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An L.A. Art Story

Ask Irving Blum about running the Ferus Gallery, and he’ll tell you right away that there’s been too much speculation about Ferus and not enough appreciation. People are beginning to forget the now-legendary space that put Los Angeles--and Blum--on the art world’s map in the early ‘60s.

Launched in 1957 by artist Edward Kienholz and museum curator Walter Hopps, Ferus was the right place at the right time, an important early incubator of contemporary and avant-garde art here. Besides introducing local talents Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha, the gallery also brought to Los Angeles audiences the latest work by such New York artists as Joseph Cornell, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.

“When Ferus opened, it was the one really contemporary gallery dealing with younger Los Angeles and San Francisco artists; and that generation was the first, because of that support, to train here, work here, show here and make national reputations,” says Henry Hopkins, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and what is now the UCLA Hammer Museum. “The result is that Ferus stands as a symbol of the transition of Los Angeles from provincial center to what it is today--an internationally recognized center for the arts.”

There were major museum exhibitions about Ferus in Southern California in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But that was long ago, says Ferus director and, later, co-owner Blum, and there had been nothing in New York. So when New York-based dealer Larry Gagosian suggested a show, says the ever-dapper Blum, 71, “I just leaped at it. I think what was happening in California at that time needs to be celebrated.”

The celebration, underway at the Gagosian Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district, exhibits about 45 sculptures, paintings, drawings and other artworks by 22 artists shown at Ferus during its 10-year lifetime. Many of the works were first exhibited at the gallery; others represent the kind of work that made Ferus famous.

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Assembled by Blum, the exhibition also includes Ferus Gallery exhibition announcements by Lichtenstein and others, several art scene photographs taken by Dennis Hopper, and an elaborate, 144-page catalog.

Highlights include Warhol’s suite of 32 paintings, “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (the ones MOCA couldn’t get for the Warhol retrospective that recently closed here), on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Ruscha’s “Los Angeles County Museum on Fire,” on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. In all, Blum has gathered from one to four works by each of the 20 to 25 artists he tried to exhibit regularly at Ferus.

When he and Gagosian first agreed several months ago to do the exhibition, recalls Blum, “I went home and had to lie down. In order to make it real, there was so much I had to relive and think about and deal with and remember.”

Born in New York City but raised in Phoenix, Blum went back to Manhattan in 1955 to seek work in the theater. But despite a lifelong flair for drama and a booming, Cary Grant-style voice, Blum began to spend more time in art galleries than theaters. In 1957, when “my nostalgia for the West got the better of me,” he headed for Los Angeles and soon found his way to Ferus.

Blum arrived less than a year after Kienholz and Hopps opened shop behind an antiques store on La Cienega Boulevard. Ruscha has likened the gallery to a jazz catalog “where there are a lot of different voices under the same record label. Each had a very distinctive take on the world and on his work, and so that made it a very vital place to aspire to and to be.”

Ferus was “a gathering place and macho intellectual gang bang,” recalls Bengston, a Ferus regular. “It was a place to strut your stuff and be yourself. It was more important to be an artist than to be successful, because being an artist, there was no chance to be successful.”

Sensing opportunity, Blum says he “quickly organized a meeting with Kienholz, who was desperate to get out of the gallery and spend more time in the studio. We agreed on a price of $500 for me to buy into the gallery--for nothing, there was no inventory--and Walter and I became partners.”

In 1958, Hopps and Blum moved the gallery to a better space across the street, and, says Bengston, “Irving’s passion and Walter’s erudition were a hard act to resist.” When Hopps left Ferus in 1962 for a curatorship at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), Blum took over the directorship on his own. With financial help from Los Angeles patron Sayde Moss, who became a silent partner, Blum began to move Ferus away from what was essentially a boy’s club to a business.

He began adding New York artists, particularly those “who fell through the cracks. From being in New York in the ‘50s, I was familiar with Josef Albers, for instance, and thought he was enormously overlooked and cheap. I could buy his work with very little money. Cornell boxes were $500--now they’re half a million and up.”

“In terms of the possibility of doing these great exhibitions,” continues Blum, “my great luck, aside from my own taste, was timing. Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly were just surfacing in New York about the same time as a generation of very gifted young California artists such as Ed Kienholz, Bob Irwin, John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Ed Moses, Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell, were surfacing in a parallel way here. It was just wonderful timing.”

Committed local art collectors such as Robert Rowan, Edwin Janss, Betty Asher, Michael Blankfort and others helped keep the doors open, Blum recalls. So did the brief L.A. life of Artforum magazine, which--"miracle of miracles,” says Blum--was housed upstairs for two years before moving to New York.

“Artforum’s arrival in Los Angeles extended the life of the Ferus Gallery single-handedly,” Blum says, “because we got for the first time critical concern and attention. Artforum was like an answered prayer.”

But Ferus’ moment couldn’t last forever. As his New York artists became better known, they also became more expensive, and Blum lost his access. Local collectors would head for New York, where there was a wider selection, and eventually so would Blum.

Ferus closed in 1967 when Blum sought “a financial leg up” by opening Ferus/Pace with Arne Glimcher, owner of New York’s Pace Gallery. That venture lasted less than two years, and Blum next opened his own Irving Blum Gallery on La Cienega. Blum moved to New York in 1973, when he partnered with dealer Joseph Hellman in the Blum/Hellman gallery, which added an L.A. outpost for a while. Blum returned full time to Los Angeles in 1998 as a private dealer.

Nestled in a chair at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery, just a few miles from where he once ran Ferus, Blum looks over catalog proofs for the New York retrospective, laughs his easy laugh and reminisces.

Craig Kauffman: “He was years ahead of his time.”

Ellsworth Kelly: “A giant.”

Hassel Smith: “The work’s at least as interesting as Motherwell. He would have had the most extraordinary run had he lived in New York. But he lived in Sebastopol.”

Many of those artists also figured in two earlier exhibitions on Ferus. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized “Late Fifties at the Ferus” in 1968, and the Newport Harbor Art Museum organized “The Last Time I Saw Ferus” in 1976. Although Blum says he would have liked to have done this show in Los Angeles as well, it’s too big for Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery, and local museum curators were not interested this time around.

Several Southern California museums are lending work to the exhibition, however, including LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Norton Simon Museum. Artworks have also been lent by other museums, artists and their estates, collectors and their estates, and Blum himself. “I called everybody and facilitated the loans, twisting lots of arms in the process,” he says.

The dealer began with a wish list of paintings and sculpture, choosing first by preference, then by availability. “I didn’t in every instance get exactly what I wanted, but I came close,” he says.

Jay DeFeo, one of Ferus’ few female artists, has a painting in the exhibition, Blum says, running through a checklist, while Ken Price has lent three sculptures from the period that Blum says he had never seen before. Blum famously paired Jasper Johns and Kurt Schwitters’ work at Ferus in a 1960 exhibition, and works by both artists are in the Gagosian show. So are two of Frank Stella’s 20-foot-long, mural-size protractors, which Blum says are for sale--at $1 million apiece.

While Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery is huge, with some 6,000 square feet of exhibition space, Blum says a few things still had to be left out. “We did an exhibition of Kienholz called ‘Roxy’s,’ which was his interpretation of a Southwestern bordello, that occupied the entire space of the old Ferus. I would have loved to have re-created that. Or Ed [Kienholz’s] version of Barney’s Beanery where all the artists congregated every night to drink. But, alas, we didn’t have the space, and finally, I think, [the Kienholz assemblage] ‘Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps’ is a fine addition and, although fragile, was loaned to this exhibition.”

Blum’s greatest coup, however, is probably the suite of Warhol’s soup can paintings, which the Museum of Modern Art had declined to lend to MOCA. Although Blum thinks that was “enormously odd,” even “perverse,” a MOMA spokeswoman explains that the MOCA loan would have come at the same time as the opening show at MOMA’s new Queens facility, but now some rotations are taking place in its inaugural presentation there.

Blum first saw the paintings at Warhol’s New York studio, then exhibited them at Ferus in July 1962, in what he says was “the first show anywhere in the world of Andy’s work.” Blum sold half a dozen of the paintings for $100 apiece, then changed his mind about breaking up the 32-painting set and persuaded his buyers to sell them back to him. Then Blum bought the full suite from Warhol for $100 a month until he reached Warhol’s $1,000 price tag. In 1996, MOMA acquired them from Blum as a purchase and partial gift totaling in the millions.

Although Ferus originally exhibited the paintings on ledges around the gallery, at Gagosian they are hung together much as they have been installed at MOMA. “It was probably a very fresh way to show them then,” Gagosian says of the ledge arrangement. “But now that they’re so important a part of art history, that kind of installation might look a little coy.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gagosian says that the Ferus exhibition is something he’d hoped to do for several years. “I got out of UCLA around 1970, and Ferus was gone,” he says. “I think it’s important that people remember what was accomplished by a gallery with that kind of vision, ahead of the curve. Since I’m involved with a lot of artists who Irving pioneered exhibitions with, it became doubly interesting.”

Asked if the Ferus experience could happen again today, Blum immediately replies, “Absolutely not. We’re talking about a generation of artists roughly parallel on the East and West coasts who were radical, inventive and celebrated, all of them surfacing at approximately the same time. It was one of those extraordinary moments in the history of art that simply can’t be duplicated.”

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Barbara Isenberg is a regular contributor to Calendar. Her most recent book is “State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work.”


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