Plagens, Peter, Artforum International
GAGOSIAN GALLERY, NEW YORK
The art of what used to be called (proudly by its fans, derisively by its detractors) the Ferus "boys club" is back. And it looks pretty damned good after the museum-quality exhibition of key work from Los Angeles's breakthrough Ferus Gallery (1957-66) at Gagosian's Chelsea branch. The show was curated by the former Ferus majordomo, kettledrum-voiced Gary Grant stunt double Irving Blum. The first thing you encountered, by way of introduction, was a spate of black-and-white photographs of young, raffish, '60s-suave Ed Ruseha, Craig Kauffman, and Larry Bell, all looking as smart-ass elegant as their art. And their art, along with that of John Altoon, Robert Irwin, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, and Ken Price, made Fetus the contemporary Kunstkapital of Los Angeles four decades ago. The gallery was started on La Cienega Boulevard in 1957 by the bombastic assemblagist Ed Kienholz and the flakily brilliant art historian Walter Hopps. Blum, a former Knoll furniture salesman recently smitten with modern art, arrived s ix months later and bought Kienholz's share in the emporium for five hundred bucks. As its winkingly affable and intuitively decisive front man, Blum made Ferus a success. He mixed shows of local hotshots with exhibitions of current and crucial New York art (including Andy Warhol's first solo show of Pop work, in 1962) that you could hardly see anyplace else in LA. Here's how Blum--according to Roberta Bernstein's interview in the show's catalogue--did things off-the-cuff in those earlier, simpler days:
I went to Houston Street where [Jasper Johns] then lived in a refurbished savings bank and I remember as I walked in there was a little Schwitters on the wall. I continued on into the studio where he was organizing his small sculptures, including the Light Bulb, Flashlight, Ale Cans. I said, "Jasper, have you ever shown these?" He said that he hadn't. I said, "I've got an idea that I'd like you to consider. Why don't we do a show in California of your sculpture and include collages by Kurt Schwitters," Jasper said, "Well, where can you get the Schwitters?" I told him there was a lady called Galka Scheyer who was a European expatriate living in Pasadena with a group of them and I was certain I could borrow them. He said, "Well, if you can get them, let me know and we'll do the show." So, in 1960, we had this beautiful exhibition of Jasper's sculpture and Schwitters's collages.
Blum (and Gagosian) can still get things done. "Ferus" includes the thirty-two Campbell's Soup Can paintings Warhol showed at the gallery in '62; Blum kept the Soup Can works together for himself and eventually presented them in 1996 to the Museum of Modern Art as a partial gift, reputedly receiving a cool fifteen million dollars in the bargain. (MOMA declined to lend these to the recent Warhol retrospective during its final stopover at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art.) The show also boasts Ruseha's infamous 1965-68 painting Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The soup cans still look fresh and Ruscha's canvas has the same sickly, pea green subversiveness (in the sky, over a pus-colored museum) it did when Ferns's announcement for it noted that the city fire marshal would be present at the opening. …