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Choice Hopps: The Cool School

The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Ferus Gang / Courtesy of Arthouse Films

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Thursday, March 27, 2008


The Cool School
Directed by Morgan Neville
(Arthouse Films)

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp, the Parisian expat and enfant terrible of the Dada movement, scaled the marble arch in Washington Square Park and declared Greenwich Village a free nation. Years later, when he was lured westward to become kingmaker of the budding Los Angeles art scene, what would his equivalent be? The Chemosphere? In the virgin territory west of 10th Avenue, anything was possible. The “little western town” of Pasadena, whose museum hosted a Duchamp exhibit in 1963, was the “big coup” of the art movement up until that point. The compelling documentary The Cool School, directed by Morgan Neville (a regular contributor to STOP SMILING) tracks the groundswell and “major awakening” that led to the global validation of the LA art scene — one fueled by the sweat and comradery of castaways leading lives of “poetic poverty” along the Venice coast.

Over the strains of “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” by Los Angeles native Charles Mingus, we meet the major players: Ed Kienholz, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, John Altoon, even the architect Frank Gehry, who sports a bushy Tarkovsky mustache in a few frames of priceless archival footage. At the center of the movement was Walter Hopps, the fearless founder of the Ferus Gallery. Regarded as an organizational powerhouse, Hopps was able to gain access to the likes of Duchamp and Warhol and spin the press they attracted to his artists' advantage. Soon, Hopps was master of his own universe, a place where reductive painting and work inspired by custom-car culture would blaze a new trail, thus proving LA artists didn’t require the validation of the New York art world. Neville’s film shows, in effect, how deliberate the founding of an art movement can be. But also how thrilling it is for those at the eye of the storm.

James Hughes


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