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Book Review: 'Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s'

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It sounds like a movie: a rag-tag team of rascally young men finds its way to a sunny city too young for tradition or history. Once there, they learn how to paint and make sculptures while getting drunk, having sex, taking drugs, riding motorcycles, surfing and, eventually, if they're lucky, finding themselves. Along the way, they also inaugurate an international art scene and bring stature to their new hometown.

So reads Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's breezy, fast-paced new book Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s, which brings to life many of the main characters in our city's art history, including Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Larry Bell, Craig Kaufman, Dennis Hopper and Robert Irwin, among others.

The book opens with the founding of Ferus Gallery in 1957 by the dapper Walter Hopps and perspicacious artist Ed Kienholz on North La Cienega Boulevard, quickly glosses two major shows that helped jumpstart the LA art scene - one featuring Andy Warhol, the other Marcel Duchamp - and moves along to chronicle a decade of art-making against a somewhat foggy backdrop of feminism and the civil rights movement.

The accounts veer toward the gossipy, moving from intriguing detail to surprising revelation, without quite being lurid or lascivious. Indeed, despite the often humorous anecdotal accounts of the private lives of artists, curators and girlfriends, the book conjures both the sweep of history and its vicissitudes while grounding all of the stories in very specific places, from Brentwood to Pasadena, from the hills of Topanga to the beaches of Malibu in a way that makes you see parts of the city anew. We do brush up against political events on occasion, as one governor replaces another or a major uprising disrupts the city for close to a week, but these events are seen through the blurry eyes of the swaggering artists - or "studs" as Ferus would call them at one point - at the center of the story.

While there is mention of several women -- Virginia Dwan, who founded the Dwan gallery, is included in a short chapter, as are the celebrated artists Vija Clemins and Judy Chicago -- the book is decidedly a boys' story, a fact that Drohojowska-Philp's explains. "Up until the midsixties, the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, was largely the realm of white men." Reading it, though, you can't help buy wonder about all the women lurking in the background.

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Anyway. We do learn about the founding of Artforum, an art magazine originally dedicated to west coast art, as well as the rise and fall of numerous galleries and the founding of LA's key museums. We read that Hockney learned to drive in a week, then hopped on the freeway, but didn't know how to exit and ended up in Las Vegas. We discover that topless bathing suits and matching architectural haircuts were born here, and that Dennis Hopper received his first Nikon 35mm camera from his then fiancée Brooke Hayword in 1961. An irritated Kienholz used an ax to destroy a table in the TWA terminal at LAX after precious cargo was damaged, and Hopps, as one of his first events, staged a show of paintings hung from canvas stretched across the perimeter of a merry-go-round at the pier in Santa Monica. "The exhibition revolved slowly to the sounds of the calliope, jazz records and John Cage's score for twelve radios to a vanguard audience of artists, Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and bewildered passersby."

On occasion, Drohojowska-Philp offers a more informed take. Writing of David Hockney and Ed Rusha, she notes, "Both would rise to prominence on their ability to look beyond and even elevate the clichés of the Los Angeles landscape in their art." These insights are sprinkled throughout the book, and it's clear that, given a narrower focus, the author, who also wrote Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, would bring a more refined analysis.

But who needs refined? The book is what it is, and makes for a good, jaunty opening to the upcoming city-wide self-reflection afforded by the massive Pacific Standard Time Exhibition kicking off October 1, 2011.

Drohojowska-Philp will discuss and sign her book at the bookstore Diesel in Brentwood on Sunday, September 11, 2011, at 3:00 p.m.

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