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David and Art - "I Love LA"

In the mid-twentieth century, Los Angeles joined New York as a center of contemporary art. How it happened is a good story.

My son is in Los Angeles this summer with his university’s “Summer in LA program.” He’s taking a couple of classes and doing an internship at a production studio. His being out there has naturally directed my thoughts to LA and it’s caused me to reflect on the LA art scene for the first time in a long time.

When it comes to art and public awareness, people usually think of New York City or Paris but LA doesn’t really get a whole lot of attention. Since the middle of the last century, however, there’s been a very distinct Los Angeles art scene and it has produced some magnificent painters. The story of that scene, especially the contemporary, avant-garde scene that developed in the 1950s and 60s is a story that highlights the importance of individuals, and how much influence one person can have on something as communal as an art scene. The name to know about the LA art scene is Walter Hopps.

Hopps was born in Los Angeles in 1932. He started college at Stanford but after a year transferred back down to UCLA where he studied microbiology and art history. He wanted very much to spend his time looking at new art, but “nobody in LA was responding to the art I was interested in,” said Hopps. It wasn’t getting shown in any of the galleries. For its part, the LA County Museum of Art hated contemporary art and thought it was a communist plot of some sort.

In 1952, Hopps sold his stamp collection and some war bonds, and he and two friends opened a basic art space they called the Syndell Studio to give new artists a place where they could show their stuff. Syndell didn’t last long but its final exhibit took place on the famous Santa Monica Pier and featured 100 paintings by 40 artists.

In 1957, Hopps and artist Edward Kienholz opened a new studio they called the Ferus Gallery. New art was going to be their focus. The LA Times said that “Ferus was the right place at the right time, an important early incubator of contemporary and avant-garde art” in Los Angeles. It gave local artists a place to show their works, and also brought contemporary NY artists to the West Coast for the first time.

The former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—which is a great museum you should check out the next time you’re in Northern California—said that the Ferus Gallery represented nothing less that “the transition of Los Angeles from provincial center to what it is today—an internationally recognized center for the arts.”

Let’s hang out on the west coast for a while.