Ed Ruscha’s major career retrospective opened to much fanfare this past September at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The large-scale survey of the artist’s career, curated in New York by Christophe Cherix, Ana Torok, and Kiko Aebi, will be on display at MoMA through January 13, 2024, and will then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will be on view April 7-October 6, 2024. Visitors should be prepared to spend some time in this exhibition, which features around 200 works from the 1950s up to the present. Including a restaging of the sensory pleasure Chocolate Room, which he created for the 1970 Venice Biennale, Ed Ruscha/Now Then elegantly showcases the artist’s role as a keen observer of all things designed, from apartment buildings to pencils. Even in his early, larger-scale paintings (most of which are oriented vertically, rather than the later horizontally-directed canvases), images of printed, designed things prevail. While in a few early paintings, such as Dublin (1960), Ruscha used collaged elements, he most often reproduced the designed objects in his works by drawing, most often utilizing tracing paper to transfer images to a canvas or other pictorial surface.
As I explore in my book Back to the Drawing Board, tracing images was one of the many methods in Ruscha’s design-based toolbox of processes, materials, and practices. At Los Angeles’s Chouinard Art Institute, which he attended from 1956-60, Ruscha learned the ins and outs of advertising design: how to trace, reproduce, and scale images, how to select and use typographies, how to assemble collections of photographs, newspaper clippings, type samples, and sketches—similar to what commercial artists called an “image morgue”—as fodder for designs. To walk through this exhibition is to see both the continuity and breadth of Ruscha’s storehouse of images. Certain subjects return again and again, in different scales and media. Viewers can see clearly, for example, how one of the roadside stations Ruscha photographed and reproduced in his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), became a template for other works exhibited nearby: Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963), Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962), and Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half (1964). In each of these works, an architectural (or architectonic, in the case of the 20th-Century Fox logo), rises from the lower right to the upper left corner of the picture plane, strictly bound within the rigid linear perspective by which it is rendered.
Throughout the 60s Ruscha continued to riff on the perspectival construction he had conceived for his rendition of the Amarillo gas station. In Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire (1964), linear perspective seems to take over entirely, pulling the building, its recognizable sign, and the flames that emerge from it into the left corner of the picture plane. For The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68), visible in the adjacent room, Ruscha again turned to linear perspective, though in this case the perspectival lines meet at different vanishing points, which gives the building a slightly “off” appearance. The flames here are rendered more realistically; Ruscha has also included plumes of smoke that suggest an actual fire as opposed to the geometricized flames in Norm’s. But why? Is this a critical gesture towards the museum, which, in its early days, was lambasted for not giving enough support to LA artists? And for its architectural design? At the same time, Ruscha also painted flames tailing a tin of canned meat, in the 1962 painting Actual Size. Next to these other works, that notorious packaged product appears as another version of the Standard. Ruscha’s flames are clearly not destructive, as all of the objects touched by them remain intact. Are they a design device? A way to inject a wry sense of humor? A subtle critique of consumer culture? The exhibition does not resolve these questions; if anything, it shows that a strength of Ruscha’s work is to invite viewers to return to such questions again and again.
The curators note that Ruscha has said, “I don’t have any Seine River like Monet. I’ve just got US 66 between Oklahoma and Los Angeles.” Ruscha’s version of the Seine came in the form of these objects of design he repeated over and over, in different lights, at different times, and from different perspectives. While Monet turned to the river and haystacks and cathedrals, Ruscha zeroed in on tins of Spam, gas stations, and unremarkable apartments. In his works, it is not that these things are transformed into something remarkable: instead, Ruscha foregrounds their banality and ubiquity. Some of the subjects Ruscha pictured now have a decidedly nostalgic tinge, just like Route 66, which no longer exists but continues to represent the romantic concept of the American road. The Popular Western magazine, too, carries a slight sheen of nostalgia, while others, like the Spam tin, have changed little since the 1960s (the tin now has a photographic image on the front, but the blue and yellow design and bubble letters remain the same).
Installed on the wall as the viewer exits the final room, Ruscha’s painting Guardrail (2021) stoically punctuates the exhibition. In it a single section of guardrail, unobtrusive and blunt, stands against two distinct sections outlined in the background. At left, a section with two white and yellow rectangles evokes an abstract painting, calling to mind a history to which Ruscha was responding especially early in his career. The graduated gray section at the right resembles the skies and backgrounds in many of Ruscha’s works, from his representations of the Hollywood sign to the Charles Atlas Landscape (2003), the painting that greets viewers at the front of the exhibition. The guardrail lacks the nostalgic temporary attached to the objects such as the Popular Western magazine but also to words, represented in adjacently-hung paintings from Double Americanisms, with their evocation of an American Western drawl. Instead, the guardrail just is: one of the many designed things that we may fail to notice but see everywhere. As we complete the exhibition and emerge into the outer room, a painting of the tattered American flag, by contrast, hits like a ton of bricks. In Our Flag (2017), the red, white and blue rectangle of fabric slowly disintegrates, spreading its pieces across a dark, foreboding sky. Things that are almost unseen because they are so ubiquitous (guardrail), or unseen because they are so prevalent (flag): this pairing captures the broader contours of Ruscha’s career as a keen observer of the (American) empire of design and the ideas, symbols, and myths that perpetuate it.