Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles, by Alexandra Schwartz, MIT Press
In Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles, art critic Alexandra Schwartz prefaces her competent study of the West Coast Pop artist with a 1966 interview in which Ruscha engages in one of his typically aloof jibes: "Being in Los Angeles has had little or no effect on my work. I could have done it anywhere. I don’t see any independent trends here. The climate isn’t that conducive to painting." Using this quote as a springboard, Schwartz endeavors to reexamine the eclectic oeuvre of the most celebrated (and misunderstood) of the Ferus Gallery "studs" against the backdrop of his adopted hometown and its rapidly urbanizing postwar landscape.
Beginning with Ruscha’s early, and oft-examined, work at the Chouinard Art Institute and his revelatory encounter with the proto-Pop designs of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Schwartz engages in a thoughtful but generally stock account of the La Cienega gallery scene — including brief introductions to Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Dennis Hopper, and Robert Irwin — and its undeclared war with the New York establishment over the origins of Pop art. Less than a year after his inclusion in Walter Hopps’s groundbreaking "New Painting of Common Objects" show, often considered the first American Pop exhibition, Ruscha had already expanded beyond the "word" paintings for which he had become famous (Su, Sweetwater, and Vicksburg, among others) to photography, film, and publishing.
For his 1963 book Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, Ruscha traveled up and down the West Coast detailing the mundane architecture of the title’s structures, creating a serialized portrait of the new motorized American landscape. He followed this with such similarly styled volumes as Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965, and Thirty-four Parking Lots, 1967, but it was his masterful artist’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, a 25-foot photograph of a two-mile stretch of Hollywood, that most fully captured L.A.’s unique vernacular style, one building at a time. In Schwartz’s estimation, Every Building anticipates not only the transition from Pop to Conceptual art at the end of the decade but also the birth of postmodern urbanism, a hybrid field combining art and architecture usually associated with Reyner Banham’s 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies and the 1972 Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Ruscha’s celebration of both horizontality and automobility in these landscapes prefigured Venturi and Brown’s "architecture of the strip," an urban environment experienced through speed and sprawl.
That Ruscha was able to navigate deftly between critically documenting the Angeleno experience and a being a hypermasculine caricature of the Hollywood gallery subculture is a testament to his inscrutable and, at times, contrarian persona — what Schwartz calls his "antisubjectivist" position. This operational distancing from his subject would earn the ire of increasingly identity-oriented artists, who accused Ruscha of narcissism and political disengagement, particularly concerning issues of gender and sexuality. Schwartz’s appeals to functionalist notions of gender equality do little to either strengthen or undermine the case against the artist.
Although Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles largely abstains from any thorough critical analysis, it does present an engaging, nonspecialized appreciation of the artist and the city that inspired him.
"Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles" originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2010 Table of Contents.