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“Ed Ruscha”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Sept. 17

Some years ago, I found myself in the back of a car heading from Los Alamos to Godknowswhere, N.M. Off the road, in the distance, was a huge outcropping of rock, stranded in the desert, bathing in the drama of natural spotlighting. One of the scientists in the car offered a tenet of Indian belief, framed as though it were tinkered out of logical precepts: If a thing is different and it is alone, then it is holy.

Who was he to talk? We were driving a small eternity just to get to a restaurant. And why? Because there was no other place like it around. Chances are, if you are going anywhere in the West, and if your destination meets the criteria for a road trip, by native standards your destination is a candidate for worship. And those standards are pretty much universal. From Byzantium to the New York City of Robert Longo and Robert Moskowitz, it’s isolation that makes the ikon.

But nothing defines a monolith like the desert. It’s the ground that gives meaning to the figure, just as it’s the setting that inflects the song, the stage that supports the player, the page that gives play to the printed word. Enter Ed Ruscha—Okie pilgrim to Los Angeles, self-described “fallen Catholic,” SoCal convert. He crossed the desert on Route 66 in 1956, fresh out of high school, drawn to L.A. for all the things L.A. had in it that Oklahoma City didn’t. The trip was as important as the place he was going. In his early years, Ruscha made the 1,400-mile drive often, memorializing it in the 1963 book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, which spools out photographs of commercial oases from west to east. He also monumentalized one of the stations, a Standard in Amarillo, Texas, painting it in zooming perspective, as if it were a train blasting diagonally across a movie screen.

Ruscha has been touted as a West Coast Warhol, but he never fit the mold of the East’s confrontational, canon-challenging Pop artist. He became successful enough to be dubbed the L.A. scene’s standard bearer but remained quirky and particular enough to be its odd man out. Ruscha simply worked with what L.A. gave him, and he shared the California vision of culture as something available to the populace.

From the get-go, Ruscha reconceived abstract painting as not-quite-figuration, following the lead of Jasper Johns and giving the desert of the abstract field some semiotic cacti to play with. What would become his signature format set words (“ace,” “automatic,” “soup,” and so forth) and sometimes objects (marbles, pencils, pills, etc.), against backgrounds that ranged from flat to nebulously spatial. The fact that linguistic signs, abstractions themselves, were assuming the role of figures wandering in the desert in Ruscha’s early work was later alluded to by Colored People, his 1972 book that, in lieu of words—or people, for that matter—featured cut-out pictures of cacti against the whiteness of the page. To underscore the desert motif, the book consisted mainly of pages that were entirely blank.

In several paintings illustrated in the catalog but not hung in the Hirshhorn, we see the struggle between Ruscha’s nascent commercial-art career and his painterly ambition play itself out. Su (1958) is Napa wine-label abstraction several decades early; E. Ruscha (1959) looks like a primitive sign-painter’s attempt to conjure his name from the ab-ex murk. The Hirshhorn picks up the thread in 1961, when the fine artist had won, sort of. Ruscha’s first mature paintings were metaphysical advertisements. In Falling but Frozen (1962), the outline of a tire hovers colorlessly beneath the logo of its manufacturer; Actual Size (1962) depicts a meteoric can of Spam falling to earth in a shower of sparks that are, in fact, drips from the dark blue field above, which backs a gigantic repetition of the product’s name.

The idea of the agonist being defined in relation to the void was a cliche of postwar art. Conceived heroically, it spoke to Pollock, dancing alone in his action-painting arena. In existentialist garb, it informed the hand-wringing of Giacometti, whose clubfooted figures were whittled into wraiths by encroaching nothingness. In a hybrid of the two modes, Yves Klein made a photomontage that falsified his leap from a mansard roof, captioning it “The painter of space casts himself into the void!” But Ruscha applied the conceit of entity-defining isolation to common household products. And he did so because, hey guys, that’s the way advertising works, too. You establish singularity by eliminating similarity, and the easiest way to do that is to remove all basis for comparison: If a thing is different and it is alone, then it is holy.

Ruscha’s early-’60s paintings distilled an aura of mystery from advertising, which at the time still purported to be funneling useful information to the consumer. Over the course of his career, he has given that aura to just about anything he has considered, be it a sunrise, a monologue snippet, or a strip of commercial real estate. Advertising in turn has fed on Ruscha—learning from him that an inexplicable, metaphysical attachment to a word or image is more valuable, more irresistible than a sensible one; now it’s commonplace for design to magnify a brand by ripping it from its context. Ruscha is arguably as responsible as anyone for commercial image-mongering having become so abstract that no one—at least no one outside of public broadcasting—would insist that a message contain a direct pitch for it to be considered advertising.

To peg Ruscha as a cutting-edge commercial theorist, however, would be to overlook his obvious amusement at the failure of graphic isolation to individuate its subjects. (If every brand is decontextualized in a similar fashion, what’s to set one above another? Do you really notice which make of high-end sedan is shown careering through the hairpins between your favorite sitcoms?) Over the last four decades, he has made a sequence of series whose components, while of consistently high quality, are virtually interchangeable. If a curator needs a painting from the so-called Romance With Liquids series, Ruscha’s late-’60s trompe l’oeil treatments of words spelled out in fluids, one is as good as the next. The same goes for the gunpowder drawings of words made of coils of paper tape or the wordless airbrushed grisailles of the ’80s or the majestic, word-bearing purple mountains of the last few years. Ruscha makes very few missteps, and he also—consciously, it appears—makes very few singular masterpieces.

Perhaps there’s only one: The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-1968), which depicts exactly, and only, what the title says, the physical plant of L.A.’s snappy new cultural center ablaze. It is absolutely one of my favorite things in the world, not that admiration gives me any authority over it. One of the things I love about it is the way it shuts me down cold, disarming all criticism, cutting me loose from fact. And it does so without manipulation, via the sheer, understated presence of a building adrift on its reflecting pool in a sick, green void. In it, the oasis is a mirage that never evanesces.

Critics from Peter Plagens to Yve-Alain Bois have tried to get the upper hand, ascribing to the picture polemical intent the artist unruffledly refuses. Other viewers imagine the flames growing to overwhelm the building. But such extrapolation is to deny the building’s setting in the familiarly

unfamiliar nothing-happening notime that grounds all Ruscha’s art. The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire is the eternal flame as smudge pot, articulating a sphere of influence, keeping the bugs off.

Though Ruscha improvises nothing, planning out all his imagery, he works from instincts, sometimes from dreams, never from programs. He has a gift for presenting his subjects so directly that we mistrust his words and question his intent, which is, of course, beside the point. “I don’t pretend to understand myself,” he says contentedly. As I flip through Guacamole Airlines, a 1980 collection of drawings, I often find myself checking the titles, where I discover that a drawing in which vacant block letters spelling out “THE WORLD” emerge from a mottled field of carrot juice is called The World. I can’t be tempted into connoisseurship of Ruscha’s diction. Faulting him for choosing “Very Angry People,” for instance, over “Sand in the

Vaseline” makes as much sense as blaming the projectionist for the movies he shows.

The present show assays Ruscha as an international figure. Over the years, he has grown from a regionalist to an American original to a world-class presence. But he hasn’t really changed all that much. He’s as L.A. as he ever was, and, as if to remind you, his most recent series—the mountain peaks and spatter maps in acrylics—brim with the names of the avenues and boulevards of his adopted hometown: La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre (1999), Gower, Beachwood, Franklin (1998). What’s different now is that the world has become a suburb of L.A.

If L.A. has bequeathed the world, and the future, one great thing, greater than the cult of internal combustion or the theme park or the city as suburb, it is the screen, the fantasy blank that makes anyplace everyplace—and noplace. From movies and TV it has spread to the computer, which in turn casts its fictive spaces in the form established by Hollywood. And just as the emptiness and expanse of the desert West helped define the screen, the screen is transfiguring the landscape of the West. Developers saw the land as available space for the projection of their desires, and now it sprawls with anonymous, equivalent architectural units. Ruscha honored both before and after views in books such as 1970’s Real Estate Opportunities and 1965’s Some Los Angeles Apartments.

Back before suspicion of the media became a national habit, curmudgeons used to caution that paper would bear anything that was printed on it. That goes double for the screen, but Ruscha gnomically turns mistrust to wonder. Above the gridded, grounded stars of a nighttime desert city seen from the hills, he floats the word “Ice” or “Boy Meets Girl” or patois that translates to “Where Are You Going Man?” In an explicitly filmic series, he presents a countdown frame (9,8,7,6), a shot of teepees (Western), or, in Triumph, the last ragged bit of film, misaligned in the projector, reading “The End.”

Like penitents greeted by an airborne vision of the Virgin or slacker crusaders catching sight of the Batsignal, we tip our heads in the direction of the projection. Ruscha sounds an alarm that issues no definite call to action—a fact responsible for the volume of frustrating, unsatisfying writing about him. Viewers unaccustomed to absorbing messages without parsing them can have a difficult time regarding Ruscha’s work in the spirit in which it was created, one of openness and restraint, in which meaning is a possibility, but only one of many. CP