Now and Then
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Jonathan Goodman, January 29, 2024
Ed Ruscha, now in his eighties, put up a terrific retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. For some sixty years, Ruscha has been making work pop, conceptual, and experimental. Throughout, the artist’s technical skills are prominent; his drawings, done in graphite and gunpowder (!) present exquisite examples of words and objects, the former's cursive elaborately brought into being by the extreme care with which Ruscha has rendered the shape of the letter. Additionally, his handling of paint is memorable, giving his paintings a sympathy with a high elegance, even though the pictures are often simple, portraying single words like “Faith” or ubiquitous images such as gas stations and sunsets. Generally, images are returned several times throughout the show, so they form a small group of considerations, usually varied by color. The drawings are especially interesting for their technique; the single words, by their mysterious meaningfulness; the gas station series, and their reiterated banality–perhaps a comment by Ruscha on the emptiness of the American visual; vernacular, in Los Angeles especially... But repetition can transform a dull sameness into something exciting and compellingly strange. The Standard gas station series, which always shows the building and pumps filing away from, the lower left, starts to take on the status of an icon, a Pop icon to be sure, but an image whose presence extends beyond its description to a tacit defense to a way of life. Ruscha reveals no social or political position in his work; in one of the rooms given to later paintings by Ruscha, there is a beautiful rendering of the American flag, dimpled with folds. But it is strangely neutral in social meaning; instead, the flag is an icon stripped of its political implications. So the pattern of the colored cloth has lost its aura of patriotism, which is, by itself, a critical comment on the flag’s patriotic virtue.
Yet the image itself, alone but radiant with (conventional) beauty, can suggest a triumphant reading of American virtue. Who is to say, then, what the flag means? Ruscha is a sly artist, whose word paintings, gas station photo books, and even his beautiful renditions of Hollywood sunsets are both technically stunning and conceptually confusing. His meaningfulness seems to lie in the vagaries–the unsolvable ambiguity–of an art that refuses to mean anything beyond what can be seen. Thus, Ruscha’s motivation is opaque–even, it seems, to him! The banality of the content is transformed into a triumphant statement open to many interpretations. This is done by the choice of words and images so familiar to us that they carry no implicit meaning and are reduced to mere objects when the artist paints them. So the trick of interpretation lies with us; we, the audience, make sense of an image whose connotations stand outside its visual use (as it would with any word). But Ruscha is so sly, so smart about inferring meaning from a single word, the painting becomes intellectually interesting even though next to nothing is there.
The intellectual vacuity Ruscha promotes is a trick of the mind. He regards America as biased toward materialism he sees as an unspoken tenet of his art, although the artist is careful about where he stands. He, like any painter, paints what he sees, but who can decipher an emptiness that denies explanation? If it were not for Ruscha’s remarkable skill, we might agree that he is an amiable but minor artist. Yet his ambiguities turn an empty mirror into one crowded with meaningful objects, even should these objects resist interpretation. Even his one installation, a room of maroon/brown paper sheets and nothing else, extending from ceiling to floor, creates an ambiance that denies its existence by refusing to generate sense beyond the fact of repeating, almost endlessly, reddish-brown sheets of paper.
What do we do when we are faced with a beautifully made art that evades our attempt to make sense of it? Is this a trick of the eye or the mind? Given his themes, it is clear that Ruscha is aiming at a flatness that is both visual and thematic; the void of American culture, though, somehow becomes the origin of transformative art. We don’t know where he stands regarding his view of the States, and our lack of knowledge pushes our reading of Ruscha’s art toward a pure appreciation of his skills, freed by the dismissal of content. In what is likely Ruscha’s most famous image, the 1964 painting titled Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, a white and red Standard gas station angles upward from the lower left to the upper right. At the top left, the red logo “STANDARD” holds sway, supported by two red poles. The flat white building is the station itself, while underneath the roof, outlined below by a blue line, are five gas pumps. Everything above, to the right of the white structure, is a blue sky, with some sort of brown square with spots of color on it hanging in the air and seemingly falling without cause.
IMAGES: Installation Image, MoMA, New York (Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York)
EDWARD RUSCHA (American, born 1937)
Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, 1964
Oil on canvas; 65 × 121 1/2" (165.1 × 308.6 cm)
EDWARD RUSCHA (American, born 1937)
OOF, 1962 (reworked 1963)
Oil on canvas, 71 1/2 x 67" (181.5 x 170.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Agnes Gund, the Louis and Bessie Adler Foundation, Inc., Robert and Meryl Meltzer, Jerry I. Speyer, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro, Emily and Jerry Spiegel, an anonymous donor, and purchase
Is the painting an epic treatment of a completely ordinary building? The angle at which the station is realistically rendered, along with the fact that we are forced to look up at the image as if it were to be seen like an idol from above, only reinforces our sense that the image is an apotheosis of an example of American functional industry. It was part of Ruscha’s standard visual life, and he presents a full, perhaps slightly exalted view of what he lived with and saw. Usually, we expect art that changes our vision and understanding of the object, most usually for the better. But Ruscha’s reluctance to beautify the gas station makes it clear that he wanted his realism to function as accurately as possible–as if art’s objective reportage could capture its use, and that use would be enough to justify its painterly treatment. Still, the positioning of the gas station and the angled lines lean in the direction of high praise, as if the demotic, if understood for what it was, could be viewed so positively as to suggest awe. This is the American bias at work: the characterization of material objects as indicative of a truth a good deal greater than most of us notice on our way home.
The same could be said of Ruscha’s one-word paintings, which are both only what we see on the surface. At the same time, epiphanies of the word can quite literally be read for their meaning, or as physical objects, dense with actuality. Meaning in art is visual, usually, but the addition of just one word transforms the image into a text, which we contemplate even if the word is entirely isolated and grammatically meaningless. In one of the later paintings Ruscha took the word “Faith” and gave it a bravura treatment–as if the word alone could The introduction of literary meaning here may not be as important as we think; Ruscha rescues the single words from hopeless reductionism, but also keeps each word from becoming grander than it might. Thus, the word is simply what it is: neither grandeur nor diminution wins out. Whatever the artist wants us to think about paintings like these, it seems clear that the tension between seeing them and making them work meaningfully, as they usually do with words, promotes a balance in which the words can be understood abstractly just as they can be seen as connotative in a regular context.
Throughout the show, the technical skill of Ruscha is quite apparent but this is particularly true of Rucha’s drawings, made with graphite or gunpowder. In 1967, Ruscha used gunpowder to create the striking drawing called Self. Drawn in an exquisite rounded script, whose forms rise to face the viewer, a shadow-like background throws the four cursive letters into high relief. As a result, Self reads as a sharp tonal relief, whose rounded shapes justify the making of the drawing alone. We can only admire the precision of the lines forming the letters, rounded or straight (the curves of the letters are done with such detail, that they are nearly palpable). But what about the word “self” pushed more or less into a lost space by isolation the artist lets go by? The word “self” is central to Western culture, in art especially. The artist’s activities result in a force most quickly and effectively called “self.” But it is also a vaguely determined word and concept, too large to make easily accessible sense. It reduces the energies behind the art object to a gestalt determined by the chthonic force of the object, making it slightly unknown perhaps even slightly menacing. The untoward, unknown relations between the fact of the object and the figure responsible for it become a conflict out of which meaning is made. If the word exists on its own, as an object, which it does, a metaphysical charge presides as well, forcing the object out of the hands of its maker and into the world. The push behind the fore, then, is the self–and the time needed to invest the world with its full meaning.
In 1977, Ruscha painted the long horizontal work called Back of Hollywood, The place name is seen from behind, and the letters stand out against a reddish sky, which is about to turn into a sunset. A bit of bright yellow sunlight illuminates the lower left of the painting. The bottom of the composition is meant to depict the soil or dark walk on which the back of the notorious Hollywood sign stands. This work is a fair copy of a major pop icon, but it is rendered backward, and the sunset, while robust and brilliantly colored, also suggests an endgame scenario. Is Ruscha rendering the beginning of the collapse of Hollywood as we know it, or is that too symbolic a reading for a simple version of a well-known but overpraised place word that is now more than what it says? It seems to me that the painting shows the artist’s familiarity with the film center, its romantic attractions enabling Ruscha to paint a beautiful but also deliberately banal sunset–as if the golden history of film stars and spinning celluloid were nearby. Hollywood has become a carbon copy of itself, just as the sign is duplicated endlessly in a frenzy of star-studded duplication. The self-reference turns full circle, both caricaturing the American obsession with the film star and our need to iterate, again and again, an image that both defines us and undermines our need to be triumphally different, a glorious assertion belonging to Americans alone
Ruscha is far too smart to fall for the trap of endless stardom, although he does use the idea to play with its absurdity. In film we live forever, neither aging nor losing strength. Ruscha’s work transforms experiments, often with imageries and words that would not attract interest if they were not painted and drawn so well. He wants an immediately recognizable landscape, just as Cezanne did in Provence. The problem is that Ruscha’s Los Angeles defies the lyricism of France’s rocky mountainside, although Ruscha does an excellent job of discovering his area’s pleasing quirks, however urban they are. Somehow, in his paintings, the moment changes from the cliche to something bigger, and grander, than a copy of metal and glass industrial stereotypes, It must be that the sights informing Ruscha’s earlier cityscapes–it is likely that the view is less idiosyncratic and more arranged. Little opportunity for creativity exists anymore; the city landscapes change at a slower pace. But Ruscha knows, as Cezanne knows, as well as anyone painting today, that if the artist is true to what he sees, suddenly the view becomes larger and more meaningful than it ever was before.