As we enter a new Roaring Twenties, let’s recall two renegade art dealers who kickstarted modern art back in the Swinging Sixties: Walter Hopps and Irving Blum of Ferus, the L.A. gallery that launched Pop Art and the young (guess who?) Andy Warhol in 1962.
Walter Hopps’ forward-looking Ferus Gallery introduced Andy Warhol’s work to the world back in 1962, and it didn’t happen in New York City. Two sleepy little towns: laid back, beatnik-flavored Venice, California and tasteful, manicured Pasadena were the scenes of pioneering exhibitions that changed American culture, both highbrow and low, forever.
The Washington Post once said about Walter Hopps, “he found wonderful artists, and he found them first.” These firsts included the young Warhol as well as the painter of L.A. icons Ed Ruscha, the assemblage artist Ed Kienholz, and Kabbalist-mystic painter Wallace Berman, whose face ended up included on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album cover.
Hopps founded his first gallery (Sindell Studio) in 1952, in mellow (if not downright sleepy) Venice, and his shows there featured some admittedly forgettable abstract paintings. He launched the Ferus Gallery in 1957, and soon took on as a partner Irving Blum, a recent L.A. transplant from Arizona who impressed everyone with his Cary Grant accent and his chic taste in clothes. Blum helped hone Ferus’ mission as a truly avant-garde gallery, which included getting rid of some of Hopps’ artists (if cutting-edge were a term back then, it would have applied to Ferus).
By the early ‘60s these two cultural impresarios were making waves in an otherwise rather staid Los Angeles art scene, launching shows that featured a sometimes goofy, sometimes obscene and often humorous pre-Pop art, which included the grotesquely twisted and amputated body sculptures of Ed Kienholz, a sculptor-carpenter who embodied the rough, ragged spirit of Ferus’ surf-and-beer-loving artists: Llyn Foulkes, Bruce Conner, Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston among them.
To show Ed Kienholz’ work in an art gallery in Los Angeles in the early 1960s was the equivalent of full-color porn suddenly appearing on the Ozzie and Harriet show in ‘50s primetime.
His best-known work was a 1964 mixed-media assemblage called ’38 Back Seat Dodge, a sawed-off rusty car body containing wire-mesh sculptures of two teenagers screwing in the back seat. It was considered by some to be so “revolting, pornographic and blasphemous” when it was shown at the L.A. County Museum of Art in 1966 that the County Board of Supervisors threatened to shut down the show, via the strong arm of the LAPD.
In the end a compromise was reached: while museum guards kept the car doors closed, visitors over the age of 18 could ask to have them opened to take a peek inside. Even today, ’38 Dodge is considered one the most popular pieces in LACMA’s collection.
History records that Ferus was where Andy Warhol got his first one-man show of his mature, Pop-art style work. The year was 1962, and the exhibit on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood consisted of 32 Campbells Soup Can paintings, lined up in all their candy-colored glory on a thin wooden shelf that spanned the gallery wall.
It was Blum who made the decision to show Warhol’s work at Ferus. As he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2013: “I said, ‘What about my showing these soup can paintings in L.A.?’ (Andy) hesitated. I said, ‘Andy, movie stars come into the gallery.’ A total lie because movie stars never came into the gallery.” Blum’s little fib won the day. “I had the idea of keeping them all together. He said, ‘I’d love that, they were conceived as a series.’”
While setting up the show, the young and virtually unknown Warhol said to an even younger, better known Walter Hopps: “I think they’re portraits, don’t you?” Hopps would later comment that it was only back in these early days that Andy liked to talk very much.
Since that quiet earthquake of a show, pop culture, to quote former Warhol actress Mary Woronov, “has fused entirely with art.”
Arguably the most famous West Coast artist to emerge from Ferus was the creator of Los Angeles icons, painter and printmaker Ed Ruscha from Oklahoma, who lit out for L.A. as soon as he was out of high school in 1956. It was a perfect fit between artist and landscape: as he later told Woronov, “Los Angeles was like a narcotic to me.” As a recent interview in the New Yorker confirms, that spell has never left Ruscha, whose studios now are in ocean-adjacent Culver City and the desert country east of Palm Springs.
In a videotaped interview from the ‘90s, Ruscha remembered Ferus as “this little pipsqueak spot…run by Walter Hopps and Irving Blum. You could tell something vital was going on there. The Ferus was the place to go.”
By all accounts Ferus could piss off the neighbors with wild and boozy opening-night parties that spilled out onto the streets, including an occasional fistfight. As Ruscha remembered it, “They’d have openings on Monday nights and people would go there and get rowdy…it sure had spice to it, I’ll tell ya.”
While setting up the show, the young and virtually unknown Warhol said to an even younger, better known Walter Hopps: “I think they’re portraits, don’t you?”
Meanwhile, the Walter Hopps who was commandeering all this activity comes across to us now as a bespectacled and buttoned-up young chain smoker, smartly dressed at all times in a suit and tie and, in retrospect, embodying a particular countercultural type of midcentury American male: picture a Kennedy-era young exec in horn-rimmed glasses who’s always secretly high on speed (maybe also think of Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Clare Quiltey in Lolita).
Hopps grew up in Eagle Rock near Pasadena, developing into a studious, serious and eccentric character that most of his artists would come to consider as “one of them.” He was a self-taught art historian and jazz expert, a pill-head and a high-functioning gallerist who later became one of the most influential curators and museum directors in the world, overseeing world-class collections in D.C., Houston and New York (remember that this was back when the word “curator” actually meant, well, a curator).
Hopps was addicted to pulling all-nighters and he was habitually late for appointments. An in-joke pinback button printed up by his gallery staff read: Walter Hopps Will Be Here in 20 Minutes.
But Hopps in those days wasn’t only running a gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. In 1962, the same year that saw the Andy Warhol show at Ferus, some major art history was about to be made again…this time across town.
As Ruscha recalled, “Walter Hopps, or ‘Chico’ as he was known then, at the Pasadena Art Museum assembled this exhibit of maybe ten artists, for a show called the New Painting of Common Objects. It was actually…pre-Pop. It was the first Pop art show, but they didn’t call it Pop art. No one had coined that term yet.”
New Painting of Common Objects featured early work by Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Warhol and Ruscha, kicking off a decade of Pop Art dominance in the American artworld… and it preceded the Guggenheim’s “Six Painters and the Object” Pop Art show in New York by a year.
But if the princely New York art dealer Leo Castelli had already launched those early pre-Pop innovators Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the mid-1950s, thus helping to topple Abstract Expressionism from its long-held artistic perch, with one stroke, Hopps and Blum launched an entire movement that would dominate American culture for a good decade and a half: Pop!
In 1963, while busy as ever running Ferus with Blum, Hopps decided to pursue a project that was clearly long overdue: putting together the first-ever Marcel Duchamp museum retrospective. (Remember the famous photo of Duchamp playing chess with naked Eve Babitz? That museum retrospective.)
This early in his career, Hopps was about to establish an art-historical marker of gigantic proportions. It ended up happening at the Pasadena Art Museum (today known as the Norton Simon Museum).
As it turns out, Hopps had once met Duchamp when he was only 15, thanks to a chance meeting at the home of Duchamp’s West Coast patrons, the art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Hopps’ school class had visited the couple’s art-stuffed house in Hollywood as a field trip, and the boy was mesmerized. The Arensbergs saw their smart and curious young visitor from Eagle Rock as a budding aesthete, and for years they would cultivate his developing good taste like a plant.
Duchamp himself was still not-quite-canonized in 1963, but enough so that the crowd in attendance on opening night included Warhol, Dennis Hopper, the aforementioned Eve Babitz, and virtually the entire L.A. art world of that time. Here’s a well-known photo of Billy Al Bengston squeezing the boyish cheeks of a young and smiling Warhol at the opening, with Dennis Hopper looking on laughing, and Irving Blum in the background. (The photo has a certifiable passing-the-torch feel to it. Warhol was so young here his graying hair wasn’t even bleached yet.)
Despite the fact that many art-lovers would be hard-pressed to say exactly why they find Marcel Duchamp so appealing (I suspect it’s mainly his good looks in photographs and the endless anecdotes about his personality, which is not a legitimate reason to admire an artist a good 90% of whose work is so aggressively boring to look at), the fact is that ever since Hopps’ pioneering exhibition the long-dead Frenchman has become the patron saint, and unwitting cause, of some of the most regrettable developments in the artworld: namely the endlessly-flogged dead horse of conceptualism and dry, chalky “installation” art as sleep-inducing as two Sominex tablets: a few scattered twigs on a gallery floor, a broken hand tool taped to a wall, some menstrual rags nailed to the ceiling, and the ever-popular chair with a leg cut off…you know, that kind of art.
So has Duchamp’s example been misunderstood? In a thousand different ways. (Fun fact: there is not one human face depicted in any of Duchamp’s mature, avant-garde, anti-art work.)
While the wily, aging Duchamp was basking in late-life fame, and critics oohed and aahed over the “legend” that he had given up art-making for chess by his early ‘30s, it was sharp-witted observant and perceptive Walter Hopps of L.A. who suddenly one day had an interesting and very odd thought: what if the secretive old man actually hadn’t stopped making art? It was in early 1963, while the two were still busy arranging the show at Pasadena, that Hopps decided to pop the question:
“Assuming there is a secret work you have been working on for quite some time…do you think this would be the time and place to show it?”
Duchamp must have been astounded to be asked this question, especially since the truth was that Hopps’ intuition was right on target: Duchamp had indeed been working, since 1946, in secret on a private project that would not be unveiled until after his death in 1968.
The normally imperturbable Frenchman must have taken a second or two to gather his composure before carefully answering his young friend: “If there would be such a thing, the answer would be: no.” And Hopps must have smiled: a long, knowing, triumphant smile.
Looking back at all of this, one has to wonder if Marcel Duchamp was perhaps secretly bothered by the similarity between the scandalous and famous Ed Kienholz work, ’38 Back Seat Dodge, and his own not-quite-finished Etant Donne’, his naked lady seen through a keyhole, sitting hidden away in his New York studio. One clue might lie in Duchamp’s comment about Kienholz from the early 1960s: “I love the work of this vulgar Californian!”
Back in 1962, Walter Hopps urged Irving Blum to buy all 32 of Warhol’s Campbells Soup Can paintings, together as a group, while they were still on exhibit at Ferus. Very smart Irving Blum would sell all of them decades later to MoMA, for $15,000,000.
Hopps died in 2005. Like Warhol, he was not given to deep self-reflection. To him it was the art and artists that mattered most. At his core, perhaps, he was selfless: the ultimate fan.
Meanwhile as the avant-garde has itself become the academy, there seems to be less room for uncategorizable free spirits or “characters” like Walter Hopps or Ed Kienholz or Wallace Berman, except maybe on the lowest lowbrow fringe of the artworld. That doesn’t seem healthy.
And oh, how the ‘60s art world must have flinched when conceptual artist Yoko Ono’s ever-sarcastic boyfriend John Lennon famously said, some years before he was eventually brought into line and domesticated by the Mrs., “Avant-garde. That’s French for bullshit.”