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Art in the media: Light and dark after the war at the Ferus Gallery and in the art of Georg Baselitz

Ostensibly disparate films illuminate art after the end of World War II

Two recent releases are, on the face of it, very different documents. Morgan Neville’s The Cool School, on DVD, has a cool jazzy soundtrack, cool narration from Jeff Bridges, cool titles and tells the story of the rise of Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery and the artists congregated in and around it in a cool and concise fashion. It’s full of jumps and starts, talking heads and archive footage, gossip and anecdote.

Michael Blackwood’s Georg Baselitz: Making Art After Auschwitz and Dresden generates a lot of heat—and also much light. It records an affectionate but feisty conversation between former Royal Academy exhibitions secretary Norman Rosenthal and Baselitz as they wander round the RA discussing the German artist’s retrospective held there last year. Rosenthal curated the show.

What links these seemingly disparate films is that both are documents of engagement with art soon after the end of World War II, albeit from strikingly different positions. They also highlight different approaches to making accessible art history: the binding ties of an art movement versus the monograph.

For the LA artists, the late 1940s and early 1950s found them largely alone, with New York at the centre of the art world and West Coast abstract expressionism confined principally to San Francisco. Post-war Los Angeles was a conservative city. It was affluent, but had little resembling an established art scene. However, one curator and gallery founder sought out the local artists living around Venice Beach, and imported the San Franciscans and later the New York stars, establishing the reputations of, among others, Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston and Robert Irwin.

The story of the Ferus Gallery is, of course, the story of Walter Hopps, its co-founder in 1957 with Kienholz, and Irving Blum, who would latterly become its frontman, not only eventually taking over the gallery, but also marrying Hopps’s wife Shirley.

The film-makers have talked to everyone still alive (with entertaining archive clips of those departed) going as far as bringing the survivors together for the first time in over 30 years, still spatting and still irascible, to chew over the past.

Interspersed throughout are the observations of actors (and artists in their own right) Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, smoking big cigars and rasping and cackling like art world versions of the Muppets’ Waldorf and Statler. Referring to local disaffection when Ferus held early shows by New York stars Warhol and Lichtenstein, Hopper guffaws: “This is our reality, the comic book and the soup can; that’s us, man!”

While post-war LA artists were surfing and drinking beer on the beach, the Germans were confronted with not only the grim reality of defeat but also with the enormity of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Aged just seven at the end of the war, Georg Baselitz had witnessed the chaos and agony of post-war Germany; he and his family had hidden in the basement of the schoolhouse where his father taught while the Russians destroyed the building above.

Baselitz’s work is predominantly informed by notions of what it is to be German in the light of Germany’s 20th-century history, and he distances himself from associations with particular schools or movements. “It becomes clear to me,” he tells Rosenthal, “that [the idea that] a specific time brings with it a direction in art or creates a direction in art—like pop art [or] whatever—is totally wrong.”

Norman Rosenthal and Georg Baselitz have a long and productive history. The former co-curated the “New Spirit in Painting” exhibition in 1981 at the RA, which heavily featured the latter’s work. So robust and pithy is their discussion, which is conducted in German, that it is sometimes almost impossible to tell who is saying what in the English voice-over translation.

It is, nevertheless, a gripping exchange, which ranges over Baselitz’s considerable output and stylistic variance. Rosenthal’s closeness to the artist is a benefit; he knows just when to prod and when to let him speak.

The Cool School is available now, priced £19.99. www.arthousefilmsonline.com. For availability of Georg Baselitz: Making Art After Auschwitz and Dresden, contact BlackwoodFilm@aol.com; it will be screened at the Reel Artists Film Festival, Toronto, 26 February-1 March 2009

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Light and dark after the war'