In the 1950s and 1960s the American art world enjoyed an East Coast/West Coast rivalry worthy of Biggie and Tupac. New York had the Cedar Bar and Max's Kansas City, but LA had Barney's Beanery and Artforum. For a decade from 1957 Irving Blum's Ferus Gallery in LA was that rare spot where it all came together: locals such as Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin shared turf with former ad-man Andy Warhol and a guy from New Jersey called Roy Lichtenstein. In a remarkable survey exhibition filled with museum loans and museum-quality gems, Gagosian paid tribute to the Ferus and 22 of its artists.
Ferus has been the subject of two West Coast museum exhibitions, 'The Late Fifties at Ferus' at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968, and 'The Last Time I Saw Ferus' at the Newport Harbor Museum in 1976. That this show is in a New York gallery, and at this one in particular, underscores the city's current dominance even as it celebrates Ferus' transcoastal energy. It also makes for some delicious ironies: one wonders how many Feruses could be swallowed up by Gagosian's cavernous Chelsea enclave - part of an international empire that's a far cry from Blum's originally modest, bohemian undertaking.
The story begins in 1957, when Blum left a job with Knoll Furniture to buy Ed Kienholz' stake in Ferus, which was then co-run by Walter Hopps and had a bloated roster of about 70 artists. Hopps, represented here in a witty caricature by Kienholz, left in 1960 for a post at the Pasadena Art Museum. Blum carried on, giving such luminaries as Frank Stella and Joseph Cornell their first LA exposure and Ed Ruscha his first solo show. It was the birth of a scene, chronicled and nurtured by the Ferus' upstairs neighbour Artforum. Dennis Hopper's black and white photographs set the tone: Blum on a boat, surrounded by women in bikinis; Kienholz striking a pose in a junkyard; Warhol coyly holding a flower to his face.
American Pop got its start at the Ferus, but it co-existed with other important movements. 'Finish Fetish' artists drew inspiration from the textures and palettes of car detailing, best exemplified here by Billy Al Bengston's surfboard-slick canvases and Craig Kaufmann's proto-Koonsian vacuum-formed plastic wall piece. Abstract Expressionism was going strong, West Coast-style, in the hands of Richard Diebenkorn and Jay DeFeo; this show suggests that the fluid, Gorky-esque gestures of Hassel Smith and John Altoon deserve equal recognition. Blum also brought in older figures such as Kurt Schwitters, represented here by several of his 'Merz' collages, whose influence can be seen in a Bruce Conner assemblage.
The exhibition catalogue is full of priceless anecdotes that capture the Ferus vibe and testify to Blum's cult of personality. 'I think my greatest achievement was cementing the sense of family the artists had back then', he comments. Not surprisingly, the best stories revolve around Warhol. When asked why he abandoned his cartoon paintings, he mentions having seen 'some transparencies of a guy, I can't tell you his name, who's doing them - but I thought doing them kind of more interestingly than I ever did them - and I somehow lost interest in them.' The guy, of course, was Lichtenstein, whose Drowning Girl (1963) and White Cloud (1964) manage to dazzle even in this high-voltage setting.
It's just as well that Warhol directed his attention elsewhere, to the iconic Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) that anchor this show. Blum was one of the first people to really 'get' Warhol, taking pains to preserve the cans as a set and initially displaying them along a gallery shelf to emphasize their commodified origins (a move that prompted a neighbouring dealer to stack actual cans of Campbell's in his window). Kirk Varnedoe makes a persuasive argument for the shelf arrangement in his catalogue essay for this show, so it's odd that the cans have been hung in grid formation. Nevertheless, their presence is a rare opportunity to appreciate Warhol in the context of his emergence, 'before he had his veneer', as Blum puts it.
Much has changed since those soup cans made their début. Inferior Warhols now fetch unfathomable sums at auction, Ed Ruscha appears in Gap ads and, according to Blum 'the art world has become completely global'. He recalls that at a certain point in the late 1960s 'the East Coast artists began to dominate somehow. And that soured the situation.' Minimalism and Conceptual art were becoming more prominent, as was feminism, a movement that found no place among the self-styled 'studs' of the Ferus. The gallery was built on an art-historical fault line - Postmodern yet pre-Postmodernist. And while Gagosian could never hope to re-create that sense of urgency, it deserves to be recollected.