of Contemporary Art on La Cienega
By Shana Nys Dambrot
The north end of La Cienega Boulevard was the center of the Los Angeles art world from the 1950s to the 1980s, as famously documented in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time 1945-80 initiative. Most people know about Ferus Gallery, founded by artist Edward Kienholz and curator Walter Hopps in a small space behind an antiques shop that went on to show luminaries such as Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz from 1957 to 1966. But what most people likely remember is the year 1962, when Irving Blum, having become Ferus’ director at the time, gave Andy Warhol his first L.A. show — in fact his first commercial gallery show anywhere exhibiting his now iconic Soup Cans. Heritage Gallery, owned by Ben Horowitz, showed Charles White and Ernie Barnes-- besides Ankrum and Hunsaker/Schlesinger galleries, was basically was the only place on the block showing work by African Americans. Felix Landau opened his space in 1951 and showed European icons like Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Francis Bacon, bringing many of them to L.A. for the first time.
But in many ways, the history of this gallery era is really a history of visionary women. Joan Ankrum was an early adopter of a North La Cienega address, opening in a space previously held by Rolf Nelson. With partner William Challee, she organized the area’s first group show for black artists, helped set up the Los Angeles Art Dealers Association and helped launch the district’s infamous Monday Night Art Walk. Esther Robles Gallery was showing Karl Benjamin and Claire Falkenstein. Riko Mizuno’s Gallery 669 showed Chris Burden, including his piece Dead Man, in which he laid prone under a tarp on La Cienega. Eugenia Butler, Sr. co-directed Gallery 669 with Mizuno from 1967 and later ran the Eugenia Butler Gallery on La Cienega from 1968 to 1971. Rosamund Felsen opened her gallery on the boulevard in 1978, and her roster has included Guy Dill, Richard Jackson, Alexis Smith, Bill Wegman, Chris Burden, Karen Carson, Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman and Jim Shaw. Felsen is now a pillar of Bergamot Station, along with fellow La Cienega alumnae Ruth Bachofner and Lora Schlesinger. Betty Asher and Patricia Faure had the “cool school” on lockdown there before Faure, too, later moved to Bergamot. Ulrike Kantor had a taste for highbrow pop, showing Gary Lang and Roy Lichtenstein. Claire Copley and Betty Gold left their mark on the scene. And of course, force of nature and lifelong impresario Molly Barnes started here, too, with early shows for John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston and the rest of the beatnik-into-pop pantheon.
Currently, La Cienega is holding its own in the art world, offering invigorating shows month after month as well as raising the neighborhood’s profile on the national and international scene. In fact, two of West Hollywood’s best fine art galleries — one of its oldest and one of its newest — hold court within a hundred yards of each other on La Cienega, just north of Melrose Place, in the heart of history. Longtime bastion of community and opportunity, L.A. Art Association’s Gallery 825 and the newest branch of Chicago splash-maker KM Fine Arts both focus on new contemporary art, practicing a range of curatorial approaches that result in eclectic, dynamic and prolific programming that attracts stylish crowds from all across L.A. — making the 800 stretch of North La Cienega Boulevard a place where both seasoned impresarios and curious newcomers can see something special.
The LAAA has its 90th anniversary season in its sights, but the organization is springier in its step than ever. Cindy Jackson’s recent sculptural installation was described by executive director Peter Mays as both “epic” and “particularly satisfying.” Before transforming the gallery in September, one or two of her mammoth secular idols almost broke Instagram at the 2014 L.A. Art Show, and now some of them will make the trip to the Palm Springs Art Show in February. In fact, in addition to the monthly members’ solo and guest-juried shows at home, participation in such fairs has become a hallmark of the expanded LAAA profile. On Dec. 13, LAAA will have its annual Open Show — a beloved tradition that offers nonmembers a chance to get in front of its core membership as well as the invited curators and gallerists. In January, JT Burke is creating a new immersive installation for the L.A. Art Show based on a big top circus. Also, in January, the space hosts three solo shows (Kelly Berg, Isabella Kelly-Ramirez, Richard Slechta). The concurrent format is their regular approach each month. Despite all the jet-setting, LAAA’s heart is all about its WeHo base. Approaching 90, LAAA has been on La Cienega since 1961 — so it’s seen its share of ups and downs. Mays expresses being “very cognizant of the importance of La Cienega’s legacy, and I take great pride in LAAA’s role in its history. Molly Barnes told me that LAAA was kind of a neutral meeting place for the artists and galleries back in the day. I love hearing the old stories.” Historical photographs abound, including photos of board members like actor Edward G. Robinson, and they were even once featured on an episode of Dragnet! Times have changed a bit — for example they’ve done a fabulously eclectic group show titled Out There for Pride Week seven years running — but Gallery 825 endures and flourishes.
Published in North Hollywood Lifestyles Magazine