Dave Hickey recently wrote, “I would like a small clause written into my social contract that excused me from attending events at which Irving Blum is not in attendance. The pleasure of his company, the generosity of his eye, and the infectiousness of his enthusiasm are legendary, of course, but there is also the intoxicating pleasure of just floating on the laughter and flux of Irvingosity.” Blum’s infectious enthusiasm and taste-making eye have made the last surviving principal of the pioneering Ferus Gallery on lower La Cienega Boulevard indispensable, five decades after the opening of his first gallery.
Blum cleared the path for pop out West by breaking Ruscha, and famously debuting Warhol’s Soup Cans in 1962. Then he took the East Coast during the late 1970s, opening Blum-Helman Gallery in New York. Splitting his time between New York and his home in Bel Air, Blum has remained a vital consigliere to galleries like Gagosian and Blum & Poe, museum directors including Michael Govan at LACMA and Jeffrey Deitch at LA MOCA, and most importantly, the artists.
Los Angeles has long been gearing up for “Art in the Streets,” the exhibition of street and graffiti art that opened yesterday at LA MOCA, and the Getty’s momentous initiative, “Pacific Standard Time,” a survey of post-war California art, slated to begin in October. An early supporter and collector of street art, Blum considers its social parallels to pop, and his own burgeoning collection of street-inspired works by artists like KAWS and Rosson Crow.
ALEX ADLER: What do you think has most changed about the LA art world since you first arrived in the late ’50s?
IRVING BLUM: The strength now in Los Angeles is the sense of community. Artists, younger artists in particular, elect to live here because the weather is reasonable, and the pressures and pace of New York can be avoided. There’s finally a gallery scene vibrant enough that local artists can hope to support themselves. Galleries like Matthew Marks, Perry Rubenstein, and L&M are opening up. These gallerists see a viable market. They’re curious. Matthew Marks shows Brice Marden and Ellsworth Kelly. He needs to increase his audience and if he doesn’t open a gallery then someone like Michael Kohn Gallery will take Ellsworth out here. Perry is looking at a space in Highland where there are a lot of abandoned warehouses that would make wonderful galleries. It isn’t West Hollywood, but it’s perfectly easy to get to. L&M especially is working to assemble a West Coast stable to complement its re-sale business in New York. And Thomas Houseago is a perfect example of an LA-based artist that they can give a lift to and bring back to New York.
ADLER: So all roads still lead back East?
BLUM: Well, yes and no. The scene is becoming more and more reciprocal. There are more reasons for artists to live here than there ever have been. The street art show at LA MOCA has the potential to be a moment in the history of contemporary art. It is quite astonishing and dense but also fun and novel in many ways to see the art re-contextualized.
ADLER: How do you see that exhibition affecting the state of art and even the contemporary art market in LA?
BLUM: Tremendously. There are already so many street artists working. That fact is well considered and reflected in the show. Walking through, I recalled the tone at the outset of the Pop art movement. Everybody sensed something and knew it was a real movement with relevance. Going forward, I think you’ll see more street artists and I think that several, a half-dozen, maybe ten, will make the leap to galleries.
ADLER: Shepard Fairey views “Art in the Streets” as a critical means of cultural validation for the genre. Can this exhibition influence the marginalized, subversive character of street art?
BLUM: [Laughs] Pop was conceived of as vulgar and of no real consequence. A lot of [street art] material is sadly repetitive and not so interesting, but I think that there’s enough talent to make the leap.
ADLER: What about the Getty show: “Pacific Standard Time”? How do you think “PST” will function to commemorate the beginnings of the LA art scene and connect it with the future?
BLUM: Everybody complains about the Getty. Although they occupy a position in the city, they’ve somehow been unable to get into the community. They’re viewed as less than generous with their resources. I think in some ways “PST” is a means of quelling the crowd. The idea is intriguing but there remains the question of execution.
ADLER: How do you view the relationships between art and celebrity today, compared with how it was in the early ’60s? Who do you view as a cross-over and sort of cultural polymath?
BLUM: Well Julian [Schnabel] of course touches all bases. Brad Pitt is also very involved with and engaged in architecture especially. In my experience, celebrities are busy on their own. The conception of them as massive art buyers is simply false. They don’t often have the time or the eyes to really collect.
ADLER: What art or artists have you seen recently that you admire and think represents the ethos of LA art?
BLUM: I happen to love Hauseago. I love Sterling Ruby. I think he has amazing potential. Ruby is a very provocative ceramicist. I own a Ruby tray that I really admire. There’s a young ceramicist named Ricky Swallow that I think has the juice, and I also like KAWS quite a bit. He’s one of the street artists who has already made the leap to a gallery. He’s got a big show scheduled next season at Honor Fraser. For me, he’s very strong and I think will endure.
ADLER: Agnes Gund said a few months back, “LA is more than catching up to New York-in some ways, it’s moving past it.” Do you think this comment is valid, and what do you think she meant by it? If so, why and what artists or movements can you point to?”
BLUM: People say that continually. The real truth, when you consider how many artists and galleries there are in NY vs. LA, you have your answer. New York is central. LA is simply not competitive. Agnes says it out of generosity and enthusiasm but it simply isn’t true. The center is still New York and it will be for the foreseeable future. The writing is in New York, the entire culture of the art business is escalated exponentially in NY from museums, to galleries, collectors, to critics. I had to work my ass off to get Artforum down here from San Francisco—but it was essential!