Ed Ruscha

by Jonathan Griffin

Ed Ruscha may now regret saying, in 1966, that ‘being in Los Angeles has little or no effect on my work’. He’s been pedaling back from this characteristically contrary statement ever since. After all, the city has been his muse ever since he arrived from Oklahoma City in 1956. What he was perhaps trying to say is that he’s not an ambassador for Los Angeles – a city that, for all its brittle self-absorption, he admits that he loves. ‘Palm trees have a narcotic effect on me’ he says, speaking from his Culver City studio. ‘And all this tropical vegetation. Mix that with, what have you, fast food and movies, and the forward motion of things out here, with respect to artists, it’s a pretty jumpy scene.’

That ‘forward motion’ tilts the city’s gaze towards the future. Compared to Europe or New York (which, seen from California, pretty much seems like part of Europe), people aren’t constrained by the past, or, as Ruscha notes, the class system. ‘I’m making these statements that don’t have the weight of history on them.’ He understands why Los Angeles is so attractive to European exiles. ‘You come to an extreme place like this, and it’s an accelerated culture. You feel like it’s the sunset – or the sunrise. It’s got a brightness to it and in a sense it’s a good place to start a new life.’

So it’s somewhat ironic that Los Angeles is currently consumed by its own history. Pacific Standard Time, the sprawling multi-platform project instigated by the Getty Foundation and Research Institute, will scrutinize the period between 1945 and ’80 when an art scene began to establish itself in the city. Before that, says Ruscha, ‘we were too busy searching for gold, and developing movies, and doing things like that.’ Although an imperative of Pacific Standard Time seems to be to emphasize that there was more to Southern Californian art than the straight white men associated with the Ferus Gallery (Ruscha among them), he seems to welcome the historical realignment. ‘Things that are stomped on and forgotten about and put in the trashcan, they’ll come back.’

He could also be describing his own working method. He is an inveterate recycler, not just of subjects and materials but also his old art works. His exhibition at Gagosian Beverly Hills earlier this year was titled ‘Psycho Spaghetti Westerns’; it featured paintings of items rescued from the side of highways, such as shredded tires and ruined mattresses. ‘Course of Empire’, the body of work he exhibited at the 2005 Venice Biennale, revisited a little-known series from 1991–2 of paintings of industrial buildings, and updated them – graffitied, under new management, or torn down altogether. He admits that ‘I base a lot of my art on things that are discarded or forgotten, and those things finally come back and tap you in the shoulder and say “here I am, whaddya gonna do?”’.

In 2005, Steidl published ‘Then and Now’, a book that juxtaposed Ruscha’s photographs of Hollywood Boulevard from 2004 with identically framed shots from 1973. In fact, he has photographed over 30 streets in their entirety – as with his iconic book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) – at regular intervals throughout his career. ‘I like the idea of having that record – seizing something. And the second I seize it, it starts to change. It goes on. It’s that change idea that I’m particularly hung up on.’ I ask him how he feels when he compares two views of the same street, many years apart. ‘There’s something that makes me want to focus on the things that have not changed, and there are a lot of things that have not changed. Like for instance curbs, and a lot of streetlights, and things like that.’

In fact, for a city that is ostensibly so forward-facing, the streets of Los Angeles can seem decidedly retro, sun-bleached and preserved in the dry heat. Ruscha has always dwelled on its subtle anachronisms. The Googie architecture of gas stations and restaurants that features in paintings of the 1960s such as Norm’s, La Cienega, On Fire (1964), for instance, was already old fashioned; 20th Century Fox, whose logo was the subject of Large Painting with Eight Spotlights (1962), was a company in decline in the early ’60s.

Is there a thread of nostalgia running through Ruscha’s work? A recent artist’s book and series of paintings took as its subject Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road (1957), a book the artist first encountered as a student. Returning to the novel, he realized that ‘these people were all idealists, hitchhiking around and catching rides from people, you know, going from place to place. It was really a time of innocence. And even the writing style I find to be, by comparison with today’s writers, kind of innocent and almost sweet, in that sense.’ Artists use nostalgia in their work, he says enigmatically, ‘like a candy dessert’.

Ruscha’s recycling of past themes – of travel, of cars and speed, not to mention motifs such as his iconic mountains or airbrushed aerial views of gridded city street lights – might be generously seen not as repetition but consistency. He concedes that ‘I somehow find myself to still be working on a variation of a theme that I started when I was 18 years old.’

He insists that he still works instinctually, watching for sparks between colliding words or images without over-thinking the process. It seems remarkable that an artist of his stature should still work so freely. I point out a relationship to the Abstract Expressionist painters whose automatic, subconscious style the young Ruscha first admired, then superseded. Ruscha counters that, for him, art is ‘like an open world. You don’t want to have too much introspection.’

It doesn’t sound like Ruscha suffers from a lot of self-doubt or anxiety. He neither confirms nor denies this, but instead surprises me by turning the conversation to his fellow artists: ‘There are so many great artists out there in the world… I’m only one of 10 million of these people who are issuing ideas to the world. I feel like it’s a privileged opportunity to be able to do something like this, to use the subconscious and to do something that doesn’t necessarily have to make a lot of sense.’ His modesty is endearing. Later, he admits, ‘I feel like whatever I’ve done with my art it’s barely scratching the surface.’ And then ruefully, ‘What was thing that Yogi Berra said? “The future ain’t what it used to be.”’

Ruscha’s humility extends to Los Angeles too, contrary to the civic boosters who now claim the city as a global art capital. ‘I think it’s an old idea that you have to go to the big city to make a big statement. God knows, with all the electronic communication going on today, Dayton, Ohio is the same as Wolverhampton, England.’ Then, with a sincerity that’s touching, almost naïve, ‘The whole world, to me, is alive to this spirit of making art and music and literature. I’m kind of awed by it, really.’

What about politics? Ruscha has insisted on political ambivalence in his work, despite living through periods of extreme civil unrest. (Perhaps the closest he got to a direct acknowledgement of this was with the painting Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965–8, begun in the year of the Watts Riots.) I venture that perhaps the mobile perspective that he has made his own – the world seen at speed from a car, or a plane – might be a metaphor for a social or political detachment. ‘Hmm’ he responds, ever reluctant to over-complicate the reading of paintings that are, in their forthright strangeness, plenty complicated enough already. ‘Well I get a lot of juice from just driving around the city.’ Artists have always made it their mission to show the world from different perspectives, he points out, and he’s no different.

I try a different tack. Why do his images so rarely feature people? ‘Maybe I’m more into what people are saying rather than what they look like.’ It’s a good point. In fact, Ruscha’s work is packed with colloquialisms, vocal sounds and the results of physical human actions. It’s just the protagonists’ bodies that are absent.

Perhaps his evasion of political content is down to his misgivings about the resolution of meaning. ‘There’s so much conflict in what we put together as a work of art, whether it’s a piece of literature or music or whatever, that we kind of dance with the tools. And the tools end up making this little melody, and that’s what I’m doing. But it never gives you the full answer and nobody can expect it to. It’s like you’re traveling and experiencing things on the way to a destination but the destination may never be reached.’ And even when he’s worked through a subject and moved on to something else, ‘the big question mark out there on the horizon is always there.’

First published: Apollo, October 2011