That's All, Folks

Contemporary art superstar Ed Ruscha turns a mirror on his times, and finds...not a whole lot

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.

"Ice," a 1993 acrylic painting by Ed Ruscha, now on view at Fort Worth's Modern
Collection of Melva Buchsbaum
"Ice," a 1993 acrylic painting by Ed Ruscha, now on view at Fort Worth's Modern

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Runs through September 30. Call (817) 738-9215.
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

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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.

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.

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