Art writer and curator Frances Colpitt stated that the Getty show Pacific Standard Time "will insert California art into the canon of Modern Art." There are hundreds of thousands of artists, gallerists, writers, collectors and birds of a feather who have contributed to this golden moment. Many hands have crowned this collective achievement.
Some a little more than others. In the very brief history of California Art, Irving Blum may prove to be the person of most influence in a wide field of champion thoroughbreds.
In life, chance sometimes places peculiar people in the right fertilizer and fascinating things grow. Such is the story of Irving Blum and Los Angeles art history.
Irving Blum was twelve when his childhood was dramatically uprooted. Born in 1930, his adolescence was influenced by the hometown big city of Brooklyn, New York. His father was arthritic and the family moved to the warm and wild western town of Phoenix, Arizona. Quite a study in contrasts. Vertical to horizontal. Teeming to empty.
After high school, Blum attended the University of Arizona, where he majored in English and minored in Drama. His flair for the theatrical would help to create a persona and the role of a lifetime.
Casting is an art form that is rarely acknowledged. Placing the right actor in the perfect part is extremely essential to the success of any production. Irving Blum was homing his beacon when he was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1955. As a man of theatre and style, Blum knew an opportunity when he saw it. The groovy and modern Knoll Furniture studio in Manhattan was a swinging place to land. A chance meeting introduced Blum to the Modernist pioneer Hans Knoll the talented founder of a factory that made furniture, some of it designed by Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. Blum was in sales, meeting and greeting in a charming manner. There was much to absorb.
In every era, Manhattan is always a dynamic place to be. In the mid-Fifties, iconic cultures were spawning everywhere. The Beats were howling. Kay Thompson's 'Eloise' became a bestseller. Woodie Guthrie was singing 'This Land is Your Land.' George Stevens 'Giant' filled the wide movie screen. Blum spent three years with Knoll in a milieu of parties, theatre and clubs. Handsome and swarthy, Blum was courteous and well dressed. He had some money in his pocket. Quick with a cigarette lighter, Blum grew into an experienced salesman with a designer's eye. His accent, a clipped and lyrical speech pattern, was less an influence of Brooklyn and Phoenix and more a product of Hollywood. Blum has long been chided for his Cary Grant impersonation, an admission that he self-deprecatingly laughs about in our interview.
On errands for architect and designer Florence Knoll, Blum began his immersion into the fine art world, a place that previously held little interest. It was an exciting, game-changing time. Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning were doing very interesting things. Blum had an instinct for meeting the right people. Art dealers were welcome to the power and the checkbook that he carried at Knoll. Florence Knoll would send Blum to buy art for corporate clients. "She would say 'We need green!," laughed Blum, recalling the memory. The firm was partial to the Sidney Janis Gallery and their Josef Albers, whose paintings were an interior designers easiest accessory. I asked him, "Did Knoll create you?" "Absolutely. Without a doubt," confesses Blum.
Blum was no stranger to Los Angeles. Since his first arrival in the West, LA had been a frequent intersection to his travels. The western sunset was calling his ambitious heart. In Manhattan, the thrill of Knoll was dulling to dreariness, no match to the growing glitter of the art world. Working with so many dealers and absorbing everything, Blum saw the machinations of the art world and the financial potential. He also saw new art dealer Leo Castelli as a mentor.
The older Castelli was creating a collector class. He was educating and fostering a small group of people who could appreciate and buy the artwork that Castelli was advocating. This made a great impression upon Blum. So did Castelli and his generous commissions. Their profitable association would last a lifetime.
With limited means and sharp competition, a Manhattan gallery was not a prospect for Irving Blum. Los Angeles is the Mecca of reinvention. Blum went West.
Much has been written about the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. The 2008 documentary 'The Cool School: How LA Learned to Love Modern Art' is well worth a screening. 'Rebels in Paradise' the cool new book by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, fills in the personal back-stories. The Ferus Gallery was minded by Walter Hopps, a brilliant but troubled aesthete, and his wife Shirley Neilsen.
Hopps, who had the looks of a soft Ben Affleck, had his heart in the right place and his head in the clouds. Ferus was a beautiful concept with a fascinating roster of artists who were making bold choices. Shirley Neilsen was a Phi Kappa Beta graduate of the University of Chicago. She had a passionate belief that Ferus was opening doors. And it was. The Ferus Gallery was a beau geste, a grand curatorial experiment to the unknown. Sales and organization were merely distractions to the blossom of the idea. Passionate Neilsen, affable lecturer Hopps and educator Henry Hopkins were also creating a community of collectors with a series of art talks and classes.
In Los Angeles, chance gave little choice. Ferus was the coolest act in town and this is where Irving Blum set his bull's eye. Ferus had everything that Blum needed. Blum offered the salesmanship, polish and organization that Ferus required to survive. Without Blum as a catalyst, the Ferus Gallery would have faded from memory as a noble experiment. Ferus was merely an artists' co-op, an alternative space, in a town that demonstrated little interest in fine art. Walter Hopps was a man in search of a notion that is forever out of his reach. Irving Blum shook that hand. He moved the gallery, managed the paperwork, secured a backer, simplified the artist roster and turned his cat's eye toward New York City.
The man with the Cary Grant airs was perfectly cast in the role of gallerist. Polished in New York and honed in Hollywood, Blum and the Ferus boys liked their publicity. Photographer Bill Claxton took the seminal photo of dapper Blum, supermodel Peggy Moffitt and a few bathing beauties on the stern of a speedboat. Style, skin and fine art is the urbane message. For the photo shoot in Newport Beach, Blum carefully applied the cutout letters 'Ferus Gallery' across the transom. He knew how to put on a show.
The Ferus Gallery may have conquered cool but according to Blum, profit was not in the picture. To any businessman, more lucre and comfort are simple, primal motives. Early on, Blum savored the idea of buying low, holding and reselling in an improved market. Ferus gave him his first opportunity at speculation. Blum will always be known for sniffing out Warhol and giving him his first solo show. He will also be known for keeping the thirty-two Campbell Soup Cans intact. As the well-known story tells, Blum only sold two or six of the soup cans to his collector collective. The critically polemic show was a financial failure. Several days later, Blum told Warhol that the marvelous soup cans should be preserved as a group. If he could retrieve the missing pieces, would Andy sell the soup group to Blum himself at a reduced price? The artist agreed. The dealer made low monthly payments. Not only would Irving Blum act as steward to the holy grail of Pop Culture, he would also enter the art arena as a player. Blums skill as a speculator would enrich him the rest of his life.
Walter Hopps and Shirley Neilsen were the mind and soul of the Ferus Gallery. Blum was the irritant, the speck of sand in the oyster that makes a pearl. Without Blum, Hopps would have never left Ferus to curate his groundbreaking shows at the Pasadena Art Museum.
In the Rashomon of life, our simple human stories can be told in many ways. Did Irving Blum waltz into town, stealing Hopps' gallery and then his wife? The art world loves gossip. The slightest smoke of a Shakespearean drama is tossed back quick like a shot of firewater. Yes. Irving Blum fell in love with Hopps' wife Shirley Neilsen. The brainy beauty was exhausted in her role as caretaker to Hopps, the erratic and distant genius. Her marriage had already been over. Weary, encamped, the two slowly fell in love. Later, they had a son. Life offers more stories than we have the time or the right to tell.
Hundreds of thousands have contributed to the canonization of California art. Eli Broad has been financially forthcoming. Gayle Roski supports USC. The reach of Walt Disney and his Cal Arts have rippled wide. Much muscle was applied to build a county museum. From the deepest pockets to the penniless art lover, many have defined, substantiated and legitimized the phenomena of art in the great Golden State. Simply by pursuing his own personal, life-living agenda, Irving Blum retires as the one who has fostered the greatest effect.
GORDY GRUNDY is a Los Angeles based artist and editor of FortunaDaily.com. His visual and literary works can be found at www.GordyGrundy.com.