The Cool School

The Cool School


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Think about American art in the Fifties and Sixties. The chances are you'll think of New York, famous for Andy Warhol and his Factory. Yet Warhol would never have made his name as a creative artist were it not for a little place in Los Angeles, the Ferus Gallery. Conceived in 1956 via a contract on the back of a hot dog wrapper, this was the gallery that turned the West Coast art scene around. Until then, everybody had thought of New York, but after that, even if it wasn't the biggest star, L.A. had a worthy name of its own.

Narrated by Jeff Bridges, a man well known for his passion for the independent arts in America, Morgan Neville's painstakingly thorough documentary tells the story of what happened in those crucial years between 1956 and 1965 when the Ferus Gallery was doing its thing. It's the story of how to create an art scene from scratch, a story which will fascinate art enthusiasts and entrepreneurs alike, though it may be a little dry for others' tastes. Neville tells it very straight and there's a sense that some of the humour which must have been present around these strong personalities is missing. Perhaps it is, in part, the almost complete absence of women from the tale (except as people's wives) - there's a curious lack of warmth. Correspondingly, it's not until halfway through that we get to see the art which made such an impression on everybody as it was meant to be seen - in colour.

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Compared with today's popular TV documentaries, with their endless musical interludes and shots of the horizon, this is a treat. It's crammed with information and rarely repeats itself. There's an awful lot of story to be told. A number of the 20th Century's most important artists made their names at the Ferus and their tales are interwoven with the complex political threads which saw modern art denounced first as Communistic and then as obscene. Neville does a good job of explaining why through visuals as much as discussion, restoring some of the original power of art which has since lost much of its impact. There is, however, still plenty of stuff on display here which remains fascinating - it's just a shame we don't get to see more of it.

The Cool School is a worthy effort and I highly recommend it for its educational value, but by being too carefully serious it falls short of its potential.

Reviewed on: 12 Aug 2008
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A look back at the birth of L.A.'s modern art movement and the famous Ferus gallery.
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Director: Morgan Neville

Starring: Frank Gehry, Robert Irwin, Edward Ruscha, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Bridges

Year: 2008

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: US


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