Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s

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9780805088366: Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s

The extraordinary story of the artists who propelled themselves to international fame in 1960s Los Angeles

Los Angeles, 1960: There was no modern art museum and there were few galleries, which is exactly what a number of daring young artists liked about it, among them Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Robert Irwin, Bruce Nauman, Judy Chicago and John Baldessari. Freedom from an established way of seeing, making, and marketing art fueled their creativity, which in turn inspired the city. Today Los Angeles has four museums dedicated to contemporary art, around one hundred galleries, and thousands of artists. Here, at last, is the book that tells the saga of how the scene came into being, why a prevailing Los Angeles permissiveness, 1960s-style, spawned countless innovations, including Andy Warhol's first exhibition, Marcel Duchamp's first retrospective, Frank Gehry's mind-bending architecture, Rudi Gernreich's topless bathing suit, Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, even the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Doors, and other purveyors of a California style. In the 1960s, Los Angeles was the epicenter of cool.

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About the Author:

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is the author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, considered the most definitive biography of the popular artist. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is a journalist and art critic for Artnet, ARTnews and the Los Angeles Times.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

1963: Andy and Marcel

The seven-foot Elvis in the Ferus Gallery window was startling, even by Los Angeles standards. In the gallery's back room, paintings of Elizabeth Taylor, with her outsized red lips and slashes of bright blue eye shadow, greeted visitors. Andy Warhol was fixated on celebrities and it wouldn't be long before he would become one himself.

A feeling of excitement charged the balmy evening air outside, and North La Cienega Boulevard traffic slowed as drivers gawked at the scene. Inside, stylishly coifed women in sleeveless dresses mingled with Los Angeles artists, awkward young men outfitted in thrift-store splendor. Warhol entered the filled-to-capacity gallery wearing a carnation in the lapel of his Brooks Brothers blazer.

In 1963 Los Angeles became a mecca for those who rejected the old and embraced the new in art, film, fashion, and music. For many artists, the city's tenuous attachment to history and tradition translated as openness to fresh ideas. Warhol's show contributed to the dawning realization that Los Angeles itself could be the next big thing.

Warhol was nervous as his exhibition opened on the evening of September 30. He had had just two previous exhibitions, the first held the previous summer at Ferus. Though Warhol today is considered the quintessential New York artist, he received his first break in Los Angeles when the suave—some would say fawning—Irving Blum and the perspicacious but flighty Walter Hopps took a chance on the young artist. Warhol's paintings of Campbell's soup cans, thirty-two to be exact, each painstakingly lettered with the appropriate flavor, were arranged on a shelf that girdled the walls, turning the gallery into a grocery store of sorts. Hopps's wife, Shirley, recalled, "It was one of those times when we knew we were onto something."1

Not everyone agreed. The show was ridiculed in a Los Angeles Times cartoon of two barefoot beatniks in the "Farout Art Gallery" looking at the paintings of soup cans and musing, "Frankly, the cream of asparagus does nothing for me, but the terrifying intensity of the chicken noodle gives me a real Zen feeling." Nearby, David Stuart mocked Ferus by arranging a pyramid of Campbell's soup in the window of his gallery with a sign: "Get the real thing for only 29 cents a can."2

Blum convinced some collectors to purchase Warhol's soup-can paintings for $100 apiece. After a chat with art critic John Coplans, one of the first to recognize the importance of serial imagery, Blum agreed that Warhol's everyday Pop art signaled the end of the individual masterpiece; he was determined that the pictures remain together as a set. He persuaded collectors to return the half-dozen soup-can paintings that he had managed to sell. Then he asked Warhol if he could buy all of them on a layaway plan: $1,000 for the entire set to be paid over the next year.3

Warhol didn't need the money. For years, he had been one of the most successful illustrators in New York City, known for his shoe drawings for I. Miller, easily making around $50,000 a year. But this was different. This was art. Warhol was sufficiently pleased to agree to the deal and sign up for another show with Ferus. He also silk-screened four portraits of the energetic entrepreneurial owner.

What a difference a year could make in the 1960s, a decade of seismic shifts. In August 1962, Warhol, working with studio assistant Gerard Malanga, abandoned the paintbrush for the silk screen. His first silk-screened canvas was turquoise and covered by rows of Troy Donahue head shots, each face of the Hollywood heartthrob framed in a yearbook-style oval. Four months later, due to an unexpected gap in her schedule, Eleanor Ward gave Warhol his first New York show at the Stable Gallery, where Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly had had their first shows. It sold out.

Pop was gaining momentum as a movement of sorts by the time Warhol, to save on shipping, sent a roll of silvered canvas to Ferus with instructions to cut out as many images of Elvis as needed. Shirley Hopps remembered that Warhol sent no directions so she, Blum, and the gallery artists spent an evening cutting them into twos or threes in a rather haphazard manner, not unlike the assembly line technique at Warhol's East Forty-seventh Street studio, the Factory, in New York.

To get to the opening, Warhol and Malanga, along with Taylor Mead and Wynn Chamberlain, drove across country for three days in a station wagon with a mattress in the back and the radio blaring songs by Leslie Gore, the Ronettes, and Bobby Vinton. Everything along the highway looked like Pop art to them. "We were seeing the future and we knew it for sure," Warhol observed.4

They never suspected that Los Angeles could be booked. Because of the World Series, most hotels were full so Warhol called actors Dennis Hopper and his wife Brooke Hayward. She, in turn, called her father in New York, producer Leland Hayward, and convinced him to give them his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Los Angeles started to look promising.

Warhol had met Hopper in New York through Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler. Warhol once said, "Henry gave me all of my ideas" and made a film consisting only of Geldzahler smoking a cigar for ninety minutes. Impressed by this duo, Hopper immediately bought one of Warhol's double silk screens of the Mona Lisa and invited him to come with Geldzahler to the soundstage to watch his guest-star performance on the TV show The Defenders. Not long after, Hopper flew to New York and went with Hopps and Blum to the studio of Roy Lichtenstein, where he immediately bought the artist's comic book–style sunset painting for $750. "Everybody was talking about the return to reality," Hopper recalled. "This is our reality—the comic books and soup cans, man."5

Lean and edgy in appearance, Hopper was drawn to advanced art from the day he saw his first Jackson Pollock painting at the home of actor Vincent Price, who had used his profits from scary movies to amass an impressive collection. "When I saw that, I got it immediately," Hopper said.6 His instincts would prove impeccable. A former poor boy from Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper was the only collector to wind up with one of Warhol's soup-can paintings because, in an effort to save $25, he managed to buy one for $75 from the Westwood gallery owned by Virginia Dwan.

The daughter of Margaret Sullavan, Brooke Hayward was a classic beauty. As Hollywood royalty, she should have been out of Hopper's league. Hayward had grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut, with Henry Fonda's children and had even been kicked out of Girl Scouts with her friend Jane. But Dennis Hopper was more than just another actor. He was wildly creative, and his charisma was undeniable in movies such as Giant. Together, the Hoppers were considered glittering examples of the new Hollywood, perfect hosts for a party for Warhol and friends. The very night of the artist's arrival, they invited the Ferus contingent and other young actors to their West Hollywood home at 1712 North Crescent Heights, where they had moved after losing their mansion in the 1961 fires that destroyed their Bel Air neighborhood. Their Mediterranean-style home was bohemian and furnished with circus posters, a Mexican clown sculpture, and Hopper's own collages. The Mona Lisa silk screen hung next to the Lichtenstein sunset. Warhol met Hopper's colleagues Robert Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and Sal Mineo, who was Hopper's costar in Rebel Without a Cause, as well as actors Suzanne Pleshette, Peter Fonda, who looked like a "preppy mathematician," and Troy Donahue. Joints were passed and people danced. Artist Craig Kauffman was a little shocked by the Warhol crowd. "They were all giggling and pouring sugar on the backs of each other's hands. I thought this was a little far-out."7 Whether or not this was really sugar, Kauffman never discovered.

"This party was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me," Warhol said.8 He only regretted that he had left his Bolex movie camera in his hotel room. Warhol embraced everything about Los Angeles that tended to irritate the intellectual, the cultured, or the well-bred. "Vacant, vacuous Hollywood was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into. Plastic. White-on-white. I wanted to live my life at the level of the script of The Carpetbaggers."9

The opening on September 30, 1963, was less star-studded than his party, but Warhol was philosophical. "Anyway, movies were pure fun, art was work."10 Still, he was amazed by the impact of all the Elvises in the front room and the Liz Taylors in the back, as he'd never seen them all together. He made a four-minute movie of his installation. Los Angeles rising art stars attended the opening, some of whom were involved in their own versions of Pop: Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, and Billy Al Bengston, as well as those developing their own versions of what, in a few years, would be termed "Minimalism": Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, and Robert Irwin.

The short, slight Warhol had a congenital skin condition that he covered with pale makeup. He wore an outlandish silvery white toupee atop his own mousy brown hair, which he had been losing since 1953. His pasty face and skinny frame contrasted dramatically with the virile physiques of the L.A. artists in their twenties, all of them golden and muscular from surfing, swimming, or simply driving around in convertibles. He was slightly awed by their backslapping, cajoling, and sarcastic humor and though he was quite obviously gay, he felt completely at ease in their macho company, an artist among artists. They embraced his art as though it were both welcome and inevitable. Ruscha immediately felt "a great kinship. . . . It was like a logical departure from the kind of painting that was happening at that time."11 Warhol, in turn, supported their totally synthetic aesthetic. "The artificial fascinates me, the bright and shiny."12

Sales were brisk. In just one year, the general populace on ...

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