The Cool School

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I caught an early look at The Cool School, a documentary about the West Coast art scene in the 1950s and ’60s. Directed by Morgan Neville, co-written by him and Kristine McKenna, it premieres Tuesday at 10 P.M. on PBS.

It’s built around the focal point of L.A. art in those days, the Ferus Gallery, Ur-institution of the West Coast art scene. Ferus was founded by the late Walter Hopps, the eagle-eyed curator who went on to become director of the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. and a character who should get a film all his own some day. (I love it that Frank Gehry tells the camera: “We all thought he was in the CIA.”) Then along came Irving Blum, a skillful operator with a Cary Grant accent who partnered in, gave the place cred with rich collectors and made it work on a wider stage. On which he eventually waltzed off with Hopps’ wife.

The Ferus represented Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin and Billy Al Bengston. It famously gave an easterner, Andy Warhol, his first gallery show. (Take that, Leo Castelli.) This was back in a day when, as one West Coast collector tells it, there wasn’t even a French restaurant in L.A. The New York dealer Ivan Karp describes the L.A. art scene in those days as something that he didn’t even know existed, “a miasmal mist in the distance.”

This is a film that’s more about the scene than the art. It’s got a better than average made-for-TV documentary feel. Lots of talking heads in short takes, a running soundtrack to keep the joint jumping, more data points than grace notes, no time to pause. Jeff Bridges — an interesting photographer by the way — gamely narrates. I wish they hadn’t made him say the words “a generation of renegade artists” or talk about Hopps modernizing Pasadena’s “cultural discourse”. There’s a bit of the inevitable Behind the Music story arc. The L.A. scene is born. It grows. Then comes the money and the drugs, the drugs and the money. Bengston comes on camera again. “All we were was whores and Irving was the pimp.” We’re spared the reunion tour.

See it for all parts having to do with Ed Kienholz and for the good archival footage, including some of Marcel Duchamp — in Pasadena Hopps organized his first retrospective — and an early ’60s newscaster telling his camera that in Venice, California, “only the most beat of the beatniks remain, tapping out their pathetic rhythms of protest.”

All these years later the case could be made that L.A. art of the ’50s and ’60s, for all the sanctimony about taking the art historical focus away from New York, and despite the canonization of Ruscha and Irwin, is still a miasma in the mist. I’ll give this film credit for clearing the mist a bit. As Irwin says: “Even though we didn’t have any evidence, we were completely sure we were on the right track and everybody else was full of sh*t.”

Everybody else wasn’t full of sh*t. (By the way, can you guess the word I’ve just bleeped here?) But that doesn’t mean they weren’t on the right track too.