By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Judging from the superlatives being tossed about on the occasion of Ed Ruscha's retrospective, he has finally shed regional cult-figure status, emerging as a full-fledged International Art Star.
"If you can catch the traveling retrospective of Mr. Ruscha's 40-year career, you should do so," wrote The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman last summer. "Ruscha navigates a pregnant space between conceptual and Pop art." And that's the lukewarm praise. Artforum dubbed Ruscha "the star in the south." "Fascinating," crowed Vanity Fair. "Painting, photography, concept, documentation, graphics, language--he is comfortable with all of it..." Art-world sorts normally loath to admit California has indoor plumbing go all weak-kneed and sloppy when the topic turns to Big Ed. Peter Schjeldahl, now resident art critic at the New Yorker, once wrote that "through [Ruscha's] art, and in no other way, Los Angeles announces itself as having and being a civilization." Doubtless it cleans the house, too.
While the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth avoids such out-and-out silliness, it is far from a tout-free zone. "One of the most consistently innovative artists of our time," their promos proclaim, "a pioneer in the use of language and imagery drawn from popular media." By and large, Ruscha's work holds up very well, and it probably lives up to this claim. After surveying the 80-odd canvases, drawings and books on display through September 30, one sees why artists from Anselm Kiefer to Robert Smithson have cited the 63-year-old Californian as an inspiration. From Ruscha's start in the early '60s, we see the inventiveness, the restless intelligence, the sly wit; gradually, we can trace the growing mastery of means and form, the increasingly happy couplings of imagery and medium. But even as Ruscha's retrospective confirms his relative importance, it raises nagging questions and a gnawing sense of discontent with the state of contemporary art. The fault lies not with the show's organizers, who have done an outstanding job of selecting, panhandling and presenting the work. Nor is there any fault to be found in the exhibition catalog, a masterpiece of erudition and, better yet, readability. Still, after wandering the Modern's galleries, one is left pondering the teleological questions: Is this really the best the contemporary art world can offer? Is this all there is?
Because the work is stylish, and evokes a mood, and because it's about landscape and myth and the American imagination, and now because it's hit the big time, critics and curators explaining Ruscha like to invoke Raymond Chandler. But to understand Ruscha's California, and through it, Ruscha's art, Joan Didion is the superior tour guide. Indeed, Ruscha's story is a tale straight out of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a story of art and success in the golden land that begins with the country--with Route 66, to be precise. Born in Omaha, raised in Oklahoma City (and raised Catholic--talk about not belonging), Ruscha, like so many, came from the Midwest via America's most infamous highway. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1956, at "the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways." Like them, he was seeking a new lifestyle, "trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers."
Ruscha looked one more place, too, namely the Chouinart Institute, a small art school known at the time for turning out Disney illustrators. He wanted to be a commercial artist but hedged his bets with fine arts courses. Of course there were giants on the earth in those days, the sons of God commonly called abstract expressionists, and so Ruscha learned to paint, in his words, "like an Abstract Expressionist--it was a uniform." In contrast to commercial art, where one had to plan and draw, the ab-ex uniform required fine artists to "face a blank canvas with a palette" and emote. Ruscha preferred the former. "I began to see that the only thing to do would be a preconceived image. It was an enormous freedom to be premeditated about my art."
Still, he wasn't quite ready to give up on fine art. While he didn't have access to many original works of art, he did read the art-zines, where he saw photos of the image-based work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Back in Oklahoma he had seen pictures of readymades, and he admired Duchamp's anarchist approach; as Ruscha has explained, "[Duchamp] made me aware that there was another way to think about things." Reacting against the ab-ex notion that visual fictions can present profound psychological truth, he turned his visual fictions into documentary truth: exact replicas of common everyday objects, from Spam cans to smashed raisin boxes to comic books to words and signs. Soon he did away with three-dimensional pictorial space, asserting a sort of nihilist credo: What you see is what you see, and that is all there is.
The catalog does an excellent job of tracing these influences through Ruscha's earliest work, most of which is, sadly, missing from the show. By 1961-'62, the precocious young painter was turning out pictures such as "Boss" (1961), "Annie" (1962) and "Ace" (1962), well-known commercial logos painted against simple backgrounds, words floating in empty or near-empty space. Blown up and out of context, the words themselves are not only surreal but abstract. As many have pointed out, Ruscha's vast, flat backgrounds are intimately related to the vast vistas of the American West, to his experiences along Route 66 and in the car-crazed city of Los Angeles.