From the Archives: Ed Ruscha, Geographer

Ed Ruscha: Angry Because It's Plaster, Not Milk, 1965, oil on canvas, 55 by 48 inches.


The cover of our June/July 2016 issue features a text work by Ed Ruscha. We looked back to our October 1982 issue, in which Carrie Rickey wrote on the artist’s traveling retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She desribes the cosmic, rather than comic, qualities discoverable in Ruscha’s work. —Eds.


O my America! my new-found-land.

—John Donne, Elegy XIX

“To his mistress on going to bed”


Naturalists might resent the metaphor, but I’d say that Ed Ruscha is the John James Audubon of contemporary art. And not because his most mysterious canvases detail a Baltimore oriole and a finch-like creature stalking improbable prey (an undersize trout and glass of milk, respectively), but because, like Audubon, Ruscha limns provincial specifics in order to fathom the national character. Audubon chose birds. Ruscha chose Los Angeles: L.A. as metonym. Why? Because, esthetically speaking, L.A. is for Ruscha what ornithology is for the birds: a taxonomy to order and decode the culture which invisibly defines his life.

Los Angeles, once considered the city of the future, now finds that rep as tarnished as the letters of the Hollywood sign Ruscha has so lovingly memorialized. The place of the future, per Ruscha, is a burg with a dark past—preserved in the amber of his acute, concentrated paintings, collages and books. The signage lining the boulevards of this unnatural paradise and the stray fragments of conversation caught by Ruscha’s auspicious ear are shards of local color which, when pieced together, constitute an astonishing artifact: the U. S. of A. Like John Donne’s ever-fresh amazement in contemplating his mistress, Ruscha sighs, “0 my America! my new-found-land” because for Ed Ruscha, geographer, the territory will always remain unspoiled, uncharted.

Litterateurs might resent the metaphor, and Donne might seem a highfalutin’ reference point in the oeuvre of “cowboy Magritte” 1 Ed Ruscha. Yet, in twisting through the last two decades of his work in “I dont want no retro spective” (the exhibition title of his retrospective and also his shameless bill-board reminder, set to the meter of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” that he hadn’t yet had a retro; perversely it was the artwork—made in ’79—that got him what he putatively didn’t want), I was surprised that the rhythms of his painted words and the metaphysical concerns of his art kept reminding me of the lapidarian rhymes of a I7th-century poet I hadn’t thought about—let alone read—in 15 years. Take Ruscha’s 1980 panorama of a miniature Earth floating on an oceanic (galactic?) cerulean space titled, in vintage Ruscha laconic-ironic, It’s a Small World, which elicited from my subconscious the opening line of a half-remembered Donne Holy Sonnet, “I am a little world made cunningly.” Ruscha’s 1973 poem-painting, Vanishing Cream, whereon the words are stenciled in egg yolk on lustrous moire, is seemingly decomposing, disappearing before our[pq]The exhibition takes us down Ruscha’s lonesome highways and leaves us contemplating an expansive horizon, the vista from which he shows us how the general can represent the specific.[/pq]eyes and evoking Donne again, another Holy Sonnet, on the enigma of the created and the creator: “Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work de-cay?”

Long considered to be the hipster humorist of California cool, the Oklahoma City expatriate who fiercely cleaved to Horace Greeley (“Go West, young man . . . “) and “Route 66” (as in “Get your kicks on . . . .”) with equal devotion, Ruscha now seems less comic, more cosmic. This wasn’t a Ruscha I was familiar with. That other Ruscha had celebrated the superficiality of the three “-ages”: collage, language, and signage. But at his Retro Spective a slightly solemner Ruscha, worldlier anyway, emerged. 

The other Ruscha, the facile one whose exhibitions I had attended with a groupie’s zeal since I was a teenager (we met once, yessir, at a dinner party in 1979, in Chicago, where I was on assignment for this magazine; I was a primly proper fan, I never even asked him to make an impromptu painting out of the supper leftovers, though I particularly admired his chutzpah in using food pigments as chroma), made art that was the distillation of ’60s detachment and irony: carefully designed packages, bouncy and memorable as a rock-‘n’-roll tune. If New York and abstract art represented the soul-searching existential panic of brooding improvisational jazz, the epitome of California flash, Ed Ruscha, then would be the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun (Till Her Daddy Took the T-Bird Away).”

Ruscha’s best critic, Dave Hickey (whose breathless novella Available Light appears in the Retro Spective catalogue and is easily the most ambitious and perspicacious analysis of the artist’s career), sums up my attitude about the other Ruscha with his analogy of the Lolita Factor. Ruscha’s art seduces you, then, having done so, responds with a golden giggle. There’s something about that other Ruscha which connects with everyone’s latency period. With his trademarks, logos and billboards so redolent of an-esthetic (that is, commercial) art, Ruscha lures everyone into his modernist rancho, and you think you don’t have to think because this is the pop art trick. Presto! We equate mass visual communications with so-called “high” art, a rollicking, audacious transvaluation (or so it seemed in the ’60s, anyway) where the commonplace, decontextualized, becomes extraordinary. Take Ed Ruscha’s Trademark (the 20th Century Fox logo): That’s entertainment![pq]Southern California cliches, franchise operations like “Standard” and “Norm’s” are, for Ruscha, icons of average-ness, part of his ironic Bureau of Standards and Norms.[/pq]

That other Ruscha’s art was easy, flip, casual—”caj,” as they used to abbreviate it in CA. It occupied its own space, never intruded or insinuated itself into yours, never came off the wall the way Joe Goodes and Bruce Naumans did during the same period. That other, self-contained Ruscha had a remoteness and aloofness—an elegance, even—best expressed in his isometric renderings of the Standard Station, Norm’s Restaurant, The Pan Pacific Auditorium and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These landmarks of Los Angeles civilization are painted with a rakish normalcy, realistically but slightly askew. It took Hickey’s iconographic eye to alert me to the fact that “Standard” and “Norm’s,” franchise operations, such cliches of Southern California that you (I mean I) experience them subliminally, are, in the language of Ruscha, icons of average-ness, part of the artist’s ironic Bureau of Standards and Norms. This, of course, brings Lolita to mind again—the movie, not the book; Nabokov embroidered a scene for the screen version, an apt exchange between Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert which takes place on a motel veranda: “Such a nice little normal girl you have there,” Quilty rhapsodizes, smacking his lips, unnerving Humbert, nympholept. Normal, schnormal, think Humbert and the audience. Lolita’s fulsome emptiheadedness, her unique ordinariness, attracted Humbert and Quilty, who both understand in their own way that normalcy is a joke, a statistical average of extreme peculiarities. This same neutralization is performed by Ruscha in his architectural renderings, which are anything but neutral.

In his relentless taxonomy of apartment buildings (in his 1965 book, Some Los Angeles Apartments and his drawings of So Cal multi-unit dwellings like Victory Boulevard, Doheny Drive, and Bronson Tropics), in his photos of palm trees (A Few Palm Trees, a 1971 tome) and cacti (a 1972 voume, Colored People), Ruscha is telling us our sense of the normal, iconic standard is any-thing but. As Humbert and Lolita’s tour of motels on the road revealed nuances of the American mentality, so Ruscha shows the subtle distinctions between patios, fronds and prickly extrusions, revealing not simplicity and redundancy in the Southern California landscape, but instead its characteristics of complexity and wild originality. (Bernd and Hilla Becher’s serial photographs perform a like service for grain elevators, industrial silos and other little-known artifacts of European vernacular architecture during the same period.) So when I read, with some astonishment, in the Retro Spective brochure (prepared by the originating museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) that in such works Ruscha was commenting on “the sterility and anonymity” of these edifices, I shrieked with laughter. (Residue of the old San Francisco/Los Angeles rivalry, no doubt.) It seems to me that his microcosmic city portraits capture the fecundity and individuality of these high-rises and flora, as though seeing them with fresh eyes—the peepers (Headlights Are Similar To People’s Eyes, blazens a 1974 Ruscha pastel billboard) that recognized the irony of Standard stations and coffee shops where waitresses dispense Norm’s.

Little wonder, then, that Ruscha’s celebration of the witty vernacular has influenced postmodern architecture. The likes of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown acknowledge their debt to Ruscha: he gets special mention in Learning From Las Vegas, that city of contradiction and complexity where Ruscha got married in 1967. What Alfred Bierstadt was to the 19th-century frontier, Ruscha is to the architectural new frontier, coolly urging us to take notice of formations commonly thought of as undignified, which he endows with dignity. Glamorizing the declasse, which is another way of putting it, is another transvaluation, not unrelated to Pop Art legerdemain. Esthetic slumming, its detractors accuse, but the manner in which Ruscha does it is never condescending, say, in the way Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Coca-Cola bottles could be. Warhol flattens, miniaturizes and repeats these Pop icons. They became a series of undifferentiated postage stamps, displayed in all their frontal one-dimensionality. Ruscha rather idealizes these icons, argues for their originality and authenticity by taking that isometric point of view: he makes us look up to those gas pumps because he’s painted them from such an extreme low angle. Instead of the flat icons of a flat world, he’s painted a temple, a California Gas Temple that’s the equivalent of the Pantheon or Parthenon: the Standard Station occupies a higher plane.

But this is the work of that other Ruscha, Pop ironist and lonesome polecat. The guy I want to compare with John Donne. This isn’t a writerly allusion or anything, it’s the result of seeing Ruscha’s work together at last and realizing certain connections between styles existed where I thought disjunction had prevailed.[pq]Ruscha began his career obsessed with commercial logos and the semiology of advertising. But then he saw that the concentration of ideas in a commercial logo is iconolatry by another name.[/pq]Though it’s hard to relate a Ruscha painting/collage like Flash, L.A. Times with his recent panoramas, it came to me like a thunderbolt (flash!) that, like Donne, the constant of Ruscha’s career is that he conveys his ideas in the form of “conceits,” which, rhetorically speaking, refer not to vanity but to the construction of an elaborate metaphor.

Double-entendres and puns are typically the way Donne did it, and these are a feature of Ruscha’s work straight through his career. (Like Frank Stella, Ruscha is a very precocious success; though only 45, he has for half his life basked in the art-world limelight.) His strategic syntactics make you think of all kinds of things you normally don’t contemplate while looking at art. Ruscha’s work not only aspires to poetry, but has a poetic structure. In a 1963 canvas, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western, the logo NOISE (painted in an isometric crimson, like his Fox trademark) blares out of the painting, much larger than the two tiny pencils and the Western comic book also illustrated. Ruscha is giving us the visual equivalent of noise, a loud color, words overwhelming the images to the point where one of the objects, a pencil, is shattered by Noise’s visual volume. This isn’t Ruscha’s gesamtkunstwerk or anything, but Noise . . Cheap Western is an exciting experiment in which Ruscha suggests visual correlatives for the invisible, the unseeable. Another gratifying bit of evidence of Ruscha’s attempt to make physical the vegetable, his own brand of metaphysics, is his accretion of Stains, 75 sheets of paper whereon Ruscha tests the emotional resonance of organic substances as disparate as blood and fruit juice.

Puns and double-entendres are devices that click visually and mentally, connecting disparate phenomena with words, causing a psychic release in the viewer, a “By George I think I’ve got it” handle on the work. A correlative for understanding. Verbal/visual play, a commonplace of modern art since Braque, Duchamp and Marinetti (though I’d argue that Ruscha is a more eloquent wordsmith than any of the three), is evinced throughout Ruscha’s career from his early collages through his trademarks (20th Century Fox, Annie, Spam, etc.), his billboards (is there a pithier linguistic verity than his Hollywood is a Verb?) to his recent geographic panoramas resonant of existential trauma. In Who am I? (1979), a tiny silhouetted figure lost in a void of sunset screams out to no one in particular the title question, carefully stenciled on the horizon above. He/she is answered: “Yes, that’s right, Who Am I?” by a rather sardonic echo further along the horizon. Lost in space, lost in language: même difference.

The source of Ruscha’s compulsion (motivation?) for the rhetorical/iconic conceit which packs such a wallop because of its multiform allusions (who said Pop Art was a form of Minimalism wherein the idea was reduced to an essential, monovalent point?) may come from the same wellspring as Donne’s. Both are lapsed Catholics. (Donne, to make a living, agreed to convert to the Anglican priesthood under the urging of King James, who thought he could gain a powerful proselyte and rid himself of a troublesome enemy by convincing the great-great-nephew of Sir Thomas More to preach on behalf of the Church of England instead of the Church of Rome.) The heat of blood, fire, and eternal damnation are barely contained by the contained emotionalism of their work. The first signs of damnation appeared in Ruscha’s work during the mid-’60s when his paintings showed his beloved Norm’s and Standard Station aflame. The curious bird paintings I’ve mentioned, Angry Because It’s Plaster, Not Milk and Baltimore Oriole Securing Freshwater Fish (both 1965) seem to be iconologic parables, a finch pecking away at a glass of milk that’s really an illusion, a plaster cast, irate at the misrepresentation, and an oriole much larger than the trout dangling in its beak, having mastered something that should be bigger than itself. If this were a Renaissance painting, any iconographer would automatically say Fish = Jesus. The conflict of Catholicism racks Ruscha’s most resonant work: his fire paintings, his bird parables, a pastel billboard She Sure Knew Her Devotionals (1976) and the Who Am I? panorama, wherein the god-like echo answers not reassuringly, but skeptically. (As Georges Braque used to say: “Art upsets, science reassures.”) Like Donne, Ruscha is uncynical about his ecclesiastic conflict (he is, after all, impressed by the fact she knew her devotionals). His best works encompass that uncertainty, that limbo which is not the certainty of disbelief but rather the anxiety of doubt.

Doubt, I think, motivated Ruscha to turn metaphysician, to explore the interstices between phenomena, the interjacencies, in order to find reasons to believe. His psychic exit from the Church (or so Hickey mythologizes) coincides with one of his “liquid” paintings, Adios, wherein Ruscha gives the impression of painting in a substance that’s soon to evaporate, in this case, spilled beans. Oh, the associations it triggers! Spilling the beans. Full of beans. Say Goodbye. The “liquid” works, about evanescence once re-moved—pictures of what it might look like to paint in materials sure to dematerialize—gave way to Ruscha actually using vegetable substances as pigments. Ruscha’s poem-paintings, letters stenciled in such exotic fluids as blackberry juice, pulverized spinach, and ketchup, are among the few examples of romantic Conceptual art I know. Manipulating the resonance (and transparency) of cherry extract, Ruscha stenciled VERY ANGRY PEOPLE on ripply pink moire. Angry? About what? For messing up a nice swatch of fabric? He’s always caroming us from the literal to the figurative, in the way that only the most consummate poets can. One poem-painting actually brought me to tears: She Didn’t Have to Do That (in which the letters of the last word are[pq]In his relentless taxonomy of apartment buildings, in his photos of palm trees and cacti, Ruscha is telling us that our sense of the normal, iconic standard is anything but normal.[/pq]out of register, untypically discombobulated for Ruscha) is stenciled on scarlet satin in a darker red fluid that is eerily blood-like. Check the label and you read, “blood on satin, 36 x 40.” The blood of the poet and the dimensions of the piece, sturm und drang und . . . statistics: typically Ruscha.

His poem-paintings and billboards (pastel signs that remind me of the old Burma Shave rhymes Ruscha almost certainly saw on Route 66 to Los Angeles from Oklahoma City) struck me at the time, the mid-’70s, as light-weight references to Los Angeles signage, the verbal cues and imperatives motorists assimilate subliminally. But in the context of his Retro Spective they lined the museum walls like way-stations from Ruscha the microcosmist to Ruscha the macrocosmist. He began his career obsessed with commercial logos and the semiology of advertising, how the particular represented the general. At one point between then and his recent panoramas, Ruscha realized that the concentration of ideas in a commercial logo was iconolatry (idol-making) by another name. The exhibition takes us down Ruscha’s lonesome, depopulated highways and leaves us contemplating an expansive horizon, that vista where Ruscha could see that It’s a Small World could forecast how the general could represent the specific. Two of his most recent paintings, horizontal timelines detailing the ’50s and the ’90s, literally delineate the shape of time by setting the date “1951,” say, against a crimson sunset in a certain propinquity to the rest of the decade.

I could fault the Retro Spective organizers (guest curator Anne Livet and San Francisco MoMA director Henry Hopkins) for not including examples of Ruscha’s commercial-art work, for these are the assignments in which he learned to concentrate his ideas in pungent conceits. They might also have, by showing photographs of post-modern architecture, shown Ruscha’s influence on another sphere where symbolism is literalized. Sorely missed, too, are examples of Ruscha’s layout design for Artforum which he did (under a pseudonym Eddie Russia) from 1965 to 1967.

But for demonstrating the continuity of Ruscha’s career, the Retro Spective is faultless. While the sarcasm of She Sure Knew Her Devotionals is supposed to disabuse us of any belief in Ruscha the believer, a curious untitled pastel, a ray of golden light penetrating murky gray-green clouds, and a lithograph of the celestial Miracle, disabuse our disabuse. While we think we know the Ur-palm tree, the echt-L.A. high-rise from Ruscha’s careful limnings, we realize that there are more varieties of each than of Heinz catsup. He’s the oxymoronic savant, conveying human emotions through vegetable dyes, painting high-volume color, showing us the solidity of liquids. I left the exhibition as I entered, quoting not the Beach Boys but Donne: “Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one.”