In the beginning was the word; the image, with all its troubles, came later.
For 65 years now, Ed Ruscha has evaded the presumed exhaustion of painting through a linguistic trapdoor: an equation of language and picture, each putting pressure on the other to produce some of the keenest evaluations any artist has ever made of American life. It was an approach born from advertising and design, channeled into fine art. It looked like Pop, it looked like Conceptualism. It was neither; it was an artistic inquest into the essence of things. What is the essence of things? Might it not be something simpler than they teach in physics laboratories or divinity schools? Might it be, especially in America, something more mundane?
“Ed Ruscha / Now Then” opens to the public on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, and it is so finely calibrated, so well-balanced — so cool, in stylistic and emotional and HVAC senses — that you may not initially clock its scale. To call it the show of the season is something of an understatement. With more than 200 works, this is the largest retrospective ever mounted of this deadpan laureate of American art, and the most significant New York has seen since the Whitney Museum took a touring show in 1982.
There have been gallery presentations in the interim, and smaller museum showcases, such as the 2005 presentation at the Whitney of his “Course of Empire” cycle, first seen at the American pavilion of the Venice Biennale. But “Now Then” is the first New York museum show since the Reagan administration to engage his full career, and to give his photo books the same attention as his poker-faced paintings. (The show has been organized with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to which it will travel in April.) Christophe Cherix, MoMA’s chief curator of drawings and prints, has produced a discreetly historic exhibition — which, I suspect, will have immediate relevance for a generation habituated to the touch-screen, and to its thousand daily digital collisions of text and JPEG, PNG, GIF.
It spans the whole top floor of the museum, and it is blessedly stripped of the Los Angeles romanticism that has attended Ruscha in East Coast or European museums. (A 2002 retrospective in Madrid was literally called “Made in Los Angeles.”) It refuses the seductions of the open road. It’s more analytical than I expected, more rhythmic, much less breezy. It thinks hard about English words, American pictures, the lies both can tell. In places, it feels like a walk-in version of Ruscha’s smooth, serial paintings, yet there are also flare-ups of organic instability: notably a whole gallery covered in sheets printed with melted chocolate.
Edward Ruscha was born in 1937 in Omaha and grew up in Oklahoma City. (It’s rew-SHAY, though everyone struggles with this; while working a paste-up job at Artforum, he grinned and bore the mispronunciations under the pseudonym Eddie Russia.) When he turned 18 he headed west and enrolled in the design program of the Chouinard Art Institute, now known as CalArts. He admired the verve and spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism, but when he tried to paint like Pollock it felt like a parody. The freedom that American gestural painting once embodied had already receded into a brand. His art was going to have to be cooler — not unlike the straight-faced riddles that Jasper Johns was posing in New York at the same time.
“It was an enormous freedom,” Ruscha said later, “to be premeditated about my art.” And during a seven-month sabbatical in Europe in 1961 (documented in this show through charming snapshots), the artist found a number of visual tropes that, when translated into painting, functioned like distantiation techniques. One was commercial signage, with its clarity and high contrast. He began to isolate monosyllables — ACE, BOSS, HONK, OOF — without additional imagery against solid backgrounds.
Conversant of course with Pop, these early word paintings drew just as much on the example of Picasso, Braque and Gris, whose Cubist collages took the frankness of advertising and rendered it strange to itself. The double vowel of “OOF” has the boiled-down geometry of Johns’s targets, an onomatopoeic gut-punch. The blue serifs and black negative space of “ACE” meet in three-dimensional schmears as thick as Barney Greengrass’s.
A little later, in the 1962 painting “Large Trademark With Eight Spotlights,” he painted the production logo of 20th Century Fox, its letters and numerals appearing to be projected from the picture’s bottom right corner. It’s been cunningly installed here in view of Ruscha’s similarly triangular compositions of gas stations, streamlined and stylized into American oases. The angles culminate in the isometric isolation of “Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire” (1965-68), though I’ve always found that one overrated and redundant: the words and gas stations are their own, cooler acts of arson.
The other breakthrough of that early European trip was serial photography. In Cannes in 1961 he’d used his Yashica camera to shoot film posters on the Croisette, and back in the U.S. the next year, he brought that lightweight point-and-shoot on a drive from L.A. back home to Oklahoma. He photographed the service stations along the way from a flat, neutral position, and printed them in a book of his own design. If you’re looking for the romance of Route 66, I suggest you stick with “Easy Rider.” Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963, and hold the hyphen) boiled down the American landscape from a dream to just evidence, and the book presented a threatening detachment, maybe a bit like industrial documentation or the manuals of the military.
Twenty-six: the whole span of ’em, from A to Z. The gas stations are mundane glyphs in an automotive alphabet, read west to east like an English sentence. (Cherix has trusted visitors to flip through a copy, which dangles from the ceiling on a 12-foot fish wire. Don’t steal it!) Subsequent L.A. photo books — especially the accordion-printed “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966), stretching 25 feet — would double down on the dispassion, recording the city with the same putative impartiality (but in fact deep authorship) that Google Street View would introduce four decades later.
In the later 1960s Ruscha began experimenting with unusual inks and pigment sources, staining his canvases with rose petals, chewing tobacco, his own blood. Bleached gunpowder, he discovered, allowed him to draw more finely and erase more cleanly than graphite; the combustible dust resolved into gossamer ribbons spelling out “Fire,” or “Sin,” or “Quit.” Screenprints with the Old English legends “Mews,” “News” and “Pews” were made with substrates that MoMA’s labels discreetly call “organic”: salmon roe, Hershey’s syrup, and even a Bolognese.
Yet except for the “Chocolate Room” — a rare installation of Ruscha’s, more mouthwatering than mind-altering — the organic materials did not make a show of themselves. And unlike Bruce Nauman, another Midwestern boy made good in California, Ruscha did not dwell in puns and never dipped into irony. His painted and drawn words retained their meaning, but they got thinned and thickened by American commerce: a metaphor he made literal by painting “Annie,” “Adios” or “Rancho” with letters like trompe-l’oeil liquids. The words seem to be formed of maple syrup (slow) or gasoline (fast). The letters appear to run and reform. Do words have fixed senses, or are they empty signs? Neither, exactly; their meanings always slip from their constituent consonants and vowels, drip, puddle, cling to the roof of your mouth.
By the 1970s Ruscha was using pastels to paint longer, more lapidary phrases and sentences: I LIVE OVER IN VALLEY VIEW, or FIND CONTACT LENS AT BOTTOM OF SWIMMING POOL. To be precise, he painted the negatives of these sentences; masking the sheet with stencil letters, he coated the remainder with misty fields of aquamarine and canary yellow. It’s a treat to see them here — Ruscha’s hand-painted backgrounds of the ’60s and ’70s photograph very badly — yet they aren’t dreamy, in the manner of Color Field paintings. Instead they have the commercial consistency of product photography, or, more recently, the soft gradient filters of the latest cameraphones.
Only in the 1980s would Ruscha consent to pick up a spray gun, in large-scale, word-free grisailles of an elephant climbing a hill, or two ships tossed at sea. Yet they didn’t sit easily amid an ’80s-era revival of figurative painting. The ships might as well have been SHIPS, the elephant an ELEPHANT. The backgrounds sometimes had the tears and scratches of a celluloid reel, such as in a large painting of 1991 that stutters “The End.”
In the early 1990s, using the same isometric format and panoramic dimensions he once applied to LACMA’s burning galleries, Ruscha painted a suite of imagined industrial warehouses, again in black and white. Yet in 2005, at the height of the Iraq War, he debuted a rejoinder: paintings of those same buildings, at the same size, but now in color and seemingly in ruin. Together, the ’90s paintings and the new ones became a cycle of American decadence named “Course of Empire,” after Thomas Cole’s five-painting series of the rise and fall of an ancient city-state. But Ruscha’s vision has no middle steps. Dead/alive. On/off. Now/then.
I’m skeptical of Ruscha’s more direct American engagements, which lack the metaphysical ambiguity of his words and phrases, and I have very little patience for recent works like “Our Flag,” a panorama of a frayed Stars and Stripes he painted in Trump Year One. The best of Ruscha’s works this century depict mountain ranges topped with snow, overlaid with new phrases — PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL — and gruff obituaries: CLARENCE JONES / 1906-1987 / REALLY KNEW HOW TO SHARPEN KNIVES. Like the Color Field-but-not-really gradients of his youth, these Rocky Mountain backdrops only play at the Romantic sublime. They are as artificial, as mythological, as the gas stations and the gunpowder. This is the manifest destiny that led to the Hollywood backlot.
Back in 1971, Ruscha wrote a text called “The Information Man,” a short parable that, though half a century old, seems directly addressed to young artists lost today in space and screen. “It would be nice,” the story begins, “if sometime a man would come up to me on the street and say ‘Hello, I’m the information man and you have not said the word ‘yours’ for 12 minutes.’” The Information Man informs Ruscha of the locations of all his photo books: “2,026 are in vertical positions in libraries, while 2,715 are under books in stacks…. 7 have been used as swatters to kill small insects such as flies and mosquitoes….”
Like “OOF,” like “Pay Nothing Until April,” the story of the Information Man was as profound as it was mundane, and it suggested how to create something meaningful in a culture grown quicker, lighter, searchable, ephemeral. The Information Man knows photos don’t stay put in books, but are sources of metadata. The Information Man quantifies your utterances, your memories and your dreams, and extracts what value he can. The Information Man — have we all become Information Men? — distills word and image into 0s and 1s, overlaid and transmitted as fast as a meme can fly. But a meme is just more data, blinkered and bastardized; one thing that cannot be information is a work of art.
Ed Ruscha/Now Then
Opens to the public Sept. 10 through Jan. 13, 2024. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 708-9400; moma.org.