I was in this dark hole of graphite drawings on 60–by-40-inch panels of repeat patterns of roses based on a rose motif from an oil cloth pattern I picked up in Tijuana. I made an outline around the roses and transferred it to the working drawing surface.The second series I removed the rose imagery and just used the patterning of the graphite. I remember working a year on four of these panels.They were so obsessive with the repetition of the strokes. Inadvertently they were destroyed in my garage by the gardener who hosed the garage out and didn’t realize the water percolated up into the board and destroyed a year’s worth of drawings.That could have been a clue; I stopped that obsessive work but continued with the graphite marking with foldout cutouts. LA at that time seemed the place to be.
Larry Bell: I jumped into the art scene with both feet in 1959 when I left Chouinard. Roughly six years later I had my first one-person show in New York at Pace—pretty heady stuff for a kid of 25.The show was so successful I decided to stay there in ‘65 and ‘66. I made some great friends and still have most of them. When I missed Venice Beach enough, I moved back; I missed my beach buddy artists and peers and teachers and cheap rent.
A and L:Would you say the city of Los Angeles has shaped you sig- nificantly as an artist? EM: No. The environment obviously has peripheral impact. A big thing has been done about the light here. I was never particularly affected by that or interested in that.
LB: I have had only a few studios in my 48 years of unemployment: three in Venice and one in NY and one in New Mexico. I have been more productive inTaos than anywhere else simply because I could control my distraction better. After moving to New Mexico, I migrated back to LA almost every month like a migrant fruit picker looking for some action. I have lived in the same hotel inVenice for over 33 years and four years ago had the good fortune to claim my old digs on Market Street back. I learned how to work in New Mexico. I learned how to hustle in LA andNewYork.
A and L: Due to the recent release of “The Cool School”, Ferus Gallery, the now-defunct gallery of which you were once a part, has received a lot of attention. Do you feel Ferus was the lynchpin of the Los Angeles art world in the 50s and 60s?
EM: It certainly was a big influence and a breakaway from the more con- servative galleries at the time.We were all a bunch of rabble-rousers and had a lot of attitude.
LB: Ferus was like a worker’s club. Everyone that was involved was very seri- ous about the studio activities. Everyone saw the importance of finding an identity, a style of thinking and working that allowed the flow of new and inventive ideas. The rules were simple: one had to work all the time and not copy his or her peers. We watched each other's identity appear. I never real- ly thought of Ferus as doing something extraordinary; I only thought of myself being fortunate to hang in the company of peers and pals—all artists who were doing something extraordinary.
A and L: When did it first occur to you that Los Angeles was “on the map”, artistically speaking?
EM: Well actually I never felt it was on the map. New York seemed to be the place. It was sort of the disseminator of so-called art activity. The exhibition at the Pompidou and the positive follow-up on that has been surprising.
LB: When I came back from New York in ‘66 I realized that my LA trip was bigger than I thought. It was bigger than anyone really thought. Being in New York also gave me the opportunity to push the works of pals with my New York dealer and several became associated with Pace because of it.The scene had changed for us all but we were only beginning to realize it. Many great characters opened galleries in LA: Nick Wilder, Everet Elen, David Stuart et al. There were great parties, collectors started to come around and the scene became full of events.
A and L: What do you miss most about Los Angeles’ art scene of the 50s and 60s?
EM: Nothing. It is always the same. A different group of players. The original group are all off doing our own activities although we do socialize from time to time.
LB: The only thing I miss about “the good ol’ days” is John Altoon and the cheap rent of Venice. We all moved there because it was cheap, not because it had some creative magic! It was cheap and near the beach. What more does any artist need except for action, sex and drugs? In lieu of action, there was cheap rent and great weather.
A and L: How has the Los Angeles art scene changed since the 60s?
EM: More galleries. More press. A whole series of amazing young artists.
LB: When Ferus closed just about all the artists were fed up with it. The focus had changed to the celebration of a bigger art world rather than the insights of a band of rascals on the beach, and not all of us lived at the beach.
A and L:What one thing should readers today know about the Los Angeles art world of the 50s and 60s?
EM: We were young. We were aggressive, ambitious and had particular visions and mutations that continue. Most of us are still alive and some aren’t.
LB: Probably the most significant visual for me in the film [“The Cool School”] was the few seconds of film of Venice Beach and the canals when the oil wells were there. It’s hard to imagine now what a great slum Venice was in those days; truly it was an “Appalachia by the Sea.”
A and L: Is there anything else you’d like art fans to know?
EM: Keep on looking—less reading, less talking, and more looking.
LB: My work is all I have that I trust.
Pictured: Larry Bell with cube at Jacobson Howard Gallery, New York City, 2005. Photo by Jennifer Lynch.