Context and circumstance matter. And with “Ed Ruscha: Archaeology and Romance” the new exhibition on view at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, the University of Texas archive does what it does best: use an artist’s archive to provide the context behind the work, and connect the dots.
This is the first major exhibition of Ruscha’s work since the Ransom Center acquired the artist’s archive in 2013. In addition to debuting those materials — print portfolios, sketch-filled personal journals, materials related to Ruscha’s many artist’s books — the exhibition is plumped up by loans from Ruscha’s own collection as well as from the Whitney Museum of American Art, Gagosian Gallery and private collections.
Organized by Ransom Center curator Jessica S. McDonald, “Archaeology and Romance” revolves around Ruscha’s book production. And it offers rare insight into the artist’s editorial process. Artworks, books and photographs, after all, don’t just materialize from the vapor fully-formed. They are often part of a meticulous yet sometimes messy process. What didn’t work in the end can be critical in realizing why something did.
Ruscha’s work has been labeled a number of things: Neo-Dada, Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual. A one-time member of Los Angeles’ “Cool School” along with artists like John Baldessari, Robert Irwin, Ed Kienholz and Ken Price, perhaps his tag as a West Coast artist sticks the most. The intensity and consistency with which he manipulates emblems associated with Los Angeles, California and the American West make him, at 81, still the poster boy of the LA art scene.
Copies of several of Ruscha’s eight books are on display and available to flip through by hand. There’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963), “Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles” (1967), “Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass” (1968), and “A Few Palm Trees” (1971). And each does a good job of unlocking different sections of the exhibition. Each small book is complemented by Ruscha’s working materials: pertinent papers, notebooks and preliminary sketches as well as photographs and prints.
Ruscha has always been interested in the intersection between image and text, sometimes referring to pictures as facts. He studied at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) and learned design and page layout from an early job at the Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency in Los Angeles. From the 1960s onward, he created “word paintings” which used single words taken from cartoons and comics. Or he used enigmatic word combinations and phrases layered over images reminiscent of postmodern slogans by Jenny Holzer and others. Alongside this kind of wordplay grew a focus on book production which eventually became integral to Ruscha’s work.
Arguably Ruscha’s most famous images are those of the Standard Oil stations, taken along Route 66 over the course of several trips between Los Angeles and his hometown, Oklahoma City, and first seen in the pocket-sized book published in an edition of 400, “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.” Of the book’s title, the exhibition label, states “He liked the way those words sounded, and the way they looked when he stacked them in three lines of type.”
After the book, Ruscha painted and printed one particular image, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,” numerous times, launching it into icon status. A screenprint version from 1966 is on view.
The artist’s adeptness at isolating, de-contextualizing and re-examining image and text combinations is seen in the ubiquitous, even ugly, gas station sign – no longer commonplace, or “standard,” but now transformed into a seductively pristine pyramid-like monument. Hard slashing diagonals of sign and roofline connect opposite corners of the composition, contrasting with a brilliant soft fuzzy split fountain sunset.
Screens were later re-used to create “Mocha Standard,” “Double Standard” and C”heese Mold Standard with Olive,” (1969). “Cheese Mold Standard with Olive” is particularly quirky with a translucent light green- shifting- to-blue background, and a small but unmistakable olive located near the right edge. The olive signifies something inherent in the image, and the overall project. The image is used as template and subsequent reinventions through varied, yet refined color choices make us question just how uniform an image can be. Is it a record or something more slippery? Maybe the olive is meant to represent, as one label explains, Ruscha’s ambition to “simultaneously antagonize the main theme and add cohesion to the whole.”
Another revealing treat is “Photographs considered for Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1962). In this case, three photos included in the book and three that did not make the cut are on display. These details draw attention to the ultimate visual results Ruscha desired.
Appropriating banal subjects with the emotional distance and with indirect methods like screen-printing and photography was an artistic staple of Pop Art and the 1960s. For his 1967 book “Thirtyfour Parking Lots,” Ruscha removed his hand further and hired a professional photographer to take aerial views of empty parking lots in and around L.A. Ruscha chose 31 square-format images and cropped and re-oriented them to make the book. His book layout sometimes specified one, sometimes two photos grouped together, included brief informative captions like “Intersection of Wilshire Blvd. & Santa Monica Blvd.,” and featured a relatively useless extra flap, but all according to specs developed and decided upon by the artist.
Ruscha likely sought a more conceptual response, but the 30 gelatin silver prints, “Parking Lots,” hung on a large wall grid style in the museum, offer an exciting abstract visuals. Each black and white print is clear, detailed, and contains complex jig-saw like geometry and built-in dramatic vantage points, a result of the great heights from which they were taken. The contrast between seeing a small intimate artist-produced book containing carefully placed images with captions versus the same images framed in a large wall installation, nicely illuminates how formatting effects experience and content.
“Nine Swimming Pools and Broken Glass” (1968) focuses on West Coast swimming pools, symbols of comfort or success. And while the appearance of color photography in the ten prints in the book and the nine Chromogenic prints (1997) hung on the wall is welcome, together the images refrain from indulging in sentimentality. In the book, Ruscha inserts multiple blank pages between images, confusing the reader-viewer. The pools and their surroundings are mostly empty. Cropping forces diving boards and ledges to enter the picture awkwardly and paved spaces to seem inhospitable. “Pool #2,” is the closest to a standard postcard image — and also the exhibition’s main promotional image. And yet a deeper look imbalanced architecture and lack of sensual appeal.
Towards the end of the exhibition another California motif emerges: the palm tree. Here photographs were printed without the masking that eliminated the sidewalks and buildings surrounding each of the palm trees and Ruscha upped the contrast, emphasizing their silhouettes and making them even more logo-like. Included are artist’s notes “testing the title of Seventeen Hollywood Palm Trees and Their Locations (1968)” and a “Dummy for A Few Palm Trees with pages 20-21 marked for deletion, (1971),” along with marked up contact sheets and even a cash register receipt showing six rolls of film for “A Few Palm Trees” cost $8.88. These types of records are invaluable in seeing the creative process and how the work progressed.
Overall “Archaeology and Romance” is more manageable than some Ransom Center ventures. The show’s organization presents the books in their best light while retaining Ruscha’s ability to disarm. And Ruscha’s notoriously “cool” style is made more approachable. Facing ephemera, business papers, paste-ups, contact sheets, outtakes, snapshots and hastily handwritten notes, the artist’s aesthetic decisions make more sense, Our appreciation of Ruscha’s dry humor and his ability to antagonize his viewers may even grow on us.
Dots connected, context provided.