by Lawrence Gipe
When Ed Ruscha launched his career from LA during the 1960s and ‘70s, he offered New York tastemakers, loathe to embrace outliers, entry into an exotic world: a luminous land of swimming pools, strip malls, freeways and dingbat apartments — symbolized by the Hollywood sign looming over debauched vistas. Addressing the dystopian otherness of LA, Ruscha, shown in the exhibition catalog clad in a western bow tie and cowboy hat, did little to dissuade those who would make him a symbol of it. The organizers of this survey, Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, have, apparently, done just that. While Ruscha took much inspiration from the Southwest and is indeed a leading West Coast proponent of Pop Art, this man-of-the-West premise shortchanges his work and our experience of it, sidestepping the fact that the artist never looked north of Malibu to places like San Francisco and the Gold Country where equally potent myths were manufactured.
Ruscha drove to California from Oklahoma in 1956. He studied commercial and fine art at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) and worked on the side as a “printer’s devil” setting type, and in a mail-order business that personalized toys with single names enameled on the surface, foreshadowing Ruscha’s later practice of placing text on canvas. All of these jobs, including a stint at the advertising firm Carson/Roberts, informed his rapid trajectory into an art world that was newly primed by Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol to reconsider everyday objects and advertising images in a fine art context.
The show, which contains 99 works, begins in 1962 when his brazen new work, along with that of other Pop cohorts, got its museum airing in Walter Hopps’ famous New Paintings of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum. The exhibit funnels viewers through nine themed rooms, each with titles that emphasize a prospect or perspective (“When You Get There,” “The View from Hollywood,” “The View from Above and to the West”). The first few sections are the strongest, thanks to a purchase the Achenbach Foundation and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco made in 2000 of a complete set of Ruscha’s graphic works. His serial photographs
— 26 Gasoline Stations (1963), Pools (1968), Five Views from the Panhandle (1962) and Six Rooftops (1961) — seem as fresh as ever, and include oddball gems like the prints he made from distressed negatives of the Whisky-A-Go-Go (1966) and Filthy McNasty’s (1976). They’re wonderful, sleazy surprises. The rooftop pictures are of particular interest. Each of the 1961 originals is paired with a photo of the same vista made 50 years later, and the changes depicted – smog, fully grown trees, views revealed or obstructed by new construction and/or demolitions — function as vehicles for time travel and for double takes. In one such pairing, observant viewers will note a 1950 Ford parked on the street outside the artist’s studio; it’s the same one he drove across the country and still owns. Conversely, those interested in his most iconic creation from this era, the 300 inch-long accordion book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), will be disappointed; it’s inexplicably displayed in a closed vitrine, making unobstructed views of any single image impossible. Venturing into apocalyptic territory, the exhibition serves up a pair of prints from his Petro Plot (2001) series that show major intersections (e.g. Hollywood and Vine) reclaimed by nature, one of the few instances in the show where irony gives way to a full-on environmental/cultural critique.
Such works demonstrate a now-classic conceptual strategy: place yourself at a careful, clinical distance from the subject. Shooting film from a car gave Ruscha a good measure of detachment, but hiring a plane to make photos of the LA basin was masterstroke of aloofness. “It’s so horizontal,” he remarked of his aerial views of LA. They describe a freshly paved, alien land, filled with unintentional abstractions inscribed onto (and into) the landscape. The Parking Lots series (1967), to take one example, remains a seductive, formal, prescient body of work. His detached style flattens the content and drains it of emotion, presaging the New Topographics movement of the 1970s, which brought the post-WWII conversion of raw land into strip malls, subdivisions, stadiums, skyscrapers and office parks into even sharper focus.
Ruscha’s paintings and drawings of (mostly) single words from roughly 1961-70 have also aged well, and continue to provoke a playful semiotic frisson. A Mad Man-era Magritte, he created witty tableaux with words like “Peach,” “Ripe,” “Quit,” “OOO,” and “Lisp.” He designed font styles that elicited a sense of touch, like water droplets and delicate ribbon forms, experimenting with how each might have a vastly different synesthetic effect. Conceptually, he cited Jasper Johns as proof that painting could be relevant, and that an artist’s use of text could have a transformative effect. In that regard, Ruscha was truly an ad man, forever on the lookout for eye-catching words that lodged and then looped in the imagination. Such works perfectly balance highbrow and lowbrow impulses.
Viewed as a decade-long progression, the word paintings are not exclusively about the American West. Yet in this section, exhibition Curator Karin Breuer, by dropping in a few in that gel with her premise, would have you think so. Rancho and Western, both in “water-drop” text font, support her theme, while others, like the gorgeous versions of Rodeo, Trailer and Oily, feel like a stretch.
Ruscha’s initial trip to LA across the desert was 1,400 miles long; he and his companion kept a careful journal of gas expenditures. Service stations, no matter the brand, were beacons spread out along Route 66 that offered fuel, relief, maps and sustenance. Ruscha inelegantly referred to them as “cultural belches in the landscape.” He re-traced his path on this epic two-lane highway many times, shooting the material for one of his earliest book projects, 26 Gasoline Stations (1963), as well as for the Standard Oil station images. No doubt, the gas station fits into the lexicon of the modern West, but a wider view of Ruscha’s work offers evidence that he’d have chosen the word STANDARD for its multiple meanings, one of which would surely be the homogenization that was then overtaking the national landscape. Further, I
wonder if he used STANDARD because the image evoked the West or simply because the brand was a fixture in his daily routine? In any case, STANDARD is no different conceptually than ANNIE, SPAM or any number of other word paintings omitted from this exhibition because they didn’t support the theme.
As the exhibition winds down in the concluding galleries, we get “The View from Hollywood” where the artist’s affection for cowboys and Westerns shines through in silhouette paintings of coyotes, stagecoaches, tee-pees and buffalo. They’re a perfect match for the topic, but are also among the artist’s most gimmicky and repetitive series. In the final room Ruscha’s usual levity fails him as he nostalgically paints “The End” on simulated film stock in apparently unending variation. What is the relationship between these many gothic farewells and the theme? Well, The End is the traditional closer of any old movie, and one of the curatorial rules in this show is that any image referring to cinema is therefore about The West. Yet for all its endless horizons, Ed Ruscha and the Great American West is full of limits. Even the artist’s bio at the end of the catalog is a “selected” chronology, and we are warned that it focuses only on “the artist and the theme of the American West” — as if anyone who had gotten that far would need convincing.
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“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” @ de Young through October 9, 2016.
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.