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picture - The Cool SchoolDVD Review

by Chad Menville

published July 25, 2008

 

The Cool School

released by Arthouse Films

not rated

running time 85 minutes

 

"Even though we didn't have enough evidence we were completely confident that we were on the right track and everybody else was full of shit," observes Robert Irwin, one of the standout painters looking back, in this documentary that charts the Los Angeles art movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Ferus Gallery was at the epicenter of the 70 or so artists it represented. Featured in interviews, archival footage and still images are: John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Wallace Berman, Robert Irwin and countless others. John Altoon and Ed Kleinholz passed on well before the completion of the film but are fondly remembered by friends and colleagues.

 

This introduction to the art scene that percolated up out of a Southern California desert and took root on La Cienega Boulevard (Spanish for "the swamp") is an overdue and daring portrait of an art movement unknown by many. "Yeah!" says one painter, "We've got something that's different out here and we can compete with New York. And that's cultural ambition!"    

 

Jeff Bridges narrates, focusing on the "renegade artists" of curator Walter Hopps' seminal Ferus Gallery, circa 1957-66. These artists, mainly Abstract Expressionist painters, forged groundbreaking works using other mediums as well, such as plastics and pottery. Ed Ruscha's use of text was daring and innovative and is still imitated today. Ed Kleinholz's "Back Seat Dodge '38" used assemblage and, in its day, was deemed obscene, turning heads and making headlines.

 

The soundtrack is one of the film's fault lines. There's post punk, then bongos with an accordion and banjo. The jazz that comes later feels thrown in. There are fly-on-the-wall conversations with Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell that come off as unintentionally funny. Frank Gehry makes an appearance as an old chum of the painters. There is Ivan C. Karp, a sourpuss New York art dealer who keeps popping up like a sore thumb and badmouthing everything L.A. And then there's the shocker involving Walter Hopps and his business partner Irving Blum that you'll just have to hear for yourself.

 

In viewing The Cool School you may wonder why the artists of Ferus Gallery weren't more widely known. Did they not receive their due respect when it was at its most vital? Though the Ferus painters may not all have lived like rock stars, many of them enjoyed productive, successful careers. As for Ferus Gallery itself, it garnered the most attention by hosting artists who were not affiliated with the west coast, such as the first ever Pop Art retrospective and Marcel Duchamp's first retrospective, in addition to Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg exhibitions.

 

The young John Baldessari makes an interesting remark: "There is this tendency out here just to not care about art history, but it's because we're a young city. We're not an old city – we're not surrounded by art. We don't have to deal with our past because there is no past."  That quote comes off all the more haunting from a man who is now very old.

 

chadmenville @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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