“The Cool School” is about a lot of things — L.A.’s seminal Ferus Gallery, curator Walter Hopps, Ed Kienholz’s landmark “Back Seat Dodge ’38” and the influence of custom-car culture on highbrow art. Mostly, though, it’s about creating something out of nothing, which is how a handful of artists established a Los Angeles art scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s — and what helmer Morgan Neville does with a cast of characters and occurrences temperamentally disinclined to cohere. Still, it happens. Doc should have a solid festival run and arthouse exposure before settling into its pre-destined broadcast slots.
The legendary art scene of late ’40s New York, out of which came the art and artists of abstract expressionism, was a heavily European-influenced movement, with imports like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko cross-pollinating with the homegrown Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. “The Cool School” makes clear, without a lot of overstatement, that by the time the postwar shudders hit art in Los Angeles, these artists created something much more purely American — albeit without the necessary machinery of galleries, critics and buyers.
Among the figures singled out for establishing L.A. as something both singular and national is Hopps, co-founder of the Ferus Gallery, which provided a showcase for artists like Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, John Altoon and Billy Al Bengston. Equally important, Ferus provided the idea of L.A. art, and the suggestion that the larger world should pay attention.
Ferus, the first to display Andy Warhol’s soup cans, was relatively short-lived, although it thrived under co-owners Irving Blum and Hopps. Latter eventually decamped to the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), where he curated the first real Pop Art show.
What “The Cool School” does so well, through its color accents and black-and-white photography, through the kinetic music that propels Jeff Bridges’ narration by and the unorthodox attitude that reflects the artists themselves, is impart a sense of discovery. As Neville so obviously feels, making a staid, overly respectful movie about a gang of revolutionaries would miss the point.
There are naysayers — well, one anyway. Onetime Village Voice critic and gallery owner Ivan C. Karp weighs in occasionally to drop a critical bomb on the otherwise elated expression of faith in the Los Angeles art scene: Useless art, useless artists, Karp pronounces on several occasions, and if there were more like him, you wouldn’t get the sense that Karp alone was being used for supercilious comic relief. It sort of keeps “The Cool School” from being more than a panegyric, but auds do get a solid sense of what intellectual life was like before Hopps, Blum, Ferus and the real Americanization of American art.
Production values are first-rate.