Sitting in my undergraduate Art History class—a dry, painful affair—I never heard a single name of the numerous Los Angeles artists that “The Cool School” treats with such reverence. I thought that meant I was crap at paying attention, but as the film makes clear, few outside the West Coast have heard of them either.
Cobbled together out of oral histories, “The Cool School” is a loose narrative of the art community of L.A., which was virtually nonexistent in the early fifties and which came into its own by the late sixties. At the center of the movement was the Ferus Gallery, hub for the burgeoning talents of about twelve core artists. Run by visionary Walter Hopps and financially shrewd Irving Blum, the gallery reveled in the cutting edge. Living in the shadow of New York as the country’s premiere art scene, the West Coast artists thumbed their nose at tradition and flaunted their lack of credibility. They lived a rock star lifestyle, riding high on testosterone while churning out works.
Director Morgan Neville conveys the story primarily through raw footage and current interviews of the surviving members of the circle. The telling is tongue in cheek as Nevillle acknowledges the irony of hearing from those who lived hard and expected to die young, yet are now white haired gentlemen creeping toward their golden years. Neville’s biggest struggle—and one which he deals with pretty well– is the inaccessibility of the subject matter. Art terms and movements that may be unfamiliar to a wide audience have to be explained, and the fact that the broad cast of characters is equally unknown has to be accounted for. Dealing with these issues means the film is informative, but we never quite get beneath the surface to the juicy bits. Sex, drugs, and madness are mentioned, but the drama is never fully explored. However, it’s fun to unravel the intertwined relationships and intriguing to hear these artists recount their stories. It’s easy to imagine that without this project, this little known slice of history would be lost.