West by Midwest

Okies in LA



I was coming over the desert and I could kinda feel Los Angeles coming towards me . . . And when I finally got here and saw what this place was like, I fell in love with it.<br>

Ed Ruscha


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Students Five section

After graduating from high school in 1956, childhood friends Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams packed up Ruscha’s 1950 Ford and traveled from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles on historic Route 66. Repeating this journey over the next few years, Ruscha convinced his friend Jerry McMillan to move out west in 1958, which in turn inspired Joe Goode to follow suit, and the three enrolled in Chouinard Art Institute.

There they befriended Oklahoma natives Patrick Blackwell and Don Moore and formed a group, calling themselves the Students Five. Moving to Hollywood, they rented a house together and even set up a darkroom. Blackwell, who learned photography in the Navy, taught McMillan what he knew, and the latter went on to prolifically document the art and lives of his friends and community.

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Barney's Beanery Section

To support themselves during school, Goode, McMillan, and Ruscha worked part-time at Cassell’s Patio near Chouinard. Goode was a waiter and McMillan and Ruscha worked as food preparers. On Monday nights they would take part in the La Cienega art walk.

At that time, the LA art world was just beginning and these new galleries opening up along La Cienega Boulevard were important sources of support and community. These galleries also provided artists with opportunities to get their work shown. Walter Hopps’s Ferus Gallery showed many of these Okies and propelled artists like Billy Al Bengston’s careers.

Up the hill from La Cienega sat Barney’s Beanery, a gritty bar-restaurant that became a favorite watering hole for many of Los Angeles’s young artists in the 1950s and 1960s. Outside of being one of the only bars in the area at the time, Barney’s owner, John "Barney" Anthony, handed out credits to these starving artists.

Collaboration Section

Beyond school and work, the young artists also tested the boundaries of fine art when collaborating on projects.

War Babies Section

In 1961, Goode organized War Babies, a now-notorious exhibition at Huysman Gallery. McMillan created the poster for the exhibition. The photograph he took for the poster showed the four artists in the show—friends and former Chouinard students Goode, Larry Bell, Ed Bereal, and Ron Miyashiro—eating food stereotypically associated with their race, religion, or nationality on a table covered with an American flag. The poster sparked a controversy that contributed to the decision to close Huysman Gallery soon after the show ended.

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Royal Road Test Section

In 1967, Blackwell, Ruscha, and Williams took a road trip to Las Vegas, bringing with them an unlikely accessory: a typewriter. Speeding down the highway, they got the idea to toss it—not just any old typewriter, a 1930s Royal typewriter, “a biggie,” according to Ruscha—out the window. So they did. But 40 miles later, they had a second idea. “Maybe there’s a book there,” Ruscha recalls thinking. Turning the car around, they returned to the scene of the crime to photograph it, documenting every loose screw and part that fell off, before gathering the remains to take with them.

Upon their return to LA, Blackwell, Ruscha, and Williams turned this “caper”—improvised actions or “goofy things,” in Williams’s words—into an artist book called Royal Road Test.

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Business Cards Section

Many collaborations grew from the friendships made at school and in their newfound community. Another caper of sorts involved Bengston, whom Ruscha met at Chouinard. What began as a joke between the artists evolved into an elaborate performance where Bengston and Ruscha would design business cards for each other and ceremoniously exchange them at a high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills. They invited their friends to photograph the event and bound the pictures in the artist book Business Cards.

Ruscha considered these collaborations to be like "fresh air—cleaning of the slate and airing the room," and he’s continued to collaborate with a younger generation of artists including Jim Shaw.

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The LA art world that the Students Five knew was just beginning to emerge when they arrived in the 1950s. This allowed artists and newly established art institutions to take more risks. All bets were off in the West. In New York competition and the idea of the individual "artist as genius" ran rampant, but in Los Angeles, artists and collectives worked together to build the LA art world that we know today. As Ruscha explains, “We were just out to impress our friends and work for each other, and basically, that was it.” <sup id="fnref1">1sup

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Quoted in Alexandria Symonds and Ed Ruscha, "Seven Decades: Joe Goode x Ed Ruscha," Interview Magazine, Jul 11, 2014. 





Jerry McMillan, Ed Ruscha, and Mason Williams reminisce on this period of time—their move from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, their early careers, and the formation of an LA art scene:

Group oral history interview conducted by Andrew Perchuck and Rani Singh, featuring Jerry McMillan, Ed Ruscha, and Mason Williams, Jan 23, 2007. Part of "Modern Art in Los Angeles : Okies go west," Getty Research Institute, 2007.

Related tags

Billy Al Bengston Larry Bell Patrick Blackwell Joe Goode Jerry McMillan Ed Ruscha Jim Shaw Mason Williams Art Institute of Chicago Barney’s Beanery California Chouinard Ferus Gallery Huysman Gallery La Cienega Los Angeles Oklahoma Oklahoma City Students Five War Babies