Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / The work of the Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha is often referred to as a West Coast version of Pop Art. The implication, of course, is that since it didn’t come out of New York, it must be inferior. His retrospective “Now Then,” his first at the Museum of Modern Art and first in New York since 1983, contains over 200 works from 1958 to the present. It includes paintings, drawings, prints, vitrines with selected self-produced photo-documentary books presented for our perusal, and some film (the Getty Research Institute owns a complete set of Ruscha’s artist’s books). The exhibition also includes the installation Chocolate Room, the walls of which are covered top to bottom with gridded sheets of paper silkscreened with chocolate syrup, recreated from its first iteration at the US pavilion in the 1970 Venice Biennale. Ruscha was also the American Biennale representative in 2017.
Despite its outward similarity to conceptual art and New York Pop Art, Ruscha’s work feels decidedly different. It lacks that signature in-your-face, borderline hostile snappiness, and its irony is far subtler. It is pretty, to be sure, but living in Los Angeles taught me that “pretty” is neither a dirty word nor necessarily a euphemism for “shallow,” another adjective that has sometimes been applied to Ruscha’s art. Well beyond its visual appeal, his work stands alone in its wistful concern with the instability of things.
Ruscha was born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, but moved with his family to Oklahoma City when he was four. Early on, he learned to draw comics and tried some painting; while his father was skeptical about his interest in art, his mother was supportive. After high school, he drove with a friend to Los Angeles and enrolled in Chouinard Institute of Art (now Cal Arts) to study commercial art. While there, he studied painting with the LA artists Robert Irwin and Emerson Woelffer and encountered the work of such artists as Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp. He also got a job doing hot-metal typesetting and “personalizing” objects at a mail-order gift company, vocations that long ago went the way of the dodo bird. He was then hired by Artforum, then headquartered in LA, to do layouts, no doubt using the likewise extinct cut-and-paste method. To keep some distance between his emerging fine art career and his day job in commercial art, Ruscha chose the pseudonym “Eddie Russia” for the magazine’s masthead. In his paintings, it is hard to miss his training in commercial art, for which skill, precision, and clarity are paramount.
Ruscha’s inclusion in the Pasadena Art Museum’s 1962 exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects,” curated by the legendary Walter Hopps, was a big moment for him, as he got to show alongside the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But what launched him as an artist of true distinctiveness was his first solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1963, which featured his now famous Trademark with Eight Spotlights, depicting the iconic 20th Century Fox studio logo (alas, also now gone) that introduced the studio’s movies. The painting, huge and horizontal, evokes a movie screen. Ruscha’s love of movies shows up in his paintings from the 1980s and 90s especially. The Ferus show also rolled out one of his earliest single-word paintings, an oil on canvas with the word “OOF” painted in large yellow capitals atop a deep blue ground – a classic example of onomatopoeia that, in its visual oomph, draws in viewers the way spiders lure flies.
In 1963, Ruscha also made his first of many self-published photo-documentary books, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (the hyphen for the number is deliberately omitted, perhaps in homage to the 20th Century Fox logo, which also pointedly lacked one). The straightforward, black-and-white photographs were of gas stations along Route 66, the highway he’d drive from LA to Oklahoma City to visit his parents. A few years later came the fold-out, self-published book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, consisting of twelve shoots, taken from his moving pickup truck, between 1965 and 2001. The photographs documented Sunset Boulevard as it changed over time and suggest both his fascination with LA and his quiet horror at its evolution. There’s also his exquisitely droll Real Estate Opportunities, a small book of photographs of vacant lots for sale in LA. In each, Ruscha offers an archly flat record that that leaves the viewer to mine the rich irony lurking in its numbing dumbness.
What counts most in Ruscha’s work, however, are his paintings. These are mostly comic – not LOL funny but sardonic in the way of, say, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, in which loveliness abounds despite the ugliness of the droit du seigneur. Ruscha rarely tackles large social issues, and when he does, his angle of attack is oblique rather than direct. On this point, permit me an idiosyncratic reading of his The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, painted between 1965 and 1968. A fire in real life is not funny, yet this painting brings a smile. Given that the original structure was demolished in 2020, moreover, the picture strikes me as eerily prescient. Perhaps the smoke emanating from the building indicates something’s gone terribly wrong with the art inside that no one seems to have registered or indeed will ever notice.
Ruscha’s word paintings, for which he is probably best known, are of single words, phrases, or sentences set on backgrounds that are abstract or, increasingly, landscapes. For all their topical wit, they’re at bottom about the slippery nature of language and the elusiveness of meaning. Artists Who Make Pieces and I Don’t Want No Retro Spective poke fun at the art world and at the artist himself, but the one also illuminates how silly the word “piece” sounds in describing a work of art, the other befuddlement at what the suffix “spective” means. (In fact, it refers to a perception based on speculation.) With its cerulean background and wet handwriting, City, one of Ruscha’s “liquid” paintings, offers a swimming pool as a metaphor for Los Angeles itself. That’s a pristinely penetrating revelation. Ruscha’s art may well always be about LA, as some critics insist. Like The Big Sleep or Chinatown, however, it speaks to all of us.
“Ed Ruscha / Now Then.” Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. Through January 13, 2024. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. April 7 through October 6, 2024.
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a professor emerita of Fine Arts at Hofstra University and a Guggenheim-award-winning painter who writes both art criticism and fiction. She is a member of the organization American Abstract Artists and is represented by Louis Stern Fine Arts in Los Angeles, CA.