L.A. Confidential, The Cool School Film Review

14Mar08

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The Cool School, directed by Morgan Neville (2007, 86 minutes), documents the genesis of the LA art scene from the late 1950’s to the late 1960’s by telling the story of Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery. Following the development of Walter Hopps’ initially inclusive, expansive vision for Ferus Gallery to its eventual sculpting into an exclusive, cosmopolitan business by later partner Irving Blum, we are introduced to many of the gallery’s key players and given access, through present-day interviews, to their stories. The film’s title seems to refer to its thesis: that the Ferus Gallery entourage literally schooled Los Angeles in the development of cool, teaching it how to act like a city that had an independent, sophisticated, and art-focused cultural center. We are instructed in the view that the Ferus Gallery served as the catalyst that helped catapult Los Angeles’ cultural development from a conservative backwater to a city with a world-class art scene.

The Cool School follows the Ferus Gallery director/owners Walter Hopps and Irving Blum from the gallery’s inception to its bitter end. In the beginning, Walter Hopps worked with an indiscriminate number of artists from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Irving Blum’s partnership focused the gallery, cutting out the San Franciscans, and representing, at least for a time, only a select set of LA artists. That core set of male artists was Ed Keinholz, Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman, John Altoon, Robert Irwin, and briefly but notably, Wallace Berman. We learn what it was like to be part of the cool school through the descriptions and artifacts of the artists themselves. Narrated in hard-boiled voice-over by Jeff Bridges, The Cool School combines vintage photographs, period newsreels, and archived interviews with present-day interviews. Although perplexingly rendered in black and white, the present-day interviews give the film its real meat, offering up perspectives on history from key artists, collectors, gallery owners, and critics who were Ferus Gallery insiders, with some additional counterpoint from a few outsiders. Indeed, the theme of insiders and outsiders recurs throughout the retelling of Ferus, as a picture quickly develops of the core Ferus artists as a clique-y, competitive group of men who were as famous for their macho antics and bad-boy posturing as they were for their abstract expressionism, assemblage, and innovative use of materials.

The outsiders’ perspectives provide useful contrast to the enthusiasm of the Ferus insiders. For example, the film is punctuated by the crankily acerbic perspective of NY art dealer Ivan Karp, who, as the voice of New York, has nothing but nasty things to say about LA’s museums, galleries, and collectors, its artists, their media, and its art scene in general! His unilateral distaste for everything LA does a good job of validating one of the film’s central theses: that by staying in LA and shunning New York the Ferus artists were rebelling, perhaps dangerously, against the established art market.

Though they may have been rebels, they were not activists seeking social change. They were modernists trying to express individual artistic visions and to gain personal fame and glory. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the film’s examination of women’s place in the Ferus Gallery. We hear from Sonia Gechtoff, one of the San Franciscans who was excluded from the gallery once Blum came on board. One of the few women interviewed, her part in the film is brief but memorable. A cutting-edge abstract artist, Gechtoff’s short history with the gallery underscores the lack of recognition, and deliberate exclusion of women from Ferus. In sum, Shirley Nielsen Hopps, the ex-wife of both Hopps and Blum, says, “They serviced the men. That’s what the women did. Simple as that. They put up with it. They cheered, cried, (and) they’d cook.” Nielsen Hopps’ comments make it clear that while Ferus was in its heyday, women were relegated to purely supporting roles. However, the film makes a connection between the fact that the Gallery’s exclusionary practices ultimately contributed to its demise, citing the sea change in the art world in 1968 characterized by a move away from elitist male-centric modernism and towards “the beginning of feminism and democracy in the arts.”

The Cool School is educational, providing an interesting perspective on the development of LA’s art scene. However, for a film about a critical period in the development of art, many of the stylistic choices seem arbitrary, such as heavy use of fake film crackle, or the punctuation of black and white scenes with red, like a cigarette butt’s red ember against an otherwise colorless field. Indeed, many of the aesthetic choices seem to distract from the film, rather than add to it. Also, the film seems a bit loose structurally, and could use a tighter focus for greater cohesion, as timelines and storylines are sometimes confusing.

The film ends with Ed Moses lamenting that Walter Hopps never got around to writing down his memoirs. According to Moses, this is a great loss because only Hopps knew the real story, and without his memoir, the record will be lost. Moses complains that now, “the record is going to be interpreted, rather than defined. That’s the problem with critics and everybody, they think they have to interpret what’s going on- all they have to do is see it!” But history is really the art of interpretation, as is borne out by the artists’ different versions of history. For example at the 2004 reunion of surviving members there are divergent opinions about which of them blackballed de Kooning’s bid for entry into the gallery. History, or the truth is different depending on who is telling the story.

The film walks a complex line between lauding the genius of the Ferus project, and pointing out its failings. On the whole “The Cool School” seems to err on the side of romanticizing the mythos of Ferus. However, the film’s grand commingling of the art, the relationships, the gossipy scandal, the personal tragedy, and the business practices of the Ferus Gallery, set against the background of LA’s burgeoning cultural development makes for entertaining, if slightly peripatetic viewing.

Published in Artillery Magazine, March/April 2008

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