Retrospective

From the Archives: A Brief History of Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz’s Trailblazing Ferus Gallery

Robert Alexander, John Reed, Wallace Berman, Juanita Dixon, and Walter Hopps in the alley next to Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, ca. 1957.

©J. PAUL GETTY TRUST/CHARLES BRITTIN/THE GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, CHARLES BRITTIN PAPERS, 2005.M.11.9

“These artists may not hit pay dirt, but they are ready to risk embarkation on strange waters,” Jules Langsner wrote in 1958, referring to the artists on the roster of Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery. Founded by Walter Hopps and artist Edward Kienholz in 1957, Ferus brought some of the finest examples of Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Dada to California and, in the process, helped to shape the L.A. art scene. With Hopps’s memoir, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art, which was put together by Deborah Treisman and ARTnews senior editor Anne Doran, having recently been released, we collected reviews of Ferus shows from the ARTnews archives. In the time the gallery was open, from 1957 to 1966, Julian Langsner reviewed exhibitions of art by John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Bruce Conner, Sonia Gechtoff, and more. Langsner’s reviews, most of which are excerpted from his “Art news from Los Angeles” column, follow below. —Alex Greenberger

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
May 1957

The town’s newest avant-garde showcase is the Ferus Gallery, which opens its doors with an exhibition well-suited to afficionados of Abstract-Expressionism. The San Francisco contingent and the Los Angeles group are equally well represented. It is an impressive show if taken for what it is, an anthology of works with which one is already familiar. Here are pictures by Richard Diebenkorn, Sonia Gechtoff, Clyfford Still and Julius Wasserstein. Perhaps not as well known, but more than holding their own, are newer faces like Erwin Bronner, Carol Carroll, Jack Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Gerd Koch.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
Summer 1957

Beyond a shadow of a doubt the most impressive Abstract-Expressionist paintings seen here in some time are by a San Francisco artist, Sonia Gechtoff, at Ferus Gallery. Standing 10 or more feet high, the paintings take full advantage of their scale, enveloping the viewer in a self-contained world of foaming rhythms.

It is the impact of repetitive rhythms that mark these corybantic pictures. Miss Gechtoff now occupies a front rank position among California painters.

Also at Ferus Gallery is another Abstract-Expressionist, Hilda Levy, who, while not as fully realized, or as a persuasive as Miss Gechtoff, is nonetheless, in her more restrained and quiet way, inventive, poetic, sensitive. Her large untitled drawings of intertwined, fine-spun line, meandering, zigzagging, weaving back and forth, up and down, are quite entrancing.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
November 1957

The Ferus Gallery is presenting recent oils and drawings by San Francisco Abstract-Expressionist Julius Wasserstein. A brutalist, Wasserstein never smoothes over the rough edges of his somber improvisations. The uncompromising effort sometimes misses the mark but always is an honest statement.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
February 1958

Another painting survey here enjoys the advantages of selection from a specific point of view. The Ferus Gallery presentation of Abstract-Expressionism by Northern and Southern California painters opens the window to studio activity often hidden from view.

Many of these artists are pushing their talents to the limit without concern for immediate approval. Consequently, the gallery is pervaded by a timely and spirited air. Hassell Smith’s untitled canvas surrounds the viewer in a densely-textured, nebulous atmosphere. Color runs to early tones interfolded in patchy waves of pigment. It is the kind of picture that quietly insinuates itself. On the other hand, Craig Kauffman is very much in evidence with an effervescent painting, also untitled. Here vertical rectangles of vivid reds, yellows, blues shimmer on a field of white. Full of bounce, the picture has the added interest of subtlety of line. Exhibiting infrequently, the artist has not received his due.

Other painters meriting more than passing notice at Ferus include John Altoon, Ben Bartosh, Albert Bengston, Sonia Gechtoff, Robert Hanson, Gilebert Henderson, Robert Johnson, Gerd and Irene Koch, Edward Moses and Paul Sarkesian. These artists may not hit pay dirt, but they are ready to risk embarkation on strange waters.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
March 1958

The three-man show of John Altoon, Edward Kienholz, and J. DeFeo at Ferus Gallery, represents an honest, though somewhat uneven, attempt to work on the frontiers of painting today.

John Altoon, recently returned from the Costa Brava, attains electric tension in his untitled temperas on board. Streaks of paint crackle across abrasive surfaces and flat passages overlap in staccato fashion. Altoon improvises spontaneously, energetically, with verve and authority. The missing ingredient so far is clarity of intention.

Abstract-Expressionist wood reliefs, combining fragments of wood, glass and metal with surface improvisations are the forte of Edward Kienholz. The closest approximation to Burri on the West Coast, Kienholz shares with his Italian counterpart the capacity to transform bits and pieces of rubbish into visual metaphors. He has not, as yet, achieved the sensitive or sensuous range of Burri.

“This summer in Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
Summer 1958

At the opposite end of the abstract spectrum [from Karl Benjamin] is another gifted young artist, Bill Bengston, exhibiting recent Abstract-Expressionist works at Ferus Gallery. Displaying a remarkable degree of authority in a first one-man show, Bengston is a painter who commands attention by the sheer liveliness of brisk color and racing passages of pigment.

Generally favoring large canvases, Bengston translates into pictorial equivalents the flutter of birds taking off. There is not the slightest effort to represent the action stroboscopically. Rather it is the sensation of fluttering wings lifting birds into space that he is after. At the same time the pulsating thrust upward is diagrammed on the canvas, and if you tune in closely you catch the sound of churning air.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
October 1958

John Altoon’s untitled Abstract-Expressionist oils (at the Ferus Gallery) are vigorous, forceful, masculine. No effort is made to seduce the viewer into acquiescence. Altoon favors a twisting line tumbling in and out of a scumbled surface. Color runs towards earthen hues, interrupted by occasional vibrant accents. Altoon evolves his thematic variations as much by elimination and overpainting as by evolving motifs along the surface. The result is a group of works ranging from the compelling to the unrealized.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
January 1959

The initial impact of Sonia Gechtoff’s huge Abstract-Expressionist canvases at Ferus Gallery is immersion in vast cascades of paint. It takes a while to sort out individual works from their collective impression. Then it becomes evident that Gechtoff, in spite of the large scale of her works, is a sensitive and, at times, intimate lyricist. In certain paintings, echoes of the human figure are imbedded in the turbulence of scumbled folds of pigment. A painting titled Camus, on the other hand, avoids shadowy references to external forms, creating instead an image wholly abstract and organic, self-sufficient in its own right. Here rivulets of pigment overlap one upon the other in cumulative waves. Gechtoff, who recently moved from San Francisco to New York, demonstrates her position as a ranking young Abstract-Expressionist.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
April 1959

The dual exhibition of Dada constructions by Edward Kienholz and fey collages by B. A. Bengston (Ferus Gallery) is one of those all too-rare occasions when wit commands the stage in an art event. Kienholz, the enfant-terrible of the art community here, playfully thumbs his nose at the pretensions of the art world as well as the insanities of civilization in general. Nothing is sacrosanct to Kienholz—witness his ingenious spoof at rockets in Pioneer No. 1 with Hemstitch and Buttonhole Attachments, complete with spinning furniture casters and exploding firecrackers. Bengston’s small and delicate paper collages, exquisitely framed, provide a foil to the Kienholz exuberance. At first glance reticent and precious, they are witty in their own right.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
Summer 1959

Edward Branco Moses’ recent oils, pastels, and collages (at Ferus Gallery) mark the emergence of this young Abstract-Expressionist as an important California painter. There was a time when a work by Moses added up to a pastiche of influences. Not any longer. There is no question now that Moses is his own man, a lyricist who makes his point with nuances rather than blunt statements. In certain works, as in Donna Lee, delicate mists of color—pale yellows, reds, blues, oranges—envelop fugitive shapes, while in other pictures, Rafe, for example, forms interlock by means of color relation.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
March 1960

B. A. Bengston, previously known here for his subtle and witty collages, suddenly has emerged as a Surreal painter, no less witty and with an added bite in the form of provocative images. In his current show at Ferus Gallery, Bengston manages very well indeed to convey the Dada aspects of Hollywood without falling into the trap of a hackneyed Surrealist imagery. His favorite emblem, inscribed to Eva Marie or Marilyn, or one of another of Hollywood’s current love goddesses, is a Valentine heart centered on a field of geometric forms. The Begnston wit is condensed and effective.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
January 1962

Drawings and gouaches by John Altoon and Richards Ruben at Ferus Gallery serve as foils for each other, Altoon working in a vein of spontaneous and sometimes erotic wit in flinty, discordant line, while Ruben’s splotched and roughly-contoured segments inscribed on wall-like surfaces create an envisioned world sufficient unto itself and yet at the same time presenting visible traces of the hand is motion. Altoon’s birds, flowers, animals, human creatures are vibrantly alive in a kind of existence born of pen and ink, brush and gouache. The Ruben works, in contrast, continuously suggest further possibilities as paintings, though holding their own as drawings.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
October 1962

Neo-Dada has a coterie of enthusiasts on the West Coast, some of whom are attracted merely for the offbeat, others for whom the construction of images from commonplace materials represents the only valid approach for the artist in a society in which man is degraded. Of the latter, Bruce Conner, with recent assemblages at Ferus Gallery, is by all odds one of the most gifted, a proponents of Neo-Dada by instinct as much as by philosophy. At present residing in Mexico City, Conner, at the age of twenty-eight, has evolved an approach wholly his own, combining, as it does, a sharp wit with overtones of the macabre.

Pinning the label Neo-Dada on Conner is somewhat misleading; he has more in common with the spontaneous folk-art of modern urban life. In Resurrection, a concretion of wood, cloth and plastics is enveloped with a web of torn and stretched nylon stocking. Subject is very much a concern. At the same time, the subjects of concern call for mockery, and Conner has a Swiftian streak.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
September 1963

The tendency of many young Los Angeles artists to fashion images weighted with references to the world of common objects, wile at the same time phrasing those references within the context of abstract painting, can be seen in the current exhibition at the Ferus Gallery. Consisting of works by artists in the gallery “stable,” the show presents works incorporating Pop Art devices as everyday signs and insignia, as in pictures by Edward Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston. Alongside these sign and symbol prone works are enigmatic ceramic sculptures by John Mason and Kenneth Price that draw upon the spectator’s associations for their “completion.” The business of completing the image internally is approached by painter John Irwin in another way, that is, optically. In such works as The Four Blues the observer “adds” an optical vibration to the four pale stripes which appear to dance and float on a field of pale yellow. The phenomenon of optical ambiguity also enters into the experience of Larry Bell’s Lux in Wonderland, a geometric affair hanging on the wall that keeps the eye in a state of uncertainty by its combination of flat rectangles of blacks, whites, and reflecting mirror.

“Art news from Los Angeles”
By Jules Langsner
January 1964

Larry Bell, at 24, is one of the most gifted and original artists to emerge in California in the last decade. Bell has managed to be audaciously original while at the same time assiduously avoiding any assertion of himself as a personality. In his second one-man show at the Ferus Gallery, his reliefs and three-dimensional constructions are as meticulously put together as if they issued from a machine-tool plant specializing in products measured in micromillimeters. Bell’s recent works incorporate precisely-shaped sections of mirror and transparent and painted glass. Seen from a distance, these glittering objects present fractured reflections of the viewer who, in that disjointed aspect, has become part and parcel of the image. On moving closer to look inside, the spectator “enters” an ambiguous and self-contained universe of cleanly-edged shapes overlapping and repeating themselves. In effect, Bell’s reliefs and constructions introduce optical and psychological ambiguities while retaining a pristine detachment from the “real world.”

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