“L A’s lush landscaping only begins to make sense when you realize that underneath it is a desert,” remarked Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in “American Prayers,” her 1985 Artforum article about 1970s Southern California, “LA is Ed Ruscha’s desert on fire” (April 1985).
This keen observation points toward a subtle, but haunting sense of danger that underpins Ruscha’s half-century of artistic output, rendered with the detached coolness that has come to typify his oeuvre. What at first appear as ironic quips (his “Word Paintings”) or witty repositions of mundane landscapes (his 1963 photobook Twentysix Gasoline Stations) have, over time, revealed themselves to be more sinister.
Nearly 500 articles mention Ruscha in Arforum’s archives – the earliest dating back to the early 1960s and the most recent coming just this year (he will be the subject of a massive retrospective at the Blanton in 2020). Together these stories form an arc of critical transformation in understanding his work.
From 1965–69, Ruscha, using the pseudonym "Eddie Russia," worked as a production designer and art director at the magazine under editor Philip Leider. "I loved his work for the magazine and I loved working with him, he was so easygoing," recalls Leider in Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974 (Soho Press, 2000). "We just worked together so well, without any stress, no strain, the magazine was just done."
Though today Ruscha is considered one of the most consistently prodigious and conceptual artists of the past 50 years, critical reception was not always so positive. The earliest mention of his practice in the magazine’s pages rather damningly called his Box Smashed Flat, 1960–61, “an instructive failure... which cannot accordingly become anything other than the rather uninteresting painting which it is.” (March 1964). And even Leider recalls an exchange where Ruscha put it to him frankly: "'Look, Phil, I know what you think of me. You think I'm a tenth-rate Pop artist." But by 1969, there were signs of a softening. Barbara Rose wrote that his “classic gas stations, archaic parking lots and Spartan Los Angeles apartment houses have some undeniable poetry” marked still by “cutting irony” which she termed “‘found monument' photographs” (January 1969).
This emphasis on the “found” quality is one of the keys to unlocking Rusha’s objectives as an artist, and his seemingly indifferent, airtight visions. A Midwesterner, Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on 16 December 1937, and was raised in Oklahoma City. He came to Los Angeles, the city that would provide a seemingly endless source of inspiration, as an art student studying at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts).
From the very start, his output has been conceptually rigorous and diverse, dexterously moving between photography, drawing, painting – even film. When this body of work is considered in its entirety, what emerges is an art tied to an anthropological, almost foreboding act of observation.
When this body of work is considered in its entirety, what emerges is an art tied to an anthropological, almost foreboding act of observation.
In September 1966, Artforum ran a special issue dedicated to Surrealism. "I regarded the Surrealism issue as terrible. I didn't see anything new in it." Leider recalls. "...But Ed Ruscha's cover was great, almost redeemed the issue by itself." This coincided with a major redesign of the magazine, and his cover, a photograph of his mixed-media piece Surrealism Soaped and Scrubbed, featured blocky orange letters running diagonally across the page on an iridescent background of soap bubbles.
In 2011, a preview of a show of his work at the Fort Worth Museum of Art observed that his photographs “resemble crime scene evidence, it documents the aftermath of defenestrating a typewriter from a moving Buick, a caper that synthesized two of the artist’s enduring preoccupations – words and roads” (January 2011).
These are the crime blotter details – places people were last seen, identifying intersections, throw away phrases that capture the clues to the bigger narrative, one that remains ambiguous – the visual equivalent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Cormac McCarthy’s On The Road.
In 2005 when Ruscha represented the United States in the Venice Biennale, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh powerfully captured this latent sense of violence. At the height of the Iraq War, Boucher wrote “Ruscha’s painting was not the triumph of a technological culture over an obsolete artisanal one, but rather a melancholic and allegorical act of resistance within the totality of industrial sign systems.” Here the mundane is an elegy, his cryptic depictions of the Los Angeles streets showing the “aging industrial inscriptions and the apocalyptic skies weighing down on these bunkers of everyday life in Los Angeles” (September 2005).
“Ruscha’s painting was not the triumph of a technological culture over an obsolete artisanal one, but rather a melancholic and allegorical act of resistance within the totality of industrial sign systems.”
Years later, in 2018, it was observed that these same works, a series of paintings titled The Course of Empire, that “severed from their original context, the George W. Bush era, the five color paintings come across as vivid, albeit obvious, warnings of ecological catastrophe (the bloodred sunset behind Fat Boy in The Old Tech-Chem Building, 2003, is made all the more brilliant by polluted air, and the restaurant name is itself redolent of nuclear war)” (November 2018).
But what are we to make of all of this? Despite the nearly apocalyptic heaviness, Ruscha’s works remain obstinately obtuse even today, which is why they continue to beguile.
The artist is perhaps best understood in his own words. At a height of American instability in 1970, after the Watts Riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy Jr., Ruscha wrote “I don’t think an artist can do much for any cause by using his art as a weapon... The sooner artists are on to this the better” (September 1970). Instead, we’d be better be instructed to find what’s waiting inside his work itself. As he said in memoriam of his friend James Rosenquist, “He could paint an object that was mundane and terrifying at the same time. And that’s what I like about his work” (October 2003).
“He could paint an object that was mundane and terrifying at the same time. And that’s what I like about his work.”