Appellate Judge James A. Stewart was part of a rule-breaking origami scene. Naturally, it folded.
"There is this tendency out here just to not care about art history, but it's because we're a young city. We're not surrounded by art. We don't have to deal with our past because there is no past."—John Baldessari, artist
In the shadow of the movie business, another form of creativity quietly flourished in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. A small clique of artists—including Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin, John Altoon, John Mason, and Ken Price—broke the rules and created the L.A. art scene.
The Cool School, narrated by Jeff Bridges, profiles the artists and exhibitors who made up that scene, with special attention to the influential Ferus gallery. It also looks at influential exhibitions in the city, including a show by Andy Warhol, believed to be the first major East Coast artist to do a show in L.A.
The visuals have a rough edge—and director Morgan Neville (Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: "Cowboy" Jack Clement's Home Movies) seems to like it that way. If you, too, like lots of flecks and scratches, so will you. They're working with a lot of old black-and-white footage, including home movies, and they made a virtue of it. Even some of the current interviews are shown in black-and-white, with occasional patches of color drawing the viewer's attention. There's a cool jazzy score that's pervasive but doesn't overwhelm the narration or the interviews.
The Cool School has a lot of good interviews with people in and around the L.A. scene, including Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, who were artists as well as actors. It also makes good use of its period photos and film.
More than half an hour of bonus footage fills out the DVD. You can see Walter Hopps explain "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps," an artwork that portrays him as a sort of bumbling Fearless Fosdick; "The World of Ed Kienholz," which shows the artist making a plaster cast of a TV host as he's being interviewed; and the recent "Ferus Artists Reunion."
While I enjoyed what I saw, I wished The Cool School had broadened its scope. There were a couple of clips of reaction—usually unfavorable—to the new artists, but I wasn't sure how representative that reaction was. There also could have been more discussion of what the legacy of the 1950s and 1960s scene means to today's artists in Los Angeles and elsewhere. I've seen on my own how pop art, one of the trends featured in The Cool School, has made its way into our culture; I'd like to learn more about other L.A. art movements shown.
The Cool School is a good introduction to an art scene that I wasn't that familiar with. If art is your scene, either as a doer or a viewer, you'll be interested in this Golden Age of Modern Art story.
For my part, I also got a first look at an artist I found interesting: Ed Ruscha, who makes words come alive, almost, with his emotional paintings of them. Just think of what he could have done with the phrase, "Golden Age of Modern Art." Chances are that you won't like everything you see in The Cool School, but something will stick in your mind.
Not guilty. Now imagine those two words painted in white against a blue background, with a halo above them…
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