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Rebels in Paradise

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I arrived in Southern California in the summer of 1968, in time for the last year of the 1960s decade. A poet, newly appointed to teach Comparative Literature at USC, I'd had little contact with the world of contemporary art -- and therefore no idea at all that I had arrived here on the cusp of the transformation of Los Angeles from hick town at the opposite end of the country from the serious center of post-war art (New York) into a contestant for an estimable place in the international art scene. It was not until after the seminal Ferus Gallery had closed that I slipped sideways into this effervescent action as a writer in the early 1970s.

So I missed the 1960s, at least the years that Hunter Drohojowska-Philp writes about in her new book, Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. Since my wife and her family were much involved, however, I soon caught on to the excitement of the recent past and the hopes for a thriving future. I sat down at the family dining table with Ed Kienholz and Claes Oldenburg, and met many of the charismatic leading characters from the pages of this book. Many of them (us!) are still around and still active on the scene -- some of them, at this point, septa- and octogenarians. Hard to believe! In Drohojowska-Philp's narrative, they all seem so young -- as indeed they were.

Those were heady times, and the author captures them in a swift-paced, cheerful romp as she guides us through the decade, pausing long enough to make her entertaining story at once human and informative; she fleshes out the often cocky, combative personalities of her major players, evoking their friendships and their sometimes intense rivalries. The artists, some native to Southern California, others attracted by the promise of beaches, gorgeous girls (or, in David Hockney's case, the boys!) and, principally, of freedom from all the old ways of doing things, are at the center of everything. We know them through their work: the Eds -- Moses, Kienholz and Ruscha -- Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Billy Al Bengston, Joe Goode, John Altoon, Wallace Berman, George Herms, Lloyd Hamrol and many others, including, later, John Baldessari, whose influence has been more powerful than theirs in succeeding generations; and through the generally familiar lore of the Ferus Gallery, Barney's Beanery, Artforum, the Pasadena Art Museum, Chouinard and Otis, and so on. So far as contemporary art was concerned, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was barely past its birth throes.

Drohojowska-Philp highlights the L.A. artists' drive for independence, from each other and, importantly, from the New York establishment and East Coast artists like Oldenburg, Johns and Rauschenberg, and also Any Warhol, whose career was launched by the efforts of Irving Blum at Ferus. While there was some early interface between galleries here and there, it seems true that even the most important of Los Angeles artists have received scant attention from New York, and instead have more successfully leap-frogged "the pond" for more friendly reception on the European continent. A motif of Drohojowska-Philp's narrative is the macho posturing of "the studs," and the struggle of women like Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro and Helen Pashgian against the tide of powerful masculine energy.

The other players are the curators and the gallery dealers: Walter "Chico" Hopps and Henry Hopkins, Irving Blum, Virginia Dwan, Nicholas Wilder -- again, the names are familiar. And the handful of pioneer collectors, among them Fred and Marcia Weisman, Stanley and Elyse Grinstein, Ed Janss, and my own in-laws, Dorothy and Michael Blankfort, whose excellent adventure with the Yves Klein "Immaterial" is accurately recorded in Drohojowska-Philp's book.

The author's research is meticulous, even exhaustive. Even for one familiar with much of the material, there's plenty here that's new, refreshing, and often titillating, particularly when it comes to shifting personal relationships and slightly scurrilous detail. Still, she does manage to balance out the purely entertaining "who slept with whom" scuttlebutt with a useful chronology of biographical and other factual information. She establishes the context of a cultural scene in which rock music -- and its musicians -- and entertainment industry notables like Dennis Hopper freely intermingle with the city's artists. We learn about the when and where and how of key art works like Kienholz's "Back Seat Dodge" and those famous soup cans, much of the information gleaned from the author's numerous first-hand interviews with key players. How much of the latter is colored by nostalgia, self-interest or simple forgetfulness is anybody's guess, but it certainly makes for a lively read.

Since the 1960s, of course, things have not been a smooth progression from those halcyon days in the Los Angeles art community. The promise seemingly established by the roaring sixties has been only sporadically fulfilled. Important galleries have come and gone -- some of them to New York. Think Gagosian. Collectors have teased our institutions with the gift of their collections, only to withdraw them. Artists have experienced the frustration of neglect by major national galleries and art publications. The hegemony of the New York art machine has proven hard to shake.

And yet the legacy of the pioneers Drohojowska-Philp writes about is an enduring one. Their cheerful rebellion against all things authoritarian opened the door for the wonderfully diverse and constantly shifting art scene that thrives in Southern California today and is recognized throughout the world as perhaps the most important center for innovative artists and their work. This book does us all a favor in recalling that history with a panache that matches its own.