If you were around in a time now faded, nostalgia is a painful thing. These photographs of the L.A. art scene in its toddling heyday are like honey and vinegar. The subject of a book and an exhibition, they picture artists around the now-legendary Ferus Gallery in West Hollywood, where they presented the beginnings of the most original art that ever happened in the city.
The artists pictured were nobody then. Now two of them, Ed Kienholz and Ed Moses, have retrospectives at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Others like Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha have had their turn. It's fair to say MOCA wouldn't exist without them, nor would the city have grounds to style itself an important contemporary art center, even if that's now questionably true.
It is true that this town is built on myths. Take Hollywood. These artists did. Clearly it was no accident that there was always a camera around. Wallace Berman got busted at the gallery in 1957 on an obscenity charge. His faithful filmic Boswell, photographer Charles Brittin, was there to shoot the incident, lending it the profundity of a Russian novel. When Ferus founder Walter Hopps did the world's first retrospective of Dada genius Marcel Duchamp at the old Pasadena Art Museum, photographer Julian Wasser made artists at the opening look like movie stars. Actually, guys like Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston already did. Dennis Hopper is. Even Ferus director Irving Blum gave off an aura of Cary Grant.
To everybody's credit, they were not using Hollywood tactics to make something out of nothing. They were using Hollywood tactics to make something out of something considered nothing until you consider it. The picture of Kienholz wheeling "John Doe" tells the story. He took literal junk and made masterpieces.
The pain of all this lies in being reminded that it all happened in a city now utterly transformed, even if the streets are in the same places. It was a fresher place. The pictures make you long for it back and remind you of impossibility. The pleasure is that, at least, we were there.
* Photos are from a current exhibition organized by the Craig Krull Gallery, "Photographing the L.A. Art Scene 1955-1975," also featured in a book to be released this month by Smart Art Press. They're on view at the gallery at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building B-3, Santa Monica, to Aug. 17.
* William Wilson is a Times art critic.