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Galleries fostered the L.A. art scene

It’s hard to imagine now. But one fact about the early years of the post-World War II art scene in Los Angeles that has been brought into focus by the Pacific Standard Time initiative is that there was no real art museum in what was becoming the nation’s second largest city.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art did not exist as a separate entity until it opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1965. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s Grand Avenue location was years away.

Much of the energy, then, in the city’s art scene in the 1945 to 1980 stretch came from private collectors, artists’ collectives, print shops, art schools and especially from commercial galleries.

A handful are talked about with the most conviction. “When you look back at a mountain range you’ve come through, you can see the big peaks, but not the smaller peaks, or the valleys, or the flatlands in between,” says art critic Peter Plagens, the author of “Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970.”

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He’s talking about the Ferus Gallery, arguably the era’s steepest peak.

Ferus -- which must by now be the best-chronicled gallery in the history of the region -- was arguably the first Southland art space that tapped into the art world’s currents and channeled them in new ways. At the time, Los Angeles was provincial compared to Eastern cities or San Francisco, and the city’s art world was small and not terribly distinctive. Abstract art was a shock to many, and though some galleries concentrated on, say, Austrian expressionism or French painting, there was not much sense of a Los Angeles school.

When curator Walter Hopps and artist Ed Kienholz opened Ferus in 1957, there was nothing like it along La Cienega Boulevard or, perhaps, in the rest of the country. “The dominant style in New York, and around the world, was second-generation Abstract Expressionism,” recalls the space’s former director, Irving Blum, who took over from Kienholz a few months later. (Hopps later moved to the Pasadena Museum of Art.)

“In Spain, France, everywhere -- pale copies of what was going on in New York,” Blum says. “The New York artists had angst and ambition -- the West Coast people had neither.”

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But along with a scandalous show by the monastic artist Wallace Berman, which ended with his arrest for obscenity, and shows by the more extroverted Billy Al Bengston and Craig Kauffman, Ferus injected energy into the scene with Andy Warhol’s first-ever solo show. Warhol’s appearance helped galvanize a sense that Los Angeles -- a new city, steeped in popular culture and shiny materials like plastic -- could become a pop art capital. And the careers of major figures such as the deadpan Ed Ruscha developed with Ferus as a showplace.

Finish Fetish -- a style that emphasized gleaming surfaces -- and Light and Space -- art about perception -- were other Ferus-bred styles that allowed L.A. to distinguish itself from the rest of the art world.

And Ferus’ artists -- as chronicled in the engaging 2008 documentary “The Cool School” -- were cocky and charismatic. Its stable, critic John Coplans wrote in Art in America, was marked by “an aggressive and high-spirited arrogance that only young and talented men could have.”

Blum thinks the Getty-funded extravaganza has overlooked the galleries. “The lack of emphasis on Ferus, Virginia Dwan’s gallery, Felix Landau, Nick Wilder and others in Pacific Standard Time is pitiful,” he says. “I’ve been virtually completely ignored. The Getty is very busy saluting its own achievement. We all did very important work for the period they’re trying to document.”

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The Getty does include some text and photographs of Ferus and other galleries in its PST catalog, particularly in the chapter “For People Who Know the Difference: Defining the Pop Art Sixties.” Several exhibitions -- including the Getty Research Institute’s “Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950-1980" -- consider galleries, a crucial part of building a contemporary art scene in a city with a younger, more fragile art infrastructure than traditional art capitals.

Near the end of the gallery’s run, LACMA -- previously just part of what is now the Natural History Museum -- opened on Wilshire. The museum put on important exhibitions -- including one of Kienholz assemblages nearly shut down by the county. But the institution saw itself as encyclopedic, not an art space devoted to contemporary West Coast figures.

Plagens recalls “tremendous dissatisfaction” with the new LACMA and its contemporary curator, Maurice Tuchman, who was considered to be in thrall to New York and its critical schools. “There were meetings in artists’ studios and lofts, with trustees,” he says. “But Maurice could not be gotten rid of.” Various artists groups and spaces, among them the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, of which Plagens was a member, were founded out of this frustration.

LACMA’s initial effect on what was happening on La Cienega’s gallery row, Blum says, was “not much.”

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But there were other sophisticated, risk-taking dealers in town. One was Nicholas Wilder, an eccentric Easterner who drove a Bentley and discovered David Hockney and Bruce Nauman. Molly Barnes showed witty conceptualist John Baldessari; David Stuart represented Dennis Hopper.

Two of the period’s other key galleries were -- despite the machismo of much of the art scene -- run by women.

Ferus’ chief rival was Virginia Dwan, heiress to a founder of the Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M, who had opened her gallery in 1959 on Westwood’s Broxton Avenue. “We pretended that this was an art center,” she says now from New York, “with a lot of collectors. But that wasn’t really true.”

Dwan had an interest in the new pop-inflected work, but she also wanted to expose Californians to the best art coming from New York (Rauschenberg’s combines) and France (the nouveaux realistes, among them Yves Klein).

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In contrast to Blum, whose bespoke style disguised that he was mostly broke, Dwan was well funded. It gave her gallery creative freedom, she says. “I was looking for things that resonated for me. I was quite young at the time, and I was open to the impact of certain artists of the time, such as Klein and [Ad] Reinhardt.”

Dwan could not resist the pull of New York: In 1965 she opened a second gallery there, and by 1969 she closed her Westwood space, which reopened as Doug Christmas’ influential Ace Gallery.

In New York, she became an important dealer of minimalism and Earthworks. “I think I felt that way since I was a teenager -- that New York was where you went to make it.”

With the collapse of Ferus at the end of 1966 and the departure of Dwan for New York, the L.A. scene went though what some have described as a creative slump, reinforced by the recession, gas crisis and art’s move away from the object.

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Getty Research Institute curator John Tain calls Riko Mizuno, an immigrant from Tokyo, “the dealer with the strongest impact” in the post-Ferus period. Tain contributes a short essay on the gallerist to the PST catalog in which he points out, “there were virtually no dealers of Asian descent working in contemporary art.”

Mizuno, who speaks English only hesitantly, spent a recent afternoon in her trim West Hollywood bungalow, recalling her move to California in the late ‘50s and enrollment at the Chouinard Art Institute. There she intensified her love of art but realized, “I didn’t have a talent for it.”

Her Gallery 669 -- the name comes from its address on North La Cienega -- made an early splash showing the paintings of maverick writer Henry Miller, in 1967. After a brief stint co-owning the gallery with collector Eugenia Butler (“her personality was so aggressive -- she owned me,” Mizuno recalls), she opened her own space.

That gallery showed work by some of the Ferus stable -- Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Ken Price -- as well as Chris Burden, Frank Gehry, Doug Wheeler and the ethereal, meticulous drawings of Vija Celmins.

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Mizuno struggled financially, though.

“I’m not especially interested in canvas or paint,” Mizuno says. “I like materials I’ve never seen before -- yet kind of beautiful.”

Her most memorable opening was with Burden. “He got arrested: He was lying down, with oil and canvas on top of him -- on the street. He went to court: People from the county museum came and said it was art. The jury got confused.”

Despite the head of steam generated by the galleries, the game in L.A. remained pretty small: Blum -- who also left for New York in the early ‘70s -- says you could count the serious collectors here on one hand. Plagens says that as with New York’s ferment in the ‘40s and ‘50s, based around the Cedar Tavern and the galleries below 14th Street, the L.A. scene was only a few hundred people.

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But out of that subculture -- and its dissatisfaction with the county art museum -- came the drive that led, in the ‘80s, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the emergence of L.A. as an international art capital.

MOCA opened into a very different city than LACMA had. To Mizuno, it made “a big difference, I think. Artists couldn’t sell before,” but now they could. “And they were grateful.”

--

calendar@latimes.com

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