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LA's Art Scene In the '60s Rivaled New York


And it may be surprising to many outside Los Angeles to hear that it has an art scene that goes back to the middle of the last century - maybe because the '50s and '60s in Southern California was a vast landscape dotted with car culture, beach culture, and a growing aerospace industry. Not necessarily art, one thinks.

It was also, though, the home of an art scene which attracted artists who were rejected in New York. That's something Hunter Drohojowska-Philp writes about in her book "Rebels in Paradise."

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP: I really was struck by the boldness of their decision to stay in Los Angeles when they could have gone to New York, and the way they all felt - they couldn't grow and do what they needed to do for themselves as artists, in New York. They needed the freedom and the permission of Los Angeles, where there were few galleries and collectors and no museum. There was no infrastructure, so they could do what they wanted.

MONTAGNE: One person who seized the opportunity to do what he wanted was Andy Warhol. The artist who came to epitomize the New York art world actually got his start here in L.A.

DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP: The very first Andy Warhol exhibition was in 1962, when he showed the Campbell's soup can paintings at Ferus Gallery - which is really, sort of the first contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles - on North La Cienega Boulevard. Everybody came. The reviews in L.A. were not positive. But nonetheless, the dealer, Irving Blum(ph), managed to sell a couple.

Then he had to borrow them back because he realized that actually, those soup cans should be shown as an entity unto themselves, that they really were one piece - all of them together. And then, of course, many years later, he was able to sell them to the Museum of Modern Art for $15 million.

MONTAGNE: Given the sprawl in Los Angeles, it's hard to create a real physical community here, certainly for - not like artists have always done in New York City. But there was one place. That was Venice - on the beach - that early on had quite a vibrant and tight community.

DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP: Well, Venice in the early 1960s was really inexpensive real estate. And that attracted Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, James Turrell - really some fantastic artists, a lot of whom did work with light. And they were certainly affected by the kind of constant changing, beautiful light around the ocean - the same light that actually brought the film studios to the West Coast in the first place.

MONTAGNE: Light was everything to one of the best-known artists who was drawn to Los Angeles in the 1960s, and that's David Hockney. He, of course, came from a very different landscape - and a very different light - in England.

DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP: Yes, he did. And David Hockney's work was transformed by being in Los Angeles. And he says that it was as though he could see a way of making art here that he could never have seen while he was in London. He was able to switch from using oil to acrylic paint. He started taking photographs of his models, or photographs of these scenes. So his work also is very intentional, very controlled, very stylized.

And yes, of course, it's the brilliant blue of the sky, the blue of the swimming pools, the green of the palm trees. I mean, ironically, he does become the best-known of the Los Angeles artists.

MONTAGNE: To describe a Hockney painting would be to describe a scene that you can see every day in the more affluent parts of Los Angeles.

DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP: Correct. Probably one of his best-known paintings is "A Bigger Splash," and it features a swimming pool and just the spray coming up out of the water, of the white foam - and a little stucco house in the background. And the impact of a swimming pool on a young boy from Northern England in 1966 cannot be overestimated.

MONTAGNE: When you look back at the time that you are writing about in this book, "Rebels in Paradise," what did this one moment in time for the art world of Los Angeles, what did it mean?

DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP: Well, the reason I wrote the book is that Ed Rochette, John Baldessari, David Hockney - these are pretty well-known names in the art world. I mean, John Baldessari is sort of a founder of conceptual art. Ed Rochette is known as a pop artist, but really it's about words on - big words on canvas; or David Hockney, who's done so much for his imagery of Los Angeles - these artists have work that sells for millions of dollars today. They have international reputations.

But my book really chronicles what it was like when they were young, struggling artists in Los Angeles, hanging out and trying to make it happen.

MONTAGNE: Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is the author of "Rebels in Paradise." Some of the works in her book are featured in a massive series of exhibitions throughout Southern California, on right now, called "Pacific Standard Time."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.