Last year’s release of The Cool School, a documentary about the Ferus Gallery, was a milestone in the life of many of the gallery artists. It’s an important story for the city of Los Angeles, too. Although the rise and fall of the gallery is shown, one of the subtexts has not received all the attention that it needs: the place of ceramic sculpture within the gallery. For many years, I’ve been researching the way that contemporary ceramics entered the mainstream galleries in Los Angeles. In a previous post, I talked about the Felix Landau Gallery and the first exhibit by Peter Voulkos in 1956. I’ve also posted some comments by artists who were around at that time, such as Ken Price and John Baldessari. That was a fertile period in post-war Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles during 1956, an unusual and miraculous partnership developed. Artist Ed Keinholz and curator Walter Hopps had first worked together on the All-City Art Festival, an official city-sponsored show in Barnsdall Park. Their partnership was simple, and Keinholz laid down the parameters when he told Hopps, “I could use you. There are an awful lot of people I can’t stand to talk to and you’re going to have to talk to every one of them. You’re going to be in charge of bullshit”—by which he meant the theory and concept of what they were doing—“and I’m going to be in charge of work.” (quote from Walter Hopps, in Keinholz: A Retrospective, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1996, p.31)
Both men had tried commercial enterprises independently, but when their fledgling galleries closed by the end of 1956, they decided to work together on a new gallery. To Hopps, “it seemed almost inevitable that we should pool our entrepreneurial objectives. After writing out an informal contract on a hot dog wrapper, we shook hands and formed a new partnership. We soon located a wonderful space behind the antique shop of Camille and Streeter Blair. It was on North La Cienega Boulevard, on county land, which meant it was under the authority of the sheriff instead of the city police. The area was a tenderloin district, full of prostitutes, gay bars, and—strangely—art galleries. Our gallery opened in 1957. We called it Ferus Gallery.” (Also from Walter Hopps’ retrospective catalogue on Ed Keinholz, previously cited.)
One of the first exhibitions at the new Ferus Gallery was a group show including the work by John Mason, Jerry Rothman and Paul Soldner, held from July 19th through August 15th, 1957. John Mason’s work would continue to be exhibited at Ferus, in a series of one-man shows in 1958, 1959, 1961, and 1963. At this time, the young Mason was thrust into a scene with “the undeniable energy of Southern Californians such as John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Wallace Berman, Craig Kauffman, and Ed Moses. Founders of the gallery—Walter Hopps and Ed Keinholz—and, later, director Irving Blum, projected an aura of professionalism and reached beyond the boundaries of Los Angeles to make Ferus a part of a national scene.” (From Larsen, Susan. Los Angeles Painting in the Sixties, Art in Los Angeles, Seventeen Artists from the Sixties, LACMA, 1981, p.19).