Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene in the 1960s

REBELS IN PARADISE.

THE LOS ANGELES ART SCENE IN THE 1960s

by

Hunter Drohojowska-Philip

Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene in the 1960s is a lovely and delicious book. Delightfully and briskly written, it is far and away the best book Hunter Drohojowska-Philip has produced to date. She rightly calls the book “a love letter to Los Angeles” for it is narrow in scope and presents the sixties from a personal point of view. Did this book need to be written? Probably not, because the sixties scene in L. A. has been thoroughly discussed. The historical bricks and mortar are already in place but what the author provides are interesting bits and pieces, anecdotes about “making it” in the art world, California style. Most of the new material comes from oral histories of the definitive decade, so that the book is based on the artists’ voices. The reader can get through this book in a couple of hours, skipping lightly along the familiar and pausing for the occasional new gossipy nuggets about the marital musical chairs and who took LSD, who rode surf boards or motorcycles or hot rods and other mildly amusing stories of harmless fun in the sun.

It is very difficult to write this kind of book, which narrates history like a novel, but Drohojowska-Philip has the literary skills to pull it off. Take this nice opening passage:

A feeling of excitement charged the balmy evening air outside, and North La Cienega Boulevard traffic slowed as drivers gawked at the scene. Inside, stylishly coifed women in sleeveless dresses mingled with Los Angeles artists, awkward young men outfitted in thrift-store splendor. Warhol entered the filled-to-capacity gallery wearing a carnation in the lapel of his Brooks Brothers blazer.

This is a book you want to read. Compare the nicely elegant prose to his turgid mess from the opening of The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich:

It was probably the third cocktail that did the trick. It was hard for Eduardo to tell for sure, because the three drinks had come in such rapid succession—the empty plastic cups were now stacked accordion style on the windowsill behind him—that he hadn’t been able to gauge for certain when the change had occurred. But there was no denying it now, the evidence was all over him. The pleasantly warm flush to his normally sallow cheeks; the relaxed, almost rubbery way he leaned against the window—a stark contrast to his usual calcified, if slightly hunched posture; and most important of all, the easy smile on his face, something he’d practiced unsuccessfully in the mirror for two hours before he’d left his dorm room that evening.

The opening passage warns you that you, the poor helpless reader, will be trapped in a mire of terrible over-writing. This is a book you will never finish. Here’s another would-be masterpiece that defies even the most tolerant reader’s patience:

Standing in the kitchen of his Park Avenue apartment, Jamie Dimon poured himself a cup of coffee, hoping it might ease his headache. He was recovering from a slight hangover, but his head really hurt for a different reason: He knew too much. It was just past 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, September 13, 2008. Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, the nation’s third-largest bank, had spent part of the prior evening at an emergency, all-hands-on-deck meeting at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York with a dozen of his rival Wall Street CEOs. Their assignment was to come up with a plan to save Lehman Brothers, the nation’s fourth-largest investment bank—or risk the collateral damage that might ensue in the markets.

Deliver me from such wordy writing. Undoubtedly Andrew Sorkin had good intentions in Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System–and Themselves but the book is an impossible slog. It is the bad prose, such as these examples, all too common in non-fiction books, which makes Rebels in Paradise such a nice change. Finally, someone who can write nonfiction. Drohojowska-Philip wisely sticks to simple description and lets her interesting cast of characters and their adventures drive the story. That said, the definitive version of the emergence of Los Angeles as a major art scenes in the face of East Coast indifference has still to be written. Anyone interested in the history of this period must to go through multiple volumes, starting with Cary McWilliams and Mike Davis and Peter Plagens and working up to recent updates by Peter Selz (Art of Engagement) and Elizabeth Armstrong (Birth of the Cool). The MOCA catalogue, Under the Big Black Sun, coming out in October of this year, looks promising with an interesting roster of writers but will probably have the same kind of narrow focus found in most of these books. The student of the history of Los Angeles art must put together a complete picture by cobbling together information from various genres and Rebels in Paradise is yet another addition to a larger pool of information.

A compendium of personal experiences and memories, Rebels in Paradise, captured from the aging group of pioneer artists and dealers their tales of building an art world based upon freedom and experimentation when no one was looking and no one cared. The audience for these Rebels was almost exclusively an audience of producers. Some of the seminal figures have died since the founding of the Cool School: Walter Hopps, John Altoon, and Wallace Berman, significant voices stilled. The book deals with the decade of the life of the Ferus Gallery, the key exhibition site of the sixties. A few other galleries and non-Ferus artists are included, such as Nick Wilder’s artist, David Hockney, and the rare woman on the scene, Vija Celmins. African-American artists and activist artists get a quick walk-on. Beginning with a prelude in the mid-fifties, which Drohojowska-Philip refers to as the “Beat” period, the focus is on the stable handled by founder Walter Hopps and his successor, Irving Blum. The Ferus Gallery was the equivalent of a tree-house for very immature boys only and a frat house for partying artists who enjoyed the cultural attitude of “boys will be boys.”

These boys included Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses and Larry Bell and Ken Price and John Altoon and Ed Kienholz and Robert Irwin, with some being given more coverage than others. The author includes Joe Goode, although he and his paintings with milk bottles were not part of the Gallery. She also includes a close friend and collaborator of the Ferus artists, the up and coming architect, Frank Gehry. The Ferus gang advertised themselves as “The Studs,” and many writers think that this label, seen in a gallery exhibition poster, referred to the constant diet of willing nubile young women who hung out with the young and handsome men. In fact, the “studs” reference the actual studs of the gallery walls where the nails were driven to hang the paintings….or so one of the artists now claims. But some of these frisky gentlemen, like Ed Kienholz and Craig Kauffman, seem to have collected wives. The art scene was so glamorous and so appealing that it attracted other brash young men from the movie industry, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and pretty starlets, such as Teri Garr. These minor B list stars gave the scene added luster but also spoke of the unmade bed quality of the Los Angeles art world, where anyone could climb in, unless of course you were black, gay or a woman.

The focus of Rebels in Paradise is kept tight on the artists themselves, their lives and biographies. The art itself is only glancingly discussed and a reader not familiar with the paintings of Bengston or the ceramics of Price or the architecture of Gehry would be lost. Written for insiders, the account is uneven at times. The author relies upon a prior understanding of Every Building on Sunset Strip, for example, but provides a more informative discussion of Hockney’s portrait of the collectors, Marcia and Frederick Wiseman and a good account of how Robert Irwin constructed his convex dot paintings. The book has no social context and “history” is usually a few sentences, which work as establishing shots. There is some attempt to discuss the frustration of the African-Americans in Watts after the Civil Rights Movement but the reasons for the famous Peace Tower—the Viet Nam War—are glossed over. The relative lack of historical backdrop is a loss because the artists in Los Angeles were willing to tackle the social and political issues of the day, something the New York artists refused to do. The silence of so many East Coast artists makes the social critique provided by Vija Celmins and Noah Purfoy all the more brave and remarkable.

Aside from the comparative lack of social and economic and political context, the scope of the book is an excellent attempt to create a literary biography of an active and varied the art scene in Los Angeles. Drohojowska-Philip takes the time to include a thorough discussion of the Light and Space movement, which took place outside of the small stable of the Ferus Gallery. She also brings in the ebullient Rudi Gernreich and the very important print studio, Gemini GEL where Robert Rauschenberg began an important new phase of his career. In other words, Drohojowska-Philip emphasizes the New and keeps out the older traditions, which perhaps explain the comparative neglect of John McLaughlin whose paintings are connected to the California tradition of light but also stem from the hard-edge tradition of the East Coast. The author concentrates on the semiotic approach to painting—the conceptual paintings developed by Ed Ruscha, which relegates pioneers in abstraction, Lorsel Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, to the past. The sixties in Los Angeles is an entirely new post-war plastic world, largely populated by Midwest and European immigrants attracted to the new possibilities of the Last Frontier.

I do not approve of critiquing a book for being something it was not intended to be but I do feel that it is important to state what Rebels in Paradise is—-a series of anecdotal biographies of a small group of significant artists—-and what it is not—a history of Los Angeles and its art at a particular moment in time. Because the author stays so completely in her chosen tranche, there can be no perspective on the people or the events as viewed from the position of the present. Today, the idea that an art scene could unfold without women and people of color seems strange and unforgivable, particularly in light of the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. Drohojowska-Philip presents a racist, sexist, and homophobic art world that is typical of its time, a sort of Mad Men at the Ferus Gallery, but resists commentary or judgment. These years were the last of the total domination of the white male and it probably did not occur to any of these white and male artists that they were the last of their kind. And these lives and careers are now, fifty years later, coming to a close. It would have been interesting to have more of an epilogue—the illness of Teri Garr, the death of Dennis Hopper, the waning of Billy Al Bengston, the rise of the “Starchitect,” Frank Gehry and the contributions of Betye Saar and her remarkable daughters.

Overall the book is a very special sixties nostalgia trip, retelling the story of the making of an art world, without controlling art critics, without ruling dogmas, before the take-over of an international art market and before the control of the art schools. The author takes the reader a bit into the future by bringing in John Baldessari and Judy Chicago, leaders of the seventies scene which ended painting as it was known and began the challenge of feminist art—all done at Cal Arts. Again and again, Drohojowska-Philip presents statements by her artists stressing the importance of not being in New York and working in a brave new world where they could be completely open to new ways of making art. She provides a particularly amusing story of painter Robert Irwin taking a New York critic on a tour of the local Kustom Kar Kulture of Los Angeles but the critic could not imagine that painting a car could possibly be “art.” Irritated and impatient with such close-mindedness, Irwin put the critic out of the car and onto the highway and left the man standing beside the road. Such is the fate of those who do not heed the future and the future is in Los Angeles.

Read this Valentine of a book, you will thoroughly enjoy it.