By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Success came quickly. Ruscha had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus gallery--the same gallery that, only the year before, had introduced the work of a young man named Andy Warhol. Like Warhol's work, Ruscha's was very of-the-moment, part of that movement in American art history the art critic Robert Hughes has dubbed "the empire of signs." Ruscha's first show was followed by exhibitions in 1964 and 1965; by the mid-'60s, Ruscha was known as an up-and-coming Pop artist. Ruscha, contrarian by nature, disliked being labeled. He also found that he disliked the act of painting. Following the example of his hero Duchamp--"a non-painterly person in a painterly world," as Ruscha put it--he thought of himself as an artist, that is, a professional subversive, someone duty-bound to question genres, categories, limits of all sorts. Working with nontraditional materials, as he had with words and concepts, he used air brushes, industrial products, virtually any tool he could think of to avoid doing what painters traditionally do and the pigments they traditionally use. In 1963 he published "Twentysix Gasoline Stations," the first of his 16 "books" relying primarily on photographs to create narrative, if any. He photographed. He made films. He drew, and he printed, and he painted, but increasingly in substances like gunpowder, egg yolk, chocolate sauce and motor oil.
As the curators note, by the late '60s, "Ruscha was increasingly considered a book artist, conceptualist, filmmaker, graphic designer, photo-documentary artist, printmaker and process artist, as well as a painter." It was a time when everybody from Haight-Ashbury hippies to folk singers to San Bernardino housewives seemed to be engaged in some kind of self-indulgent, half-baked form of rebellion, and Ruscha was no exception. He stopped painting entirely for a two-year period. He was included in group shows at the Venice Biennale and New York's Museum of Modern Art. In short, he embodied the zeitgeist.
Viewing it all at the Modern's show, it does read as a common body of work. In the beginning, as now, Ruscha was obsessed with the views around him and with the act of seeing. He turns the latter into a sort of philosophical inquiry, an ontology of looking that proceeds by contrasting the thing called a painting with commercial art, with signs and still photographs and moving photographs, and with the landscape viewed from the window of a moving car. At the same time, he has carried on a 40-year, quasi-scientific inquiry into alternative methods of painting--with stains and with fabric, with spray guns and with bleach, with Morse code and with words. The work is witty and engaging, full of word puzzles and small conundra and ambiguity. And yet, there is something decidedly unambitious, cynical, self-consciously slick. This is work in the mainstream of late-20th-century academicism, focused not on the big themes--religion, art, war--but on the small concerns of the professional aesthete, on the acts of painting and of looking.
In his manifesto "The Simple Art of Murder," Ray Chandler once asserted that "there are no dull subjects, only dull minds." Ruscha is decidedly not dull. And yet, Ruscha's art suffers particularly by comparison to Chandler's fiction, for, despite Ruscha's on-and-off dalliance with a type of realism, he is no poet of the mean streets. Ruscha's L.A. is not a place where men are murdered over little or nothing at all, and he is no hero who goes down those streets, alone and unafraid, armed with a dead-on moral compass, a rude wit and a .45. Even Ruscha's moments of melancholy are false and stylized; the best Day-of-the-Locust image he can conjure is a few flames sprouting from L.A. County's Museum of Art. L.A.'s angst, like its cellulite, seems to have been surgically removed. His "Silhouettes" from the '80s and '90s evoke a dark, noirish atmosphere but ignore the content. Indeed, in canvases such as "Boy Meets Girl" and "17th Century" (with its superimposed legend: "War! Taxes! Plague! Melancholia!"), Ruscha seems to poke fun at the notion of content in painting, or at least the notion of painting about grand or tragic or historic themes. The closest he comes to commenting on events around him--say, for example, Southern California's tsunami of Mexican immigration--is a composition such as "Adios," a curious picture of ambiguous content, technically slick and mildly repulsive, full of beans, in every sense of the phrase.
The result is a body of work that is curiously bloodless, the musings of the prototypical artiste fiddling around with his paints and his typefaces while, outside, Watts burns. It is an art that is all style and very little content, an art that Chandler would doubtless have sneered at as "spillikens in the parlor." A great deal of the work seems to be about creating an image--not in the sense of what painters traditionally do but in the sense of what Hollywood does: creating a false front, evoking a mood, manufacturing a persona, striking a pose. If Ruscha is a poet, he is a poet of postmodern detachment and public relations.
In the end, the work calls to mind Yeats' lament in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," the poem from which Didion took her title: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." That Ruscha is among the best contemporary art can offer, there seems little doubt; to see the intensely felt and hokey alternative, sashay over to the DMA's Wolfgang Laib exhibition. Ruscha is the artist American painting had long wished for, Stuart Davis' super-cool spectator-reporter at the arena of hot events, the detached dandy America wanted and deserved. He offers a mirror for American culture to look into, and we get back what's there: very little. It's all surface and no depth, and despite its apparent perfection, not a pretty picture at all.