Walter Hopps was a bit of an oddball, disappearing for days at a time, often hiding in his attic. But he had ambition and, with the help of a few friends, managed to turn post-war Los Angeles from a backwards farm town to the second most important city in the American art world. Some might argue THE most important American city for art, but most of those proponents all live in the Southlands.
Before Hopps, the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art maintained such a conservative agenda it shunned Abstract Expressionism for fear of any Commie sympathy it might contain. After Hopps, New Yorkers (like condescending dealer Ivan Karp) shuddered at the ferocious new competition from California.
If Walter Hopps had a business plan in the mid-1950s, here's how it would have read:
1. Dress like a straight, but be an enigma. (Upon meeting him, many folks believed that he worked for the CIA).
2. Find an affordable space for your gallery (Syndell Studios then Ferus Gallery opened in little out-of-the-way places).
3. Exhibit the work of your friends (including, but not limited to, John Altoon, Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Kenneth Price and Billy Al Bengston).
4. Find a benefactor to keep you going in those first few lean years.
5. Don't back down when the vice cops come for Wallace Berman.
6. As the space begins to take off, team up with a stylish Cary Grant look-alike (that would be Irving Blum) who is even more ambitious and professional than yourself.
7. Create a local collector base by teaching art appreciation classes at the nearby college extension.
8. Help lure an avant art magazine (Artforum) from San Francisco to L.A. Get it based next door to your gallery, Ferus.
9. Champion the New York artists that have not yet caught on (like Andy Warhol).
It's all there in Morgan Neville's loving documentary The Cool School: The Story of The Ferus Art Gallery. Using a busload of archival footage -- much of it simply amazing -- and interviews with surviving artists and the scene's orbiting personalities, Neville has brought to life that moment when Los Angeles art sparked.
Neville's film also affords us the chance to consider the moment when San Francisco squandered its cultural caché. Walter Hopps's first few shows were mainly of art that he brought down from the Bay Area. The pieces helped contextualize the works he chose to show from unknown Los Angeles artists like Craig Kauffman.
After WWII, the Bay Area played host to a vibrant school of Abstract Expressionism. The work coming out of here, often shepherded by Clyfford Still, was of an equal caliber to that coming out of New York. But there was no one in SF who possessed Hopps's vision and wherewithal to cash in on it. And there were not enough collectors willing to invest in the San Francisco scene to keep it alive. And SF soon ended up playing second fiddle to The City of Angels.
It can get really easy to focus on who was a catalyst and who was a slacker. But near the end of The Cool School, to a crowd that's gathered in his honor, Walter Hopps throws you back to the big picture when he quotes a bit from a friend's poem, "Art offers the possibility of love with strangers."
The Cool School opens March 21, 2008 at the Roxie Film Center in San Francisco.