wince at the notion of Blum's veiled vilification, The Cool School is still a wonderful and informative documentary. Though far from perfect, it definitely deserves a Highly Recommended rating. It seems strangely apropos for the Ferus storyline to end the way it does here. Without spoiling a last act twist, the individuals least instrumental in forming the creative collective are the ones left legitimizing its legacy. And as with any myth, the line between fact and fantasy is also blurred beyond recognition. One thing is true, however. Without the foresight of men like Hopps, Kienholz, and Blum, California artists may have never battled bravely alongside their East Coast brethren. As this fine film suggests, it remains an uneasy but necessary truce at best.