The Cool School is Back in Session
Exhibit unearths a treasure trove of Barcelona-inspired art by the likes of Ed Moses, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman and Laddie John Dill that’s been buried for nearly 30 years
By Christina Campodonico
The 1960s’ Light and Space movement began in a gallery called Ferus on La Cienega with a gang of artists now known as “The Cool School.” But you don’t have to travel far in time or space — or east of the 405 — to see artwork by some of the Westside’s most innovative artists of the era.
Stepping inside “The Cool School in Barcelona” exhibit at Andrew Weiss’s Bergamot Station gallery is like taking a trip back in time to a golden age in California art history, when convertibles cruising through Santa Monica and surfboards on Venice beach inspired a generation of artists to experiment with light, space and color in their nearby studios.
Iconic names synonymous with Light and Space and the Westside art scene — Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Laddie John Dill, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses and Eric Orr, to name a few — line the walls beneath 53 rare handmade prints, many seeing the light of day for the first time in nearly 30 years.
The hand-signed etchings and lithographs date back to the artists’ 1988-89 residencies in Barcelona. The Spanish art publication Polígrafa invited each artist to work with their master printers for two weeks at a time. For most of the artists, trained as sculptors or painters, it was their first introduction to printmaking and many of the works have been in storage ever since.
Gallery owner Andrew Weiss worked with art dealer and publisher Leo Collier to bring the archived prints together and back into circulation.
“As a collection, it’s never been shown like this,” says Weiss. “It’s an opportunity to step back in time to see this art as it was done 30 years ago.”
But “The Cool School in Barcelona” is more than just a time capsule. Every print reveals each artist’s take on the European city from a Los Angeles perspective, bringing a taste of Barcelona’s energy beachside.
While “The Cool School” artists are internationally renowned, and some no longer with us, several, such as Alexander, Bengston and Dill, still call Santa Monica or Venice home, or maintain studios here. The Westside influence shows. In this show, their Californian impressions of Barcelona are as fresh today as they were decades ago.
In his prints, resin sculptor Alexander takes a bird’s-eye view. Whether hovering above Barcelona or LAX it’s hard to tell, but his lithographs of looming mountains over hazy valleys, dotted with light, stand out like snapshots taken from a plane, following the formula of his noted LAX painting series (1988-1991).
With one titled “Gardena” and another named “Hallelujah II,” the pair appears to bookend an international journey. The former, with ominous clouds tumbling in, captures apprehension about ascending into uncertain skies. The latter, with its exultation and yellow glow, evokes the relief of finally touching down, perhaps on home soil, perhaps on another continent.
Meanwhile, Moses’ pieces appear lost in the city’s streets, like a tourist tangled in winding back alleys, or a native Angeleno caught unawares by a freeway detour. Snaking zig-zags pop off the page like pulsed veins in some as furious cross-hatches rage across in others. Labyrinthine in nature, it’s not easy to tell where one line ends and another begins, transforming the works into abstract maps for the disoriented.
The prints by Dill and Kauffman are similarly preoccupied with gritty urban grids.
Bengton’s compositions seem taken with the city’s architecture, nightlife and cosmopolitan flair. A lonesome dog, a blood orange moon and sometimes a blue one, a soaring jetliner and a pontificating statuette hang about the corners of a window frame or sandwiched between the arches of a corridor. Layered together, these urban motifs read as recollections from a late night out on the town —fragments pieced together upon the onset of
a morning-after hangover.
In “Bab 3,” an hourglass figure, almost like the profile of a dancing woman, sways to a loud visual rhythm. Barbie-style heels toss and turn over her silhouette, recalling the tempo of a nightclub at fever pitch. If this is the wild night out, then “Bab 1” is the sober stroll back home. S-shaped paths lead toward two arched portals, illuminated each by a yellow dot. It seems as if someone left the light on for the reveler’s return.
Bell takes this flickering suggestion of light and expands it across his prints. The artist is known for bending light with his glass cubes, but here he renders that experience in two dimensions and in Technicolor. With his Barcelona series, he creates heavenly washes of color, where every shade melts seamlessly into the next like a sunset on the beach. Even in Spain, Bell couldn’t get those stereotypically Californian rays of light off his mind. Yet the effect is breathtaking.
Such is the pleasure of spending an hour or so with these local artists’ visions of Barcelona. You can feel as if you’ve traveled 6,000 miles away without getting on a plane.
“The Cool School in Barcelona: Rare Print Works by L.A.’s Most Influential Group of Artists” is on view through Dec. 5 at Andrew Weiss Gallery in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., D-4, Santa Monica. Call (310) 246-9333 or visit andrewweiss.com.