Ed Ruscha

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through February 4

By Fred Camper

Sometimes regarded as a pop artist, sometimes as a more conceptual west-coast representative of pop, Ed Ruscha has never quite achieved the fame of New Yorkers like Warhol and Lichtenstein, who emerged at the same time. Where their work is loud and assertive and pointedly unique in its style, his has a peculiar understatement, a self-effacing coolness common in California art. But his early-60s paintings of single words, often in muted colors, are not merely different in style from the work of New York pop artists of the same period. Like most of the four decades of work represented in this MCA retrospective of paintings, drawings, prints, and artist’s books, they reflect Ruscha’s complex, ultimately profound approach to meaning.

The American commercial landscape was a major influence on Ruscha, as it was on the New York pop artists. He knew little of the fine-art world when he moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1956, at the age of 18, to become a commercial artist. And as Kerry Brougher says in an essay in the excellent exhibition catalog, the road signs Ruscha saw while driving to LA along Route 66 were a likely influence on his word paintings. Like Warhol or Lichtenstein or Rosenquist, Ruscha has produced paintings on canvas (though he didn’t for a while, eventually finding his way back by using nontraditional materials such as bleach or egg yolk on cloth and gunpowder on paper). But his paintings, unlike theirs, don’t read as depictions. Instead his models are the store sign, the product logo, and most recently diagrams and maps; when he paints movie frames, he emphasizes the scratches and dirt on the celluloid. His paintings are less worlds to be entered than objects to be confronted, problems to be thought about.

Abstract expressionism was the dominant style at the Chouinard Art Institute, the commercial and fine-art school Ruscha attended from 1958 to 1960. Ruscha told Fred Fehlau in a 1988 interview in Flash Art, “I painted just like an Abstract Expressionist–it was a uniform. Except you really didn’t have to wear it, you just aped it.” Jasper Johns would soon become a deeper influence; as Neal Benezra writes in another catalog essay, “In Johns, Ruscha found an artist who had mastered the processes of painting but who had turned that mastery against the soul-baring ethos of Abstract Expressionism.” (The catalog reads “soul-bearing,” but Benezra identifies this as a typo.) Along with Rauschenberg (also an important Ruscha influence), Johns is often cited as a proto-pop painter, turning the ab ex painters’ aspirations on their heads: instead of searching for new forms he painted everyday things like flags and targets; instead of using paint to reveal the soul, he used it to obscure, to construct an impenetrable mask. Duchamp, a major influence on Johns, also affected Ruscha, who’d seen reproductions of his work in high school and in 1963 saw a Duchamp retrospective and met the artist. Later Ruscha said he valued Duchamp’s work for its “ultimate mystery.”

Abandoning his commercial-art career in the early 60s, Ruscha began looking for “a new, strokeless way to paint, and a new subject,” he told Jo Ann Lewis in the Washington Post last year. He began painting carefully chosen words. In fact he’s quoted in an exhibit wall label as remarking that “words have temperatures….When they reach a certain point and become hot words, they appeal to me.”

Ruscha copied Boss (1961) from the logo of a clothing line, but of course the word has other meanings. Thick, black brush strokes create the letters, and the brown background is also thickly painted. In fact the surface recalls the wildly diverse directions of Johns’s brush strokes in encaustic, which suggest a meaning that’s never revealed. As it was for Johns, Ruscha’s subject is in part concealment.

Ruscha’s denial of pictorial space, his refusal to provide the viewer with a world that can be figuratively entered, is no mere fashion statement, any more than his stylistic shifts over the years represent genuine alterations to his project. But his fundamental theme is perhaps difficult to recognize because, like Johns and Duchamp, Ruscha takes as his subject the meaning of meaning. The gnomic, mysterious nature of his work is part of an overall delimiting of the artist’s terrain, a fundamental pulling back, as he suggests that we’ve arrogated too much power to ourselves. The apparent abstract expressionist brush strokes in Boss are a kind of empty residue of that movement, as they are to some degree in Johns’s work. What a painter does, Ruscha declares, is push paint around, not invent new universes. The assertive “boss” is ironic, reminding us of earlier artists’ hubris, of the way a masterpiece declares its authority over the viewer in the manner of an icon.

Ruscha similarly undercuts painterly power in Ace (1962). Sloping blue letters create an illusion of speed, which Ruscha humorously exaggerates by adding streaks on the black field between them. The paint is applied so thickly, both within the letters and in the black around them, that at some borders it resembles waves crashing against a barrier. This disruptive cresting of paint not only arrests the letters’ implied speed but hints at the violence inherent in mark making.

Occasionally Ruscha seems to embrace, even celebrate popular culture. The top half of Annie (1962) shows the comic-strip logo on a yellow field while the bottom half is solid blue. In the middle is a narrow white band with a pencil-thin black line at its center. Though horizontal rather than vertical, this seems to me a reference to Barnett Newman’s “zips,” thin lines on even fields of color whose cosmic implications are underlined by titles such as Onement. But Ruscha reduces the zip to an ornament in a picture dominated by a logo. And where Warhol would have made his logo far more seductive than the original, Ruscha makes his deadpan but dominating, to the point that one questions rather than relishes it, critiquing rather than celebrating such word graphics.

Ruscha engages the pretensions of commercial logos in the 1963 Talk About Space, whose top half presents the word “space” in Superman-style 3-D block letters. Balancing its weight at the bottom center is a flat, actual-size painting of a yellow pencil, the modesty and beauty of this drawing implement contrasting with the overbearing logo. Similarly the CinemaScope-wide Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights (1962) grotesquely exaggerates the famous 20th Century-Fox trademark.

Most of Ruscha’s paintings, drawings, and prints can be divided into two groups. One set borrows from the commercial sign but uses words with great care, simultaneously asserting and questioning the power of language. The other eschews words but pointedly refers to them, suggesting an almost Zen-like denial of meaning.

Among the most complex and provocative of the works that use words are a group of 1967 drawings made with gunpowder on paper with titles like City and Sin. Here the letters seem formed of wide strips of white paper, creating a three-dimensionality rare in Ruscha. But as in Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights, the depth is illusory, produced by letters whose folded-paper appearance not only refers to the paper the work is made on but reminds us that all image making is arbitrary and deceptive, not the revelation of some fundamental truth.

The Back of Hollywood (1977) unmasks the illusion of the famous “Hollywood” billboard by showing it from the rear, its letters reversed. The sign is well-known, shown in many photos and postcards against a hill, naming the place you see in what might have been a Ruscha-style joke. Here its power is both magnified by a glowing sky, painted in the exaggerated yellows and reds Ruscha uses for sunsets, and defused, the sign revealed to be a flat construction. The title of Not a Bad World, Is It? (1984) is painted in white letters over a lush rural landscape, underlining the way kitschy art reduces its subject matter to predigested emotions–Rilke called it “the painting of sentiments.” And the romantic exaggerations of advertising are skewered in 17th Century (1988), which shows a galleon silhouetted on a dark sea beneath such words as “war!” “plague!” “damsels!” “melancholia!” printed in an old-style typeface on the sky. This could almost be a movie ad if it weren’t for the fact that the words “taxes!” and “firewood!” are also present.

Some paintings have strange blank rectangles in the places where words might have been. Brother, Sister (1987) shows two silhouetted tall ships in an image akin to 17th Century but with empty white slots instead of words against the gray sky. And one of the few paintings with neither words nor wordless rectangles suggests language in its title. No End to the Things Made out of Human Talk (1977) shows a freestanding fireplace, a fire burning within, in an ambiguous brown field that only hints at a shadow behind the fireplace and roof beams above. Here the traditional hearth around which family and friends gather to converse is as disembodied as one of Ruscha’s words, isolated from its context in a way that makes the viewer question its traditional meaning. Like words, symbolic objects are socially determined products of particular cultures.

The titles of four small 1997 paintings imply that they’re based on notes from prison inmates, though the paintings themselves consist of blank rectangles apparently representing the words of the title on differently colored fields. This suggests both words or sentences blotted out by prison censors and pasted-together extortion notes. (Some were actual ransom notes; Ruscha wrote others.) Here it seems the artist is less concerned with the limits of language than with the way social repression silences some citizens.

But the titles–such as Little Snitches Like You End Up in Dumpsters All Across Town–imply that some voices should be silenced, which leads to Ruscha’s real point: that meaning is always dependent on the observer. Where a leftist perceives a prison censor silencing the “other,” a conservative applauds that silencing. Ruscha permits both readings but adopts neither, once again showing value judgments to be as arbitrary and incomplete as the symbolism of the fireplace, which is really just a mound of bricks.

Because almost every possible meaning in a Ruscha work also allows its opposite, no ultimate or transcendent meaning is possible. The crime we commit is normalizing our particular perspective, believing that the names we give things actually describe them–assuming that others will find “melancholia!” where we want them to, attempting to rename and remake the world.

Ruscha doubts that any of us have such power. Or does he? This exhibit also reveals the romantic residing in the Oklahoma boy who loves cars and road signs but whose work is sometimes regarded as dry and conceptual. Eternal Amnesia (1982) shows a 13-foot-wide sunset with the words “eternal amnesia” in white just above the low horizon line, at the vanishing point of perspective painting as well as the sun. One could take the phrase as a critique of romantic absolutism: just as no sunset is eternal, no truth is eternal because neither human memory nor human life lasts forever. Yet the placement of the phrase gives it a seductive power. And after a while the two words begin to suggest there might be a strange comfort in eternal amnesia. Ruscha’s seductive sunset and ultrawide format conjoin irony and the search for meaning: the human quest for some permanent home is constantly being swallowed up not only by the earth’s turning but by our culture’s tendency to label and exploit everything.

Ruscha’s most recent paintings foreground this duality, juxtaposing his evocative, poetic side with increasingly specific critiques of the arbitrariness of naming. Two from 1998 map out familiar LA streets (one is titled Hollywood, Sunset, Santa Monica, Vine) in a grayish grid, a hybrid of a map and an oblique aerial view. The absence of buildings and the neutrality of the smoggy gray fields help reveal the artificiality of urban platting. Even more stunning are several Alpine pictures, white text painted in front of mountains rendered in blues and whites icier than those found in vodka ads. The Mountain (1998) shows only the first word of its title, an exaggerated “T” filling much of the bottom; the picture’s slightly convex borders suggest that the mountain is causing the frame to bulge. By referring to the ideas of paintings as objects and as substitutes for objects, Ruscha jokes that this particular object is too big and heavy for any painting to contain.

After years of living in LA’s car culture, has Ruscha started to look toward nature? While one wordless painting shows a car, others show an elephant and a wolf. And La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre (1999) certainly hints at an ecological consciousness. The names of four LA streets are painted in their actual orientation over the face of a mountain, suggesting mountaineers mapping out climbing routes the way drivers do streets. The superimposed names imply that the mountain has been conquered, but at the same time its irregular crags elude any gridlike systemization: all our systems of knowledge are ultimately incapable of describing the world. Like most of Ruscha’s best work, this painting resonates between the poles of precisely delineated contradictions.

Ruscha’s view of painting is both matter-of-fact and mystical. He told Fehlau, “The most that an artist can do is to start something and not give the whole story. That’s what makes mystery. And in a sense, if you believe that, then you can almost believe that nothing can be explained, which returns us to philosophy. That, in turn, circles all the way around to just looking at paintings again.” Finally what’s great about these works is the mysterious and irreducible experience of “just looking at paintings.”

The show is conceived and hung a bit confusingly. Though the first room contains the early word pictures, there’s no easy way to see the rest chronologically, which is how the catalog is organized. Several different paths through the show are possible, but the work immediately following those early pictures is three rooms away from them. And like many other museum retrospectives, this one does not treat all the artist’s output equally. The curators have concentrated on Ruscha’s paintings, drawings, and prints and placed the artist’s books, for which he’s perhaps best known, in glass cases. The books seem to get second-class treatment, most being opened only to a single page. But many of Ruscha’s original books are available for perusal in the “Resource Room” on the same floor–you can turn the pages yourself. This is a great and rare opportunity: it’s always irritating to see printed artist’s books displayed in glass cases as if they were precious illuminated manuscripts.

Some of Ruscha’s books are photographic narratives enacted by performers, but most inventory objects or sites–Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967), Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968). A better-integrated exhibit might have explored their relationship to the paintings, which is fascinating. In most cases, the photograph is a straightforward representative of the object shown, though the “objects” are often unwieldy enough to resist enclosure in the photograph’s rectangle and generic enough to be reduced to words or points on a map. The idea of collecting such things creates some irony: the long, scroll-like book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) really does include a photo of every building, identified by street number. But judging by La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre, Ruscha knows that you can’t try that trick on the Rockies or the Alps.