Entrevista a Irving Blum.pdf

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Irving Blum , By PETER M. BRANT interviewmagazine If the contemporary-art scene of mid-1950s New York was small, centered mostly around a cluster of galleries on 57th Street, then its Los Angeles counterpart was miniscule by comparison. There were just a handful of galleries in L.A. at the time; few were showing new American art; and it wouldn’t be until the early-’60s that museums were a significant part of t
    Irving Blum , By PETER M. BRANT interviewmagazine If the contemporary-art scene of mid-1950s New York was small, centered mostly around a cluster of galleries on 57th Street, then its Los Angeles counterpart was miniscule by comparison. There were just a handful of galleries in L.A. at the time; few were showing new  American art; and it wouldn’t be until the early-’60s that museums were a significant part of the cultural landscape. But the lack of infrastructure also meant that anything was possible. The barbarians of the avant-garde were already at the gate—they just needed a place of their own. The locus of that change was Ferus, launched in 1957 by med-school dropout (and future museum curator) Walter Hopps and the assemblage artist Ed Kienholz. Although Ferus held exhibitions, the gallery initially served as more of an ad-hoc artists’ hangout than a commercial venture. But recently transplanted from New York and itching to get into the art business, Irving Blum soon entered the Ferus orbit—and, as it turned out, fortuitously, since Kienholz had recently decided that the gallery was occupying too much of his time and  wanted to refocus his energies on his art. In 1958, Kienholz sold his share of Ferus to Blum,  who promptly went about remaking the gallery, seeking out a more visible space, attempting to build a healthy client list, and soliciting further financial support to help the budding enterprise sustain itself—and, with any luck, grow.  With his elegant manner and flair for promotion, Blum proved the perfect foil for the  bohemian intellectual Hopps, and between them they attracted a wide cross-section of L.A. characters: patrons of the arts; students; scions; and actors like Dennis Hopper and Vincent Price. Then there were the Ferus artists, a group that would eventually include John Altoon, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Ken Price, and Ed Ruscha, many of whom took inspiration from California car-and-surf culture. Blum honed the roster and ventured to show more East Coast artists, including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, who Blum had first met in New York in 1961. At the time,  Warhol was working on cartoon paintings that Blum struggled to make sense of. But during a visit to Warhol’s studio the following year, Blum noticed his newest works, the soup-can paintings, and decided he that wanted to show them at Ferus—a remarkable coup only in hindsight, as Pop was not yet the cultural and market phenomena it would become. Initially dismissed by many—an art dealer down the street offered actual cans for sale at 29 cents each—the soup-can paintings are now among the most iconic works of Pop art and reside in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the soup-can exhibition at Ferus. In honor of the occasion, Interview’s chairman, Peter M. Brant, recently spoke with Blum, 81, in Los  Angeles to discuss what led the young art dealer to Warhol, the advent of Pop, and the conspiring forces that helped create the landmark exhibition that ushered in a new era in  American art. PETER BRANT: I know that you’re srcinally from Brooklyn, but you moved out West with  your family when you were young. IRVING BLUM: I was about 11 or 12 years old when we left Brooklyn. My father had arthritis, so we moved to Phoenix for the weather. I went to high school there, then to college at the University of Arizona, and then I was in the Air Force for about three and a half years. But when I got out in 1955, I went back to New York and, soon after arriving, I  went to lunch with a friend who happened to bring along Hans Knoll.   # BRANT: Knoll was really major in terms of design and modernism at that time. Florence Knoll, who, as you know, was an architect, developed furniture designs by some very important architects. BLUM: Yes, Knoll was absolutely central. So Hans and I met and had a wonderful afternoon, and he said, “Why don’t you come up to the showroom and take a look around?” So I went up to their showroom and liked very much what I saw—I knew nothing about contemporary furniture at the time, but it seemed really interesting to me. So Hans asked, “What are you doing in New York?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’m thinking about maybe doing something with theater.” I had worked for the Armed Forces Radio Service  when I was in the Air Force and studied theater a little bit. So he said, “I’ll tell you what.  Why don’t you come here and work for me, and if you stay for a year then I’ll give you a  bonus, and then you’re free to do whatever you like after that. But it’s a way to ground  yourself.” And I thought, “Perfect. Why not?” I really had nothing going on at the time. Knoll back then was on 57th and Madison, and most of the galleries in New York at that time were on 57th Street—Sidney Janis, Betty Parsons, they were all just around the corner. Leo [Castelli] hadn’t begun yet. BRANT: Had the Seagrams commission started yet? BLUM: Yes, it had started, and Mrs. Knoll was very involved in doing the corporate offices, so I had a bit of a hand in that. But I would visit the galleries—Janis and Parsons in particular—and I started to have the sense that there was something enormously important going on in the New York art world at the time. Then I met David Herbert, who worked for Parsons, and he took me around to some studios—including, most importantly, Ellsworth Kelly’s—and I ultimately had the feeling that I might want to have a gallery of my own. BRANT: But up to that point, you had no idea that you were going to be involved in the art  world. BLUM: No, no idea. It just happened . . . Well, what happened really was that Hans Knoll died—he was killed in an automobile crash. He went down to pre-Castro Cuba and was run off the road and died. But Hans was largely responsible for a great deal of the energy in the company, and without him, the company changed. The romance was gone. I decided then that I might want to have a gallery. I also missed the West Coast. So I thought L.A. might be the place to try. This was 1957. I had very little money; I knew I couldn’t do anything in New  York. So I came to L.A. and wandered around. There were several galleries here at the time—Frank Perls, Paul Kantor, Felix Landau, Esther Robles. But the most interesting gallery to me was the one that was started by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz a few months  before I got there: the Ferus Gallery. So I met Walter and said, “You know, I’d like to participate in some way in this gallery that you’ve started.” He said, “Well, Kienholz has  been complaining that he wants to go back to his studio to make work. You might have a conversation with him.” So I reached out to Ed and said, “I’m very interested in buying your share of the gallery.” And Ed said, “Great! I’m tired of sitting there.” BRANT: “I want to go back to work!” BLUM: Exactly. So I said, “Well, what sort of money are we talking about here?” He said, “$500.” And I said, “I can do that.” So I gave him $500 and Walter and I became partners. BRANT: What was the gallery like at that point? BLUM: It was completely chaotic. Number one, they represented around 60 people; and number two, the space was really uninteresting. It was behind a little antique store on La Cienega Boulevard. So I told Walter, “We need a more attractive space.” And he said, “How   $ are we gonna do that?” And I said, “Well, maybe I can go to a few people and see if I can put a little money together. Who comes by in a regular way?” Not very many people came in . . .  Vincent Price came in. Gifford Phillips came in. An astonishing lady by the name of Sayde Moss came in. BRANT: Dennis Hopper would always tell me that when he was first starting out, Vincent Price was a big influence. Both Dennis and James Dean spoke regularly with Vincent, who  was really encouraging of their interest in art. BLUM: Well, there weren’t a lot of people involved in the gallery at the time. Vincent  wouldn’t do anything, but the mere fact that he was interested in art was kind of radical and important, you know? Gifford wouldn’t do anything either, but he said that he would come to the gallery and buy things and support us in that way. BRANT: But Sayde Moss became the backer of the gallery, right? BLUM: Yes, she was the backer. Sayde’s husband had recently passed away, and she was looking for something to do, so I was able to persuade her that if she advanced us small sums of money, then we could do something that I thought might be important. When I say small sums, she gave us, at the end of a year’s time, say, for example, $5,000. The second  year, she gave us $6,000. In any case, I found a space across the street from where Walter and Ed were located, and we were off and running. Then the next thing I did was reduce the number of artists that the gallery showed. I also wanted to include artists who didn’t live in California—particularly people from New York whom I’d met, like Ellsworth, or whom I’d known about early on, like Frank Stella. BRANT: Stella was represented in New York by Leo Castelli at that time. BLUM: Yes, by then Leo was in business. I took a lot of my cues from Leo, and he was just incredibly generous. Just to tell you one story: I came to New York around 1960 and went to see him. He had just begun in the same way that I had just begun. So I said, “Leo, the artists in California are intrigued by Jasper Johns, but they’ve never seen an actual painting—they’ve only seen reproductions. Can we do something?” He said, “Oh, dear. Jasper supports my entire gallery. I have a waiting list for the work of three or four people.” Then Leo thought for a minute, and he kind of drummed on his desk and said, “I’ll tell you what. Here is his phone number. Call him and maybe something will happen.” Can you imagine one dealer doing that for another? BRANT: Well, Leo’s idea of the art world was much more inclusive. He liked to develop relationships with other dealers who he knew really understood what he was doing. BLUM: Yeah, Leo was really incredible—just extremely fair and generous. He had this group of “lieutenants” that he did a lot of business with: Joe Helman in St. Louis, Bruno [Bischofberger] in Switzerland, Ileana [Sonnabend] in Paris, Robert Fraser in England, Gian Enzo Sperone in Italy. BRANT: Akira Ikeda in Japan.   % BLUM: Exactly. I became Leo’s guy on the West Coast. So Leo gave me Jasper’s number and I called Jasper right there on the spot and he invited me to his studio. As I walked into his place, I saw a [Kurt] Schwitters collage in the entryway that he had traded a dealer for, and then a long table with his sculptures—the light bulb, the flashlight, the ale cans. Nothing in my career up to that point had prepared me for what I was looking at. I said, “What are those?” Jasper said, “Sculptures that I’ve been thinking about.” I looked at them and thought, Go for it. So I said, “I’ve got an idea, Jasper. The Schwitters collage and your sculpture—we could do a show in my gallery in California.” He said, “Well, where are you gonna get the Schwitters?” I said, “A German expatriate lady who lives in L.A. by the name of Galka Scheyer has a group of them.” And he said, “Well, if you get the Schwitters, then call me and I’ll send you my sculptures.” And I got them. So I had that show with Schwitters and Jasper . . . I kept two sculptures and sent the rest back. [ laughs ] BRANT: At least you kept two of them. BLUM: They were roughly $500 a piece. Unbelievable. BRANT: And the Flag paintings were only $1,000 back then. But making an actual sale at that time was a rare occasion. BLUM: A rare occasion. I mean, you could hardly do it. Thank heaven Gifford Phillips supported an artist we showed called Hassel Smith, who lived north of San Francisco. That helped a lot. BRANT: I know that you raised a bit of extra money back then by doing some script work on the side. BLUM: Yeah, for Russ Meyer. [ laughs ] BRANT: But he wasn’t Russ Meyer yet when you met him. BLUM: No, when I met him, he was a still photographer. He’d never directed a movie. He had no reputation yet. He was merely a friend. We used to play poker up at his house. I liked him—he was crusty and very entertaining. His ambition, though, really was to make a movie, and I helped him to achieve that ambition with The Immoral Mr. Teas [1959], which I wrote and presented to him, having taken virtually all of it from The Secret Life of Walter  Mitty  by James Thurber. [ both laugh ] But Russ thought it was great. BRANT: You were the narrator of that film as well. BLUM: I was the narrator as well. But in any case, I separated from Russ after that one attempt because the gallery started to occupy more and more of my time. BRANT: How did you come to meet Andy? What were the circumstances? BLUM: Well, my idea was to put artists from the East Coast together with people I represented on the West Coast, and in order to do that I had to go to New York. I never had
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