Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Cool School

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: California Beat Era Artists Revisited in “The Cool School”

Back in the Fifties, in the days before TV had hopelessly homogenized America into a place where you could find the same merchandise in the same chain stores in every mall all across the country, the East and West Coast had distinctly different cultures, even counter-cultures. For instance, while New York was the home of beatniks and a frenetic style of jazz known as hard bop, Los Angeles gave birth to a much mellower alternative called Cool.
And though the leading Manhattan galleries on 57th Street were then showing the work of such emerging icons as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein, the West Coast scene was celebrating their own local artists like Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Wallace Berman and Craig Kauffman. What many may not know is that the Ferus Gallery, started in 1956 by med school dropout Walter Hopps and self-taught, aspiring artist Ed Kienholz, played a pivotal role in launching the careers of “The Cool School” of abstract expressionists among collectors in the L.A. area.
The intriguing story of the rise of the Ferus Gallery is recounted in this documentary comprised of interviews conducted with still surviving principals along with reams of riveting archival footage. Designed more for the devotee of the arts than your average moviegoer, the film is still apt to enthrall even the uninitiated who wouldn’t know a Jackson Pollock from a Willem de Kooning.
For it focuses as much on quirky personalities and the hedonistic lifestyle, as it does on the paintings and sculptures themselves. Thus, we learn that Walter Hopps became hooked on speed and ended up in a mental hospital, while his wife Shirley left him for Irving Blum, the smooth operator who took over the business.
Despite all their success, seems like a lot of this salacious set went mad. We hear one embittered, elderly artist admit that he and his colleagues had “started out idealistic but ended up whores. And Irving was the pimp.” There’s videotape of another’s funeral during which he is buried behind the wheel of his favorite vintage automobile.
Decadent indulgences aside, The Cool School can still be readily appreciated for its valuable lesson that one need not be dependent on the New York Establishment or any Ivory Tower critics for validation. Furthermore, the enduring widespread enjoyment of the work of these modern masters proves the basic maxim that “art offers the possibility of love with strangers.”

Very Good (3 stars)
Running time: 86 minutes
Studio: Arthouse Films

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