When the West Coast Art Scene Got Serious

A new show at Alden Projects celebrates Ferus Gallery and the rise of a SoCal movement


In the mid-twentieth century, New York City was asserting itself as the new global center for modern and contemporary art. Fifty-Seventh Street was lined with galleries showing the Modernists and Abstract Expressionists, while downtown, artist-run spaces were giving a place to the next generation who were dissolving the boundaries among media by embracing bold, anarchic gestures in performance and installation.

As the buzz of that art scene gathered volume, the trailblazing Ferus Gallery lassoed the art world’s focus westward to Los Angeles. Ironically, it was in Los Angeles where Pop in fact popped. California was always the more eccentric, free-minded coast, now producing artists such as Wallace Berman, Jay Defeo, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, and John Altoon, to name a few—and Ferus, run in its heyday by legendary curator Walter Hopps with gallerist Irving Blum, was the gallery that brought them to wider attention.

It took Todd Alden of Alden Projects™ twenty years to collect the sixty-six exhibition posters on view in Ferus Gallery: Between the Folds, a rare and sparkling gem of a show that tells the story of Ferus through its graphic output. If art traces a history of ideas and aesthetics, ephemera like this highlights the ways in which artists projected themselves and their work, strategizing how all would be received and understood. In retrospect, Hopps and Blum—a pair of autodidacts who were a study in opposites—were instrumental in the imaging, and imagining, of American art and artists.

Walter Hopps was an uncommon animal in the landscape of American art: brilliant, sensitive, unyielding, eccentric. His colorful story—as told to Deborah Treisman for his posthumously published memoir, The Dream Colony: A Life In Art—reads as though his life was propelled by a kind of manifest destiny, as though art was always his rightful kingdom. Born in 1932 and raised in Eagle Rock, just west of Pasadena, Hopps recalled the pleasure he found at the age of four or five in cutting and pasting images of the American flag and ads for Campbell’s soup cans into his scrapbook. (He would go on to curate the first exhibition of American Pop, New Painting of Common Objects, in 1962.) As a first grader, he got into trouble for creating collages with wallpaper intended for his class’s dollhouse. After a school trip to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, he skipped not a few days of high school to spend time, at their invitation, to learn about Modernism from their unrivaled collection of Dadaist and Surrealist art — which included three iterations of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

When he first met Irving Blum in 1958, Hopps was at work at Ferus in West Hollywood, which he’d founded with artist Edward Kienholz in the spring of 1957. Blum was a once-aspiring actor who was making ends meet working in sales for the luxury textile brand Scalamandré. The elocution lessons he’d taken in his theater days gave his speech a honeyed, moneyed affect and, according to Hopps, Blum — a self-taught art enthusiast — just showed up at the gallery one day and began wooing a pair of collectors with a silk-tongued sales pitch. Near to closing time, he introduced himself to Hopps, who quickly figured that Blum would be key to turning the upstart gallery into a more profitable, powerful venture. Shortly thereafter, Hopps bought out Kienholz, and the rest — as they say — is art history.

Under Hopps and Blum, Ferus presented the art of those-in-the-know as lit by the ambient Hollywood glow. If the gallery’s previous incarnation advertised itself with tactile letterpress graphics that echoed those of the book covers of Northern California’s Beat poets, the new Ferus portrayed itself as a birthplace of future legends. The posters of this era illuminated less about the art on view than about the artist on view; creating an aura—from the sacred to the silly—was everything. To announce the opening of John Altoon’s show on October 15, 1962, a moody, mysterious portrait of the artist was commissioned from celebrity photographer William Claxton, best known for his iconic images of jazz great Chet Baker and heartthrob actor Steve McQueen. (Another young photographer they tapped for portraits of Craig Kauffman and Roy Lichtenstein was film actor Dennis Hopper.)

In a more playful hat tip to Hollywood, painter and sculptor Billy Al Bengston appropriated a production still from Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent comedy The General for the poster of his exhibition the following month. Bengston doubles the Keaton image, composing them as a call-and-response: one, the set-up; the other, a punch line. In the first, the words Where’s Bill? Buster Keaton are handwritten in the top right corner; in the second, Bengston cut and pasted a photograph of his face—sporting a bushy mustache and a toothy, goofy grin—into the scene. One way to interpret the joke: How does an artist make cultural history? With scissors and glue, of course.

The Ferus artists almost always had a hand in the design of their posters—or at least consented to the images that appeared. Two announcing the 1959 and 1961 shows by sculptor John Mason (a dead ringer, as it happened, for the deceased AbEx master Jackson Pollock) presented portraits of the artist, stone-faced and oozing machismo, posed in front of his totemic, brutally forged ceramic works—a not-so-subtle bid for his ascendancy. However, the real scene stealer in the Alden Projects™ exhibition is Ed Ruscha, who took complete charge of his posters every time, eventually placing hybrid ad/artworks in the pages of Artforum (then located upstairs from Ferus), where he worked from 1965 to 1967 overseeing the magazine’s layout. His are most complicatedly works of Pop Art in their own right, collapsing art and commerce with true wit.

Ruscha designed one announcement to mimic a Western Union telegram: “Los Angeles Fire Marshall says he will attend STOP See the most controversial painting to be shown in Los Angeles in our time STOP.” His poster for his 1964 exhibition of Standard gas station paintings featured an unattributed photograph by Hopper above a dizzying typeface in which a single word was written: RUSCHA. In the pages of the magazine, the artist created ads tinged by the consumer smuttiness of Madison Avenue. One “caught” the artist in bed asleep with two women dozing on either side of him. The caption: ED RUSCHA SAYS GOODBYE TO COLLEGE JOYS.

In 1962, Hopps left Ferus to become curator at the Pasadena Museum of Art, where he would organize the globally lauded Duchamp retrospective of 1963. Blum kept the doors open until 1967, when he started a new gallery under his own name. The posters from that era are flashier, each designed from the same template and almost corporate-looking by comparison. Most of these highlighted a single work of art, the primacy of aura now more often bequeathed to the objects rather than to the artists. In the gloss of these images, one sees a certain tipping point into the polish and professionalism that have since overtaken contemporary art. Blum’s gallery focused on bringing New York artists West, rather than the other way around, representing the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, whom he’d given his first show of the Soup Cans in 1962. With this seismic shift, New York artists took center stage at Ferus, and the Californians—as per their nature—were left to plot future eruptions.

Ferus Gallery: Between the Folds
Alden Projects™
34 Orchard Street
Through November 19