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ed ruscha's los angeles

20 march 2011

I became aware of Ed Ruscha's art after the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth opened in 2002 and gave prominent space to his painting Standard Station with Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half. But I became fascinated with Ruscha after seeing a single photograph in the nearby Amon Carter Museum a few years later. The photograph was one of Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a taciturn collection that's pretty much summed up by its title. His paintings are Pop – brassy, stylized, hip – and though I like Pop as much as the next ironist, it's a genre limited by its attitudes. But his photographs are "found Pop," and they reveal the beauty of the artificial world we live in.

In Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles, Alexandra Schwartz provides context for an understanding of Ruscha's prolific, diverse life's work. As her title suggests, that context is to be found in his adoptive home city. Ruscha moved from Oklahoma to L.A. in the 1950s. (Born in 1937, he's in his mid-seventies now.) At Chouinard Art Institute, Ruscha was trained as an abstract expressionist, the dominant mode of late-50s academic painting. His paintings still tend to be big, bold, and asymmetrical. But very early on, he gravitated to painting what he saw as opposed to what he felt. Jasper Johns, in particular, provided a model for Ruscha to take objects from the surrounding culture and make splashy, expressive art from them.

That way of putting it is a little misleading. One of Ruscha's characteristic modes is to take not things from his environment but words: to paint text directly onto featureless backgrounds in different colors and media. ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD DREAM BUBBLE POPPED, one of his pictures announces; HE ENJOYS THE CO. OF WOMEN, says another. They serve as their own titles. What are these paintings trying to say? Unlike so many abstract canvases, they say exactly what they say – which is to say, not a heck of a lot.

Schwartz interviewed Ruscha extensively while writing this book (which began as her dissertation at the University of Michigan). If there was ever a walking refutation of the intentional fallacy, it's Ed Ruscha. In commenting on his art, he tends to downplay meaning and even aesthetics, to the point where the work becomes a bunch of stuff only tangentially connected to him. My sense is that he's a greater photographer than painter, but that sense runs up against a curious feature of his photography: some of it is commissioned or even "found" imagery, assembled and titled (laconically) by Ruscha, but not actually filmed by him. Is the artist the maker, or is he the finder?

Or is he the attitude? Many of the images in Schwartz's lovely book were photographed by other artists, notably Jerry McMillan and the late Dennis Hopper. (Hopper, also interviewed at length for this book, is another well-known artist in several media who seems to have been, at heart, a terrific still photographer.)

Ruscha sometimes appears in these images. Evidently one of his favorite ways to create an artwork was to show up at McMillan's studio in costume – dressed as a sailor, cowboy, or even an enormous bunny rabbit. McMillan would oblige by photographing him, and another piece of art would emerge: who created it?

Neither Ruscha nor McMillan cared very much, of course. But I sense that a great passion for beauty lies just beneath Ruscha's characteristic "deadpan" (a term Schwartz uses again and again). At the current Ruscha retrospective show at the Fort Worth Modern, I was moved by the severe gorgeousness of Some Los Angeles Apartments, Ruscha's depiction of opportunistic high-tack cheap housing blocks, the kind that start to crumble as soon as they're built, but nevertheless loudly proclaim things like LEE TIKI and FOUNTAIN BLU on their façades, abetting Ruscha's love of the printed word.

Twentysix Gasoline Stations remains my favorite, though perhaps the seventysomething artist would share fellow Angeleno Ross Macdonald's unease at being perceived to have peaked young. Nothing is quite as American as a filling station on an expanse of open highway, surrounded by acres of nothing at all. One of the 26 is the original Standard station in Amarillo, which became the subject of Ruscha's largest and best-known paintings. Ruscha would use the Standard building and its Chevron pumps in image after image, reduced to a handful of sharp lines, bedaubed with strange additions like that torn-up magazine floating in midair. But it all started with a chance snapshot in the Panhandle. Beauty is all around, Ruscha seems to say; the artist is merely the guy who sees it.

Schwartz, Alexandra. Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.