by Jonathan Griffin
One Sunday in 1966, Ed Ruscha was driving a Buick Le Sabre back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas with his friends Patrick Blackwell, a fellow artist, and the guitarist Mason Williams. With them they had an old manual typewriter, a Royal ‘model X’, its frame bent beyond repair. For a lark, they decide to heave the thing out of the passenger window, at ninety miles an hour. It exploded on the tarmac, disappearing in the rear view mirror as they sped onward through the desert.
About twenty miles down the road, the three young men were still talking about their stunt. They decided to turn back and examine the wreckage. Locating the point of impact, they measured 189 feet to the furthest fragments of typewriter. The tab key was caught in the spiny branches of a bush. Blackwell had his camera with him, and began to take photographs as if recording a crime scene. The following year Ruscha published the photographs, captioned in deadpan detail as if the whole escapade were a scientific study, in a book he titled ‘Royal Road Test’.
“Things that catch my attention are things that are usually negligible or forgotten, or overlooked or denigrated in some way or another,” Ruscha tells me in his airy Culver City studio, in central Los Angeles. This month, he debuts a new series of elegant pencil and acrylic drawings at Sprüth Magers gallery in Berlin, of old mattresses dumped at the side of the road. They follow a series he first exhibited in 2011 titled ‘Psycho Spaghetti Westerns’, widescreen paintings showing refuse – broken furniture, cardboard boxes, tire treads and, yes, mattresses – piled on a tarmac horizon.
Things at the side of the road have been catching Ruscha’s attention for over half a century. In 1963 he self-published a slim book titled Twenty six Gasoline Stations, consisting simply of black and white photographs shot between L.A. and his hometown of Oklahoma City. Three years later, he famously photographed Every Building on the Sunset Strip – the no-nonsense title of the now highly collectable accordion-fold book that resulted.
Other paintings simply reproduced odd phrases that Ruscha had heard or read while driving around town, painted against backdrops that included magnificent snowy mountains, aerial views of gridded streetlights or orange sunsets. Some are humorous; many are baffling. ‘Brave men run in my family’ says one. ‘Wen out for cigrets n never came back’ reads another.
Through his paintings, films, books, photographs and films, Ruscha earned a reputation as the portraitist of Los Angeles, despite his early protestations that his art could have been made anywhere. Today he is California’s most expensive living artist. “It’s a baffling set of circumstances as to what makes me tick and my work tick. It can’t be easily described. Except that I’ve essentially been doing the same thing for fifty-something years,” he says in his slow drawl. “I feel like whatever I do today is somehow connected to the way I felt when I was nineteen years old.”
That was when Ruscha arrived in Los Angeles, in 1956. He left Oklahoma with the intention of becoming a sign painter, and had heard there was a good design college in Los Angeles, then called the Art Center School. He was also attracted to California because of its “swank mentality” and “tropical flash”. “They had a hot rod culture here, they had palm trees, they had blonde beach bunnies in the sand. There was progressive jazz happening at the same time. All of that added up to a possibly attractive future.”
When he applied to Art Center, however, he was told it was full. Ruscha fell back on the Chouinard Art Institute, now known as CalArts. Whereas the industrially-oriented Art Center had a strict dress code – no beards, no sandals, no berets or bongo drums – Chouinard welcomed all those things. It was a fine art school rather than a design college. “I guess you could say I fell in with the wrong crowd,” Ruscha says, smiling.
At Chouinard, Ruscha took courses in lettering, design and advertising, but he also learned to paint. Those industrial techniques have defined all his art, especially in the early 1960s when his large canvases reproduced single words such as ‘BOSS’, ‘SMASH’, ‘NOISE’, ‘SPACE’ or ‘ELECTRIC’ against flatly painted grounds. Often they would include carefully painted, 1:1 scale objects too – a broken pencil, a comic book – that emphasized their pop flavour. Ruscha is fond of the perplexing non-sequitur. He famously once said that bad art makes you go, “Wow! Huh?” while good art makes you go, “Huh? Wow!”
In 1963 he had his first exhibition at the Ferus Gallery – then, he says, the most “hot and happening” gallery in town. It included the 11-foot-wide painting Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights: the 20th Century Fox logo painted as if it were a huge statue seen from below. In this, as with so much of his work, we never really know how Ruscha feels about his subjects. Ambiguity and ambivalence have long defined his position. “There is no particular agenda to my work. I’m just kind of viewing and responding,” he says.
This ambivalence is fitting for someone who, whether he likes it or not, has come to be the artist most often associated with Los Angeles. It is a city of contradictions: seductive and repulsive, futuristic and dilapidated, beautiful and ugly. “I’ve experienced love for the place, hate for the place, and now I think I’m maybe loving it again,” Ruscha admits. There was a time, maybe twenty years ago, when he considered leaving. Where would he have gone, I ask? “I might have moved to the desert,” he says.
The Mojave Desert, a little over two hours’ drive from L.A., plays a significant and under-acknowledged role in Ruscha’s art. He has spent much of his time at an isolated property a few miles from Joshua Tree that he acquired in the 1970s; before he sunk a well and built a house, he would go there just to sleep out under the stars.
For the first few minutes of our interview, Ruscha remains reserved, eyes downcast, his fingertips occasionally touching the black marble desktop between us. Much is made by journalists of what they typically call his “film-star good-looks,” but to me, now at 77 with tousled grey hair, he looks like any other affable pensioner.
His pale eyes light up, however, when I tell him I share an appreciation of his favourite road out to the desert, Route 60. Here one can check off many of the classic Ruscha tropes: billboards hawking bail bonds, rehab programmes, fast food or Jesus; the big-box warehouses and distribution centres; the scenic backdrop of mountains; mangled debris; and, if driven at the right time of day, spectacular atmospheric effects as the hazy valley air refracts the light of the setting sun. The first time I drove that road, it struck me that Ruscha is as much an environmental artist as he is an urban artist.
Ruscha tells me that when he first started driving to Joshua Tree, in the 1960s, much of the route passed through countryside. “Believe it or not, there was actually scenery out there. There were horse farms and meadows and beautiful white picket fences and palm trees. Now all of that, every bit of it, is gone,” he says. “Now we have concrete loading docks and logistics centres.” Ruscha featured those kinds of buildings in a gritty series that he made in 2005, exhibited at that year’s Venice Biennale, titled ‘Course of Empire’. The five paintings revisited his 1992 series ‘Blue Collar’; in the updated versions, the trade school is shuttered, the sign for the Tool & Die company is replaced by Asian lettering, and the telephone booth demolished. His ‘Psycho Spaghetti Western’ series was also inspired by roadside detritus on his journeys to the desert.
Might Ruscha’s work be growing less coolly ambivalent, and more impassioned, in his old age? His latest mattress pictures, which seem flushed with sex and death, abjection and decay, are certainly more provocative than his inscrutable early work. I quote back to him a line I’d read, in which he said that his ‘Psycho Spaghetti Western’ paintings should not be interpreted as comments on American wastefulness. “These are just objects; they could be looked at as if they are brand new. They are not sad things — maybe they are brighter than they appear,” he said. Is that really true, I asked him?
“No, not really,” he replies, chuckling. “It might have been true when I said it, but not so today.” Ruscha is perturbed by much of the change he sees around him. The sprawl that stretches from Los Angeles to the desert is due to inexorable population growth. Every time he sees a single-storey bungalow demolished, he feels sad because he knows it will be replaced by a three-storey apartment building. “It makes me nervous that the pressure of population can just cloud your well-being.”
“When I came here in 1956, I remember reading an article in Look magazine about Southern California,” he says. “It said that it was increasing in population by a net gain of a thousand people a day. I couldn’t believe that that could even be true!” Today the region’s growth continues apace, and is essential for its continued economic growth.
I point out to him that according to the city’s planners, those new apartment buildings are the solution to L.A.’s sprawl and congestion. The city must spread outwards, or rise upwards. The latter option, though detrimental to the big skies for which L.A. is famous, may also be the best way to keep the city’s apocalyptic traffic jams to a minimum, not to mention save what little is left of Southern California’s natural wilderness.
Then again, it is hard to dampen the fundamental appeal of the automobile. When Ruscha first arrived in Los Angeles, he sold his car and, for a while, rode the now-defunct trolley cars to get around. How did he like that, I ask? He says he was itching to own a car again. “There’s nothing like the freedom for a kid to have a car.” Today, his studio is situated close to the new Expo Line rail link, which will eventually span from beachside Santa Monica to landlocked Downtown and is generating a rash of new development. “Have you ever ridden it?” he asks me. I admit I haven’t. “Me neither,” he laughs.
There are a host of contradictions that cause Los Angeles’ future progress to be locked, like its traffic, in gridlock. Ruscha’s views are typical: he loves to drive but hates traffic; he deplores high-rise buildings but also low-density sprawl; he embraces economic expansion but condemns material waste. The ‘Metro Mattresses’ are, perhaps, a symbol of those contradictions. Thrown out by people upgrading their level of personal comfort, they are often appropriated by the homeless. In Downtown L.A., luxury apartments and hotels are springing up while around 5000 people sleep rough on Skid Row every night. Ruscha seems to thrive off such frictions. “They’re things that I take a negative stance on but a positive reaction to when it comes to the subject matter,” he explains. “You might say it has its own value for me.”
By contrast, he admits to being something of a naturalist, an admirer of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, and is “freaky for trees, the desert landscape, flora and fauna, that sort of thing.” More wild animals, he says, live in L.A. than in any other major city: mountain lions slope in and out of suburban neighbourhoods. Then there are the forgotten plants that survive in the metropolis, such as tree tobacco in Griffith Park. “I’ve got a leaning towards all that stuff,” he says.
Ruscha and his wife, Danna, now live in Coldwater Canyon, an affluent enclave to the north of Beverly Hills, where, he says, there is no natural landscape to speak of. He drives the seven miles to his studio every day, often accompanied by his dog Lola.
Unlike the imposing studios of other superstar artists in the city, Ruscha’s is relatively unassuming. Once owned by Howard Hughes and used to make aeroplane parts, the building was most recently a movie prop warehouse. He moved in four years ago. In the cluttered office, a homely couch is draped with a colourful Mexican serape blanket and the coffee table is a sheet of plastic balanced on two crates.
The art that Ruscha himself likes to look is surprising, considering his reputation as a cold-eyed Conceptualist. On the walls hang works by the late L.A. artist Mike Kelley alongside a painting by the Mexican-American Chouinard-graduate Raul Guerrero, whose folky style bears a resemblance to Kelley’s, and a drawing of a rattlesnake by the gaudy Texan artist Luis Jimenez. In the past, Ruscha has even admitted the influence of Norman Rockwell. He is a trustee of the Noah Purifoy Foundation in Joshua Tree, set up after the death of the African American junk sculptor. He is inspired, he says, “by people who are sticking to their cause, sticking to their programme.”
“It is rather staggering that there are so many artists today,” Ruscha says. “It seems exponential, like it’s growing out of its own skin.” He notes approvingly that, like the L.A. art scene of the 1960s, there is no dominating style, no single orthodoxy in contemporary art. “It’s bewildering. Try to follow it. Man, I can’t!”
The Los Angeles art world, especially, has seen a recent influx of artists and galleries. What is new is the arrival of already successful, mid-career artists from New York or Europe relocating in search of a cheaper and more comfortable standard of living. The major international galleries follow behind, also attracted by the city’s handsome real estate opportunities, many of them in the revitalising Downtown warehouse district.
Ruscha welcomes the local art boom. “Los Angeles at one time was considered the Australia of the art world!” he says. Now there are more artists and galleries than he can keep pace with. His daughter, Sonny, even works in one – Hannah Hoffman Gallery, which opened in 2013. (His older son, Eddie, is an artist and a musician.)
Even beyond California, the art market is currently on a seemingly endless upswing. In 2014, Ruscha’s 1963 painting Smash sold at Christies in New York for a record $30.4 million to his dealer Larry Gagosian. “It seems like the art world is flush,” he says. “People are wild to collect art. All kinds of people. And not just people who are buying art because they think it’s going to accrue in value.”
While some commentators predict that the art bubble will inevitably burst, Ruscha isn’t worried. “I think there’s great hope out there,” he says, sticking to his own programme of studied insouciance. “For L.A. too.” What does he see as the future of the city? He points me to the movie Blade Runner, with its vision of high-rises covered by motion graphics and an airship that floats moving advertisements through the skies. (Both predictions have already come partway true in L.A.)
I reply that one of the things I enjoy about Los Angeles is that, despite its future-facing optimism, there is an ever-present sense that one really bad drought, earthquake or tsunami could send the whole city back to primordial nature. The wild animals and the indigenous plants would flourish again. Ed Ruscha would probably just return to the desert. Out there, he says, “nothing ever changes.”
First published: Financial Times magazine, October 30 2015