Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Ed Ruscha, Bronson Tropics, 1965; graphite on paper; 14 1⁄8 x 22 5⁄8 inches; © Ed Ruscha; courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Standard Station with Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, 1964; oil on canvas; 65 x 121 ½ inches; private collection
“I don’t think driving is art, but I think it’s surreal,” observed Ed Ruscha in a 2009 conversation with Michael Auping, during which he also stated that the Hollywood sign has “always had a surreal quality for me.” The surreal is a consistent theme in Ed Ruscha: Road Tested, organized by Auping at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which gathers together the artist’s road-themed works in a range of media. Whereas the myth and romance of the road is arguably less central to American culture than it was when Ruscha began his career, the surreality that he finds there appears as fresh as ever in the works on view. Considering Ruscha’s practice with an emphasis on its dreamlike or fantastic qualities calls attention to how even seemingly “straight” documentary works such as his books have a certain compelling strangeness. Several characteristics of Ruscha’s work, especially the ambiguous role of language in his paintings of words, can be seen to manifest an otherworldly dimension of a familiar reality.
Like painters such as René Magritte, Ruscha has a style that uncannily balances precise detail with audacious simplicity in depicting seemingly unnatural juxtapositions. In Standard Station with Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half (1964), a 5-x-10-foot canvas that together with its sibling Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963) provides one of the exhibition’s high points, a simple structure is rendered with extreme fastidiousness. In the foreground, two red columns poke up through fluorescent lights that run the length of the overhanging roofline, with their tips appearing to float in the amorphous gray field of the roof’s underside. Each of the five gas pumps depicted includes careful renderings of the attached, semi-rigid hoses, as well as the minuscule numbers denoting price per gallon, gallons pumped, etc.
Whereas these details can be credited to verisimilitude, a different sort of detail (common to both Standard Station paintings) cannot be explained so easily: a blank triangle in the lower-right corner completes the diagonal begun by the Standard sign, upper left, and continued by the roof. What is this triangle? An act of pure formalism? It can’t be resolved referentially but is essential for tying the whole picture together compositionally. The triangle, like the eponymous trompe l’oeil Western comic book in the upper right-hand corner, shows how important it was for Ruscha to achieve dynamic balance in the composition, even at the expense of representational coherence.
This exhibition also confirms Ruscha’s mastery of using grisaille to explore a variety of emotional registers; the most moving works feature black-and-white or multi-toned gray palettes that elicit the eerie, the enigmatic and the uncanny. Much as a cinematographer uses different kinds of light, Ruscha calibrates diverse media to yield a diversity of surface textures and grains that in turn evoke different mental states. Two graphite drawings of apartment buildings from 1965, Doheny Drive and Bronson Tropics, have a fuzzy, porous and hence quasi-dreamlike quality not shared by their photo-book sources (Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965). Several horizontal acrylic paintings of black silhouettes on faded gray-black backgrounds suggest furtive actions concealed by nightfall; Uphill Driver (1986) depicts the rear three-quarters of what looks like a Chevrolet El Camino exiting to the upper left, while Uncertain Frontier (1987) follows a covered-wagon train towards a distant vanishing point at the lower left.
Chevy, 2010; inkjet print on 330g Somerset Satin enhanced paper; 8 x 10 inches; © Ed Ruscha; courtesy Gagosian Gallery
La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre, 1999; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 60 1⁄8 inches; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Heinz Family Fund
Grisaille and extreme detailing are present in Hollywood to Pico (1998), which condenses several of Ruscha’s preoccupations, i.e., the materiality of language, serial organization and entropic disintegration, into a singular image. In this synthetic polymer painting on canvas, a series of horizontal bands recede into the distance, labeled with the upside-down names of Los Angeles’ major east-west boulevards, with Hollywood and Sunset in the foreground, and Olympic and Pico in the distance. (If this is a landscape, the viewer is facing south from the Hollywood Hills.) What is arresting about this painting, and unifies it, is the grainy, irregular, sandpaper-like pattern in which everything is rendered: the “boulevards,” the space in between, the street names and finally, in the top one-eighth of the canvas, the indistinct fade from ground to smoggy atmosphere, obscuring the horizon line. This irregular pattern resembles the “noise” on an old TV with a badly tuned antenna, or the carpet or wallpaper in one of the low-end buildings on Sunset Boulevard. It renders every element of the picture indistinct and slightly unreal. To have revealed the metaphorical richness of such utter banality is typical of Ruscha.
Although “the road” is meant to be the single theme here, one should distinguish between two different but closely related facets: the nature of car travel as such, and the distinctiveness of Los Angeles, Ruscha’s adoptive home, as a place shaped by the automobile. These two aspects intertwine but are not identical. (For example, the monumental diptych Azteca/Azteca in Decline, 2007, was generated by the artist’s experience of driving around Mexico City. Likewise, in the exhibition catalogue Ruscha makes the surprising admission that for some of his student years at LA’s Chouinard Art Institute in the late 1950s he was without a car.)
The facets converge in a specific historical moment, one bounded by the 1956 Interstate Highway Act and the 1973 oil crisis. When Ruscha first made his mark in Los Angeles (first one-man show at Ferus Gallery in 1963), its freeways were newly built and a matter of pride; American cars were preeminent and competed on size, speed and horsepower; and the most numerous recent migrants were whites from the Midwest and blacks from the South, who would have (like Ruscha) arrived via Route 66 or other highways.
Today, no new freeways have been built in Los Angeles in decades. The highest-profile infrastructure projects are a massive subway expansion and high-speed rail; the most prestigious car is the Japanese hybrid Toyota Prius; and the newest Angelenos will have arrived from Latin America and Asia via airplane into LAX. There is nothing backward-looking or nostalgic about Ruscha’s work, but “the road,” especially in Los Angeles, has become less mythic and less romantic since his first legendary drive west from Oklahoma in 1956. Nonetheless, in spite of this trend, what the artist calls “the surreal” has persisted as an aesthetically central feature of the car-based society epitomized by Los Angeles, and is ultimately the most affecting aspect of this exhibition.
Benjamin Lima (Benlima.info) is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Arlington.