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Looking at Los Angeles | Ladies of Old School L.A.


Woody Harrelson as dirty cop Dan Brown in "Rampart" (2011)

Rampart, an “L.A. Noir” set for limited release the day before Thanksgiving, is a relentless film with a hero who’s impossible to love but a narrative thrust that forces you to root for him anyway. I saw it last weekend at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, as part of the American Film Institute’s annual festival, and left thinking not that it was a good film but rather that was riskily aggressive in the way it offered no way out of its protagonist’s bigotry.

Woody Harrelson plays a dirty cop in the Rampart police district, who just gets dirtier and dirtier as the film progresses, to the point of absurdity. The only people who give a damn about him are women, mainly the two sisters who live with him–or, rather, live in the main house in front of his backhouse. He’s been married to both of the sisters and has a daughter by each. It’s a very Old Testament scenario, like Leah and Rachel with Isaac, though it seems impressively progressive sometimes too. Then there’s the lawyer he meets, played by Robin Wright, a smart, driven woman whose role in the film is basically to be there when Harrelson’s cop needs to lose himself in either passion or paranoia. The sister ex-wives seem smart and interesting too, probably more so than their former husband. But throughout the film, they just provide a backdrop for his dysfunction.

Frank J. Thomas, photograph of Irving Blum, John Coplans, and Shirley Nielson Hopps. Courtesy Pasadena Museum of California Art.

I thought of Rampart when, a few nights later, I read this line in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Rebels in Paradise, a non-fiction, art historical L.A. Noir published earlier this year: “the two blondes went to Western Costume in Hollywood and rented lace bodices and short skirts” to attend the black-tie Marcel Duchamp opening at the Pasadena Art Museum. The “two blonds” were Gloria Nielson Bell and Shirley Nielson Hopps, the former soon to marry L.A. artist Larry Bell and the latter already married to Ferus Gallery founder and Pasadena Art Museum curator Walter Hopps. Shirley Nielson would eventually divorce Hopps and marry Irving Blum, Ferus’ co-owner–quite the scandal–but only after Hopps’s neuroses and haphazardness (and, probably, his love affairs) had worn her down and after she’d used much of her income as an art history instructor and all her spare time keeping his now-seminal art-world-making efforts afloat. But on page 84 of Rebels in Paradise, she’s just a blond in a bodice. “They both looked so cute,” remembered Larry Bell.

Variety of cheese stuffed into thirty-seven suitcases. Image courtesy of Eugenia P. Butler Estate, © Eugenia P. Butler Estate

I’ve never really seen Shirley Nielson given her due, not in this book or in the film The Cool School, about the Ferus gallery crew, which included Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufmann, a lot of the “big names” associated with SoCal pop and fetish finish. And so far not in any catalogues or literature for Pacific Standard Time (PST), the current region-wide initiative to celebrate SoCal’s art history. That said, there’s a great show up until Thanksgiving in–of course–one of the smallest galleries participating in PST, Sam Francis Gallery on the second floor of Crossroads School in Santa Monica. Called She Accepts the Proposition, it features risky work shown in woman-run galleries in the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Rather than historical photos and artifacts, the exhibition thankfully shows actual art by the mostly male conceptualists exhibited by these women, who included Eugenia Butler, Claire Copley, Constance Lewallen, Riko Mizuno and Morgan Thomas. Artists like William Leavitt, Daniel Buren, Jack Goldstein and Lawrence Weiner were not easy to sell at that point, and none of the galleries referenced in She Accepts had much if any financial success.

Malcolm Lubliner, 1968 photo of Eugenia Butler speaking with Elise Grinstein at a dinner party for Roy Lichtenstein, held at collector Betty Asher's home.

There’s another opening in January too, called Perpetual Conceptual, organized by the nonprofit Los Angeles Nomadic Division that will just focus on Eugenia Butler, the artist-gallerist who showed a William Leavitt sound piece in the 1960s and offered German Dieter Roth his first U.S. exhibition, which he filled with thirty-seven suitcases of unwrapped cheeses. Like the one at Crossroads, this exhibition will be relatively small, but still the best kind of revisionist history, in which a woman plays the right kind of supporting role.

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