LA Art Circle 1950-60

At certain points and at certain times there is a coalescence of a critical mass of artistic talent. This is the case with LA and art in the late 1950s. LA was considered a backwater of arts culture – certainly when compared to the New York arts scene. The LA epicenter was the Ferus Gallery started by Walter Hopps, Edward Kienholz and Bob Alexander. Ed Ruscha was one of the prominent artists at the gallery. He was a photographer as well as a conceptual artist.

Ed Ruscha as photographed by Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper the actor became interested in knowing and collecting the art of these West Coast artists. He was also a photographer in his own right. Let’s look into the photography of Ruscha and Hopper.


More about the LA art scene: at the time there was a controversy as to whether New York or LA discovered Pop Art. Many claim that it was LA. They would opine that the whole atmosphere of LA, billboards screaming to ‘buy me’ spoke to the pop artist of LA. Some say it sprang up de novo simultaneously as a rejection of Abstract Impressionism

What wasn’t in doubt was the inequity in prices being paid for artwork, with New York fetching the big bucks. Was it just the density of collectors or the quality of the work? It would be anyone’s guess. I would put my money on the more mature art market on the East Coast as compared to the burgeoning scene in LA.

Dennis Hopper

Born on a wheat farm in Dodge City, KS in 1936, Hopper eventually moved with his family eventually to San Diego. His life and career is worth reading about. Saying he was the co-writer and director of Easy Rider only begins to scratch the surface of this man’s talents.

My interest in Hopper stems from his involvement in the arts scene in LA in the 50’s and 60’s. He was a collector and supporter; his photography of this era also made him a contributor. His first wife gave him a Nikon and he had it with him whereever he went.

To supply more details to this multifaceted individual, Hopper involved himself in amateur theater once he was in California. He was noticed by Hollywood and was signed. In the 50’s Hollywood would sign a “stable” of young actors to a multi-picture contract. Then every movie that came out had the same group of actors. Hence “Rebel without a Cause” and “Giant” had many of the same actors.

The first rebel was James Dean – with his success there came the feeling that the studios had too much control. This attitude was not lost on Hopper who was close to Dean. With Dean’s untimely death, Hopper was next up to challenge the status quo – and challenge he did!

There aren’t many roller coasters that have more ups and downs than Hopper had in his life. If I had one person I’d love to have dinner with, this is the person.

Ed Ruscha

Born 1937 in Nebraska, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma before eventually heading to California. His childhood friend Mason Williams of “Classical Gas” did the same thing. Once in Southern California Ed’s art talent defined a whole era. One of the sentinel artists at Ferus Gallery, he became known for modern art with text.

My interest in Ruscha is his photography. Wikipedia on this subject:

Photography has played a crucial role throughout Ruscha’s career, beginning with images he made during a trip to Europe with his mother and brother in 1961, and most memorably as the imagery for more than a dozen books that present precisely what their titles describe. His photographs are straightforward, even deadpan,in their depiction of subjects that are not generally thought of as having aesthetic qualities. His “Products” pictures, for example, feature boxes of Sunmaid raisins and Oxydol detergent and a can of Sherwin Williams turpentine in relatively formal still lifes.  Mostly devoid of human presence, these photographs emphasize the essential form of the structure and its placement within the built environment.  Ruscha’s photographic editions are most often based on his conceptual art-books of same or similar name. Ruscha re-worked the negatives of six of the images from his book Every Building on Sunset Strip. The artist then cut and painted directly on the negatives, resulting in photographs that have the appearance of a faded black-and-white film.  The Tropical Fish series (1974–75) represents the first instance where the photographic image has been directly used in his graphic work, where Ruscha had Gemini G.E.L.‘s house photographer Malcolm Lubliner make photographs of a range of common domestic objects. 

The work that put Ruscha on the map was Actual Size , 1962. This was his announcement of his love for the banal and text in his creations.


Forgotten until I was researching Ruscha was my rendition of this work – 1968 my family was in Southern California and we went to LACMA – Los Angeles County Museum of Art and I snapped this photo in B/W:

Dutifully recording the camera , lens, developer I used. I wished that I would have paid more attention to the framing!


Survival of the Fittest – would pertain to Ruscha as he learned to exhibit and sell on the East Coast and not be insulated. He often said that he could do his art anywhere, many felt that this was not really true.