The Cool School


Half a century ago, so the story goes, Los Angeles was a visual-art wasteland. Excepting the movies, of course—an asinine exemption to make for any number of reasons, not least being the presence (albeit temporary) of experimental-film pioneers Maya Deren and Gregory Markopolous. But as for official, capital-A gallery art, that happened in New York, where the Abstract-Expressionism movement was entering high summer, soon to give way to the cerebral cool of the Pop Art scene. A thing or two was going on in the Bay Area: a lively group of second-rate Ab-Exers, a scattering of superior painters (Clifford Still, Richard Diebenkorn), and—not that anyone knew it at the time—an institutionalized Mexican immigrant and master of drawing and collage named Martin Ramirez. But L.A.? Zilch, zero, nada—until, all of a sudden, kapow! The Ferus Gallery! Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin! Andy Warhol’s gallery debut! Duchamp retrospectives in Pasadena! Like all such stories, the saga of the contemporary L.A. art scene is more nuanced than that, and The Cool School, a documentary by filmmakers Morgan Neville and Kristine McKenna, does an ace job at tracking down forgotten figures and burgeoning bohemias even as it perpetuates some of the conventional disparagements and outmoded narratives of mid-century La La Land. Galvanized by the idiosyncratic curator Walter Hopps and the legendary scene-maker Irving Blum, a gifted clique of painters, sculptors, architects, and mixed-media artists coalesced around the Ferus. Derision, notoriety, and fame ensued, as did breakthroughs in materials (clay, glass, plastics), motif (car culture, typography), and attitude (sleek, industrial, ephemeral). All told, and well told, this is essential history.