L.A. Legends @ The Broad Stage

Top: Living legends Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell
Bottom left: Edythe and Eli Broad, the philanthropist namesakes of The Broad Stage, listen to tales from the Cool School
Bottom right: Wendy Al and Billy Al Bengston were all smiles at a reception before the talk
Photos by Ben Gibbs

Ed Ruscha. Larry Bell. Ed Moses. Billy Al Bengston. Today these men are icons of California art, but once upon a time they were just ambitious kids who couldn’t afford to quit their day jobs.

The four friends — members of the legendary 1950s and ’60s L.A. arts collective known as the Cool School — discussed their winding pathways to success during the “Artists Talk: L.A. Legends” panel on Jan. 18 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, inaugurating a series of dialogues co-organized by Sotheby’s Institute of Art-Los Angeles and Bergamot Station gallerist William Turner.

Prompted by moderator Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, a KCRW art critic and author of “Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s,” Ruscha, Bell and Bengston shared anecdotes about the jobs they took on to support themselves while pursuing art.

Ruscha, a pioneer of L.A. pop-art, drove out to California from Oklahoma City to attend CalArts (then known as Chouinard) before running a studio in Venice and finally settling down in Culver City. He talked about painting names and personalized messages on hundreds of gift items — like birdhouses and denture dishes — in order to make enough money to live on while also making art. That seems like a precursor to the paintings, prints and lithographs of witty phrases he’d create to critical acclaim in the 1960s. But the idea of becoming a famous — much less a financially successful artist — was far removed from his mind at the time.

“All my friends wanted to make art that would blow your hair back and have fun doing it,” said Ruscha, 79, “but the idea of having a vocation out of it and making a living at it was nonexistent … that happened by accident.”

Larry Bell, known for his minimalist sculptures of transparent and reflective cubes, moved his studio to Venice in the 1960s and still maintains a studio there. He talked about working at a framing shop in Burbank and being a bouncer at a coffeehouse on Sunset Boulevard called The Unicorn, where he’d sometimes entertain patrons with folk songs on his 12-string guitar.

But “at a certain point I just decided I had to figure out a way to make a living that didn’t include working,” said Bell, 77. “I went into the studio and didn’t come out again.”

Yet Bell did take away some important lessons from working at the framing shop — namely that glass could be a valuable material for his sculptures, which would lay the groundwork for the California Light and Space movement.

“The thing I liked about glass was that it reflected light, it transmitted light and it absorbed light all at the same time,” he said. “You could buy it any place. It was not very expensive. … And it had a shelf life of something like 3 million years.”

Bengston, 82, also shared a colorful art education history. Even though he attended several art schools throughout California, he never let that circuitous route interfere with his actual education.

“I lasted one day at USC,” recalled Bengston, whose day job was racing motorcycles. “I went on an athletic scholarship and realized I wasn’t going to be an athletic supporter, and I dropped out and went to work in display at Desmond’s [department store]. That was a good education.”

Despite varied work and artistic backgrounds, the Ferus Gallery — where they exhibited their work under the direction of L.A. art impresario Walter Hopps, whom they called “Chico,” and gallerist Irving Blum, who attended the discussion — and immersion in local culture unified Bengston, Ruscha, Moses, Bell and others such as the late Edward Kienholz and Craig Kauffman into a fraternity of L.A. loyalists.

Artists Elizabeth Orleans and Kelly Berg (Ed Moses’ daughter-in-law) represent a new generation of Westside artists
Photo by Eric Minh Swenson

Most eschewed the idea of moving to New York “to make it” as artists.

“I thought California was much more sparkly and chicks in cars,” said Ruscha. “This was a better area code … although it was sort of like the Australia of the art world.”

But that distance from the mainstream made the L.A. scene ripe for artistic innovation and opportunity, Bengston pointed out.

“All of us wanted to make a contribution of some type,” he said. “And you didn’t need museums, galleries or any of that. You just need your buddies…

“… and Barney’s Beanery,” he quipped, a shout out to the iconic West Hollywood bar where the Ferus Group, as they’ve also been called, used to go out for drinks.

“We thought we were great, too,” added Moses, 90, who still lives in Venice.

“Well, we were!” said Bengston. “I’d say everyone sitting here was fantastic.”

To quote a 2009 Ruscha lithograph of white letters floating over cloudy skies, all the Cool School needed was “Cold Beer, Beautiful Girls” … and some solid creative friendships to guide them into art world superstardom.

— Christina Campodonico

The Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation received $161,801 from 588 donors to meet a $25,000 matching gift from Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows / MSD Capital. smmef.org

Rain Pryor, daughter of comic legend Richard Pryor, opens her new solo play “Fried Chicken & Latkes” on Thursday, Feb. 16 in Santa Monica. jewishwomens-theatre.org

California Sen. Ben Allen (D- Santa Monica) was named Legislator of the Year by TechNet, an association of leading technology companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft. technet.org

Catch an extended set by actress-singer Mews Small (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at UnUrban Coffee House. mewssmall.com

The Saint John’s Health Center Foundation recently gave more than $1 million to 13 local community health and welfare groups serving vulnerable populations. stjohns.org

Maestro James Conlon and actor Stephen Fry talk shop at the Aero Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 23, after a 7:30 p.m. screening of the 1953 Rita Hayworth drama “Salome.” americancinema-thequecalendar.com