Once A King in Los Angeles


“They ask that you arrive on the dot,” wrote the publicist for Irving Blum. Another missive stated, “It is very important that Gordy arrive on time.” My editor barked into the phone, “And don’t be late! Five-fifteen ain’t Five-O-One!”
I’ve never been tardy in my entire life. Misshapen, but never tardy. That’s how I roll. But now I was getting paranoid. I live on the Eastside of Los Angeles. Irving Blum lives in the upper middle, like west Beverly Hills or east Bel Air. It is a seven-mile trip if a coyote could fly. Otherwise, it’s 11 or 20. If I leave in the morning, I will have a shot at the Holy Grail.

I was excited to meet Blum, a hero of art-world legend, fame and renown. Ferus Gallery and the Venice Boys have always been a blood focus and a fascination for me. Punctuality today requires an advanced degree in Urban Planning, an MBA in Time and Motion Studies and a gambler’s faith in Luck. I packed a light bag.

North of Sunset and UCLA, the canyon roads are narrow and winding. The vegetation is dense and well landscaped. There is a sense of order despite the chaos. Up and down this old coyote trail, every third home is undergoing a massive, major construction renovation. The neighborhood, a symbol of devotion to relaxation, luxury and the California good life, is Balkanized and hazardous like Baghdad. Near the Hotel Bel-Air and Irving Blum’s home, it took a bit of cunning, but I finally found a parking spot to kill the time so that I could slide into the gate “on the dot.”

Fit and vital in his very early 80s, Irving and young wife Jackie Blum live in a beautiful, space-efficient contemporary home nestled into a hillside at the bottom of a canyon. Everything is as it should be. The house is a museum. The artwork is exquisite. The knickknack mementos are historic, like the photo by groovy ’60s photographer Bill Claxton: Blum in a blazer stands on a yacht in Newport Beach with a few bikini babes and supermodel Peggy Moffitt. The transom of the motorboat reads “Ferus Gallery” in fancy gold letters. Now, that’s a memento!

But I wasn’t here to look at the art; I wanted something deeper. I wanted to go back to Ferus, back to a different time and landscape of the city that I know and love so well. In short, I wanted to learn something new from this provocateur. I wanted to convey an experience, as if I snuck out of a Ferus opening to smoke a joint with the three Eds, Robert, Bruce and Larry. I wanted Ferus raw.

Blum’s home is far from raw. Not a spec of dust had settled anywhere, especially not on the small Larry Bell glass cube, next to the Frank Stella painting. Congenial Jackie Blum ushered me in and offered a bottle of Fiji water. She also delivered one for her husband. The several generations between them was evidenced in the casualness of their wardrobe. His casual was Beverly-Hills retired, a plaid shirt and belted slacks. Hers, shabby chic. Jackie takes care of business with the efficiency of a publicist who meets all needs and keeps the ball rolling.

I came loaded. I did my research. I found a video interview with Blum where he spoke of a precious Ken Price object with which he wanted to be buried. My editor had mentioned that Blum was in the august of his life and was curious how he viewed his legacy. This Price piece would be a great segue to immortality. It was the first thing I asked, so that it would be part of my record. It’s a great story.

In 1962, Ken Price was going to Japan, a very appropriate influence for this innovative artist in which to immerse. He asked his dealer Blum, “What can I bring back for you?” Blum was considering pachinko machines, cigarettes and Japanese delicacies, but he told his artist, “Come see me tomorrow. I want to think about it.” Price went to the gallery the next day. (Back then, Venice Beach to West Hollywood took 20 minutes.) Blum said, “Bring me back a diary, a journal of all your adventures, real and imagined.” Price said “Okay” and “Bon Voyage.” Several weeks later, upon his return, Price presented Blum with a delicate wood box. Inside was a scroll that opened to 25 feet in length. On the scroll, Price had illustrated, water-colored and scribed his adventures, both real and imaginary. This artwork has never been exhibited publicly nor much written about. On the video, Blum says he wants to be buried with the precious object. What a beautiful gesture.

I realized I was losing the game; I had been warned... I had read it all before. Then again, Blum is known as a wily old fox, prone to keeping his cards close to his vest.

I asked Blum, “Please tell me the story. In 1962 when Ken Price went to Japan. What did he bring back for you? Is it something you’d like to be buried with?”
Jackie heard the question as she was buzzing in the background and remarked in passing, “Well, that’s morbid!”

Blum repeated the same story with a twist. Unfortunately for my telling, he was less enamored with the 25 feet of artistic genius than he had previously let on. When I asked him if he’d like to be buried with the Price piece, he looked at me as if I was out of my mind.

I realized I was losing the game; I had been warned. Wanting to always be the best that I can be, I had consulted with a couple of art writer colleagues. All essentially said the same thing. “Good luck. You won’t get anything interesting out of Blum. He tells the same stories.” And they were right. I had read it all before. Then again, Blum is known as a wily old fox, prone to keeping his cards close to his vest.

Much has been written of Blum, his success and his discovery of Andy Warhol and Pop Art. All has been said, and I wasn’t going to go there. I wanted something new and unpublished. I wanted to expose the raw, fleshy underbelly of the times. I sweated Blum, “Enough of Warhol! How did Ruscha come into the stable? How come Shirley Neilsen Hopps doesn’t get much credit in the Ferus history? How did Jasper Johns get on the cover of Art News in ’58 before he even had a show? Tell me some fun Hollywood party stories! How big of an impact was your sales job at Knoll Furniture? The start of Artforum and you? Whoa! Weren’t there 36 ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ instead of 32? You were close friends with Dennis Hopper and his wife Brooke Hayward, no? What’s up with Cameron Parsons, satanic cults on the Sunset Strip and the rebirth of the devil? Where’s that kid now? What happened to Ed Ruscha’s painting Sweetwater? Is it true that a UCLA art student of Henry Hopkins painted over it? Tell me about gallerist Nick Wilder? How’d you get your collectors to give up their soup cans? How much competition was the Virginia Dwan Gallery? Where was Vija Celmins at this time?”

At precisely one hour to the quarter minute, the interview was over. Exactly as I had been previously instructed. I was grateful for the time and the intrusion on one’s life. The Blums had welcomed me into their home and had been generous with their time. Sadly, I was walking away with bupkis, nothing, not a kernel, zero, nada, zilch.

Blum answered my burning questions with a wet blanket, but at least it got served with his trademark Cary Grant clip: Ruscha slipped in. He was younger, an outsider to his Venice Beach big bros. He didn’t kill anybody. Snooze. Billy Al Bengston was too cocky and it clipped him, maybe even stifled his growth. Doug Chrismas and Rauschenberg had a wild and hilarious business ride; always in the end, your enemy is your friend. Okay. Got it. The Satan stuff was totally Wally Berman. There may have been a few extra soup cans. So what? Shirley Neilsen’s relationship with her husband Walter Hopps was long over by the time Blum married her. UCLA had an art mafia. And still does. Contemporary gallerist Honor Fraser is very impressive, as is Shaun Regen. He despises Judy Chicago. Blum regrets that he gets dissed for not being a better feminist. Highland Avenue in Hollywood is gonna be the next Culver City. No. No. Don’t know. Never heard.

I wanted sexy ’60s Sunset Strip Hollywood heroin stories, and all I got was a bottle of Fiji water.


GORDY GRUNDY is a Los Angeles–based artist. His visual and literary work can be found at www.GordyGrundy.com.