The Cool School (2008); Dir. Morgan Neville

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Last night I went to see The Cool School, a documentary about the LA modern art scene (which was pretty near non-existent) in the 50s and 60s. And a group of artists, mostly male – it was a very macho atmosphere – created a “scene” from scratch. The Cool School examines how this happened. There were a couple of key figures – Irving Blum, Walter Hopps – they were the visionaries, the ones who made it happen. They were facilitators. They worked on multiple levels: they knew they had to give space to the artists, and have great shows, great publicity – but they also needed to cultivate the collectors, or potential collectors – who might be living in the Los Angeles area at that time. One doesn’t need to cultivate collectors in a city like New York City, or Paris. The collectors are already there. But Los Angeles in the 50s was a wasteland, artistically – at least in terms of an art scene. Los Angeles is a one-industry town, and it was difficult to get any support or recognition if you were not in the film business. New York had no interest in what was going on in Los Angeles, and the major national magazines, like Newsweek, didn’t have art sections – so if you lived in Los Angeles, and you loved art – you were screwed, at least in terms of what might be going on. This has all changed now, of course – and Los Angeles is a major art town. There was a QA with director Morgan Neville after the movie, and he said he was speaking to one of the artists in the film – who teaches at Cal Arts … and that artist said that 20 years ago he told his students that if they wanted to have any success in the art world, they should move to New York when they graduated. And now he tells them to stay in Los Angeles, there’s plenty going on there, galleries, museums, and also national coverage. One of the theses of Cool School is that the vibrant (and wealthy) art world in Los Angeles now was born in the scrappy days of the 1950s, when a bunch of bohemians, living in Venice, started showing their work in storefront galleries, competing with one another, making each other push harder … and that is a forgotten, and yet very major, chapter in American art history. Morgan Neville, the director, said that as he started doing research for the film, he thought to himself, “Surely there has to be a book about these guys, and that time, and the Ferus Gallery …” and was amazed to find that there wasn’t. (Now there will be. A coffee table book is coming out, a companion piece to the film – so that’s an awesome start.)

By the end of the 1960s, art had become sexy and fashionable. Andy Warhol had something to do with that. Suddenly, you would go to art openings and there would be heiresses and people in Chanel strolling around. The same evolution happened out in Los Angeles. In the late 50s, early 60s, the galleries were storefronts, on hidden streets … out of the way … and they would have shows and nobody would come. Nobody with money, anyway. You don’t want to have an art show where ONLY beatniks and students come! The Ferus Gallery, run by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum, opened on La Cienega Boulevard – and they cultivated a small group of artists (all of whom are still working today – the ones who are alive, I mean) – and set out to draw the wealthy of Los Angeles to their shows. They brought Andy Warhol out for his first show – the “soup can” show. It was not a smashing success. Only 4 pieces were sold. (Irving Blum then bought them back and bought the entire collection – because he felt they were all of a piece. And now, of course, they are worth millions and millions of dollars.) It is only in retrospect that the soup can show can be seen as major.

The Cool School is put together with terrific home movies of the time, and amazing photographs – of all of the guys at work and at play. There was awesome historical information as well, about Los Angeles as a town, and its development. Anyone interested in California as a whole should definitely see this film. It reminded me a bit of Robert Towne’s obsession with Los Angeles, and water, and culture … it is one of the driving forces of his artistic life. The artists themselves were such characters – each with their own passion, interest … and because Los Angeles was so isolated, in terms of an art world, many of these artists developed their work in a vacuum. Yet, as so often happens, what they were doing in Venice Beach was being done all over the world: collages, assemblage, using found objects … the whole American abstract expressionist movement. Yet the artists in the film had a specifically Los Angeles feel to their work, and I found that fascinating. These guys were car freaks, and surfer bums – in a way that artists in New York would never be, because the culture is totally different. So the Los Angeles artists were incorporating lots of new materials – chrome, and plastic … You can tell these guys loved cars when you look at their work. I love their stuff.

The editing of the documentary was wonderful. For example, as the “character” of Walter Hopps was introduced, we saw photographs of him from that time. He looked like one of the guys from mission control in Apollo 13: white shirt, tie, cleancut, glasses with thick black rims. He was (at least in appearance) the epitome of “square”. Totally unlike the biker surfer aesthetic of the artists. Hopps, of course, was crazier than all of them, and just as brilliant – in the way he created an art scene. If you wanted to be an artist in Los Angeles in the 1950s, you had to know Walter Hopps. And one by one, each of the artists was interviewed about Hopps and they all said the same thing – and it was so funny the way it was edited: One guy said, “We all thought he was CIA.” Next guy, “I assumed he was in the CIA.” Next guy: “It seemed like he must have been CIA or FBI …”

Another example of this artfully done editing is when Irving Blum was introduced. He was the one who taught Los Angeles about art, basically. He was the one who sought out potential collectors – young couples who had a lot of money, who wanted to build up their private collections, but didn’t even know where to start, in the wasteland of LA at that time. Irving Blum found those people. And many of them were interviewed for the documentary, and they strolled around their gorgeous houses, showing their collections, much of which was bought at that crucial time – end of 50s, early 60s. And Irving Blum was a handsome cleancut guy with a bit of a dazzle to him. He was all about the illusion of success. For example, he was on a street and there was a gleaming Rolls Royce parked on the sidewalk – and he had his friend take pictures of him standing by the Rolls Royce, as though he owned it. If you’re going to run an art gallery, you had better be at home with rich people. Blum was not rich at that time (although, boy, he is now) – so he went about creating an illusion that he was wealthy. He spoke in a very specific way, and again – one artist after another said the same thing. It was so amazing and funny the way it was put together – 6 artists in a row, 7, said the same thing: “He spoke kind of like Cary Grant.” “His accent was like Cary Grant’s.” “He sort of looked like Cary Grant.” “I heard him speak and I thought, ‘Is that Cary Grant?’”

It’s that kind of detailed editing that makes a documentary, in my opinion. Because the topic may be interesting – but if the format is not compelling, and if the film doesn’t, in some way, comment upon the topic – it’s not a successful documentary. The spliced-together interviews of all of the artists is a great example of how to do it. They are all fierce individuals, macho to this day, tough tough guys, competitive … and yet there were these similarities in their experience of that time. The editing of those sequences was very effective.

I mainly went to see the film because Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper are both interviewed (and it was a dual interview, they were in the same room at the same time, chomping away on their cigars, answering questions). Hopper and Stockwell finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple. The two of them were highly involved in the LA art scene at that time, the whole beatnik generation – and having seen Stockwell’s stuff in person – you can feel the influences emanating from his work. Wallace Berman was a main influence – the collages and assemblages … Berman was a big character in the film. His show at the Ferus was closed – due to “obscenity” and he was arrested. It was his first and only solo show. His stuff is fantastic.

The film is interesting on multiple levels. It was a part of American art history that I did not know. And also, it was great to get to know all of these people, many of whom are still alive. You can see how their work developed – how one guy started paring down his work so much that he ended up only working in light. One guy pushed his work to the limit using plastics – futuristic stuff, sleek, cool, vibrant colors. It’s a great story, an important part of our national culture – and I’m glad the story is being told.

The QA was great, afterwards. The theatre was very small, maybe 70 or 80 seats, and they were all filled. The questions were thought-provoking, curious, intense … about the topic, about Neville’s influences – and what drew him to the story, and also about the artists themselves – a fascinating group of alpha males!

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2 Responses to The Cool School (2008); Dir. Morgan Neville

  1. Good review and better than many, it now is linked
    onto our webpage at ferusgallery.com M

  2. In Dean Stockwell news:

    Here’s a really interesting interview with Dennis Hopper about an art show he is curating at a gallery in Taos, featuring six long-time Taos artists (Dean Stockwell included). Interesting take from Hopper on the art scene, what he’s working on,…