Ed Ruscha: Road Tested, by Michael Auping with Richard Prince (MAMFW, Hatje Cantz). The history of American painting is full of artists who painted the land, both the land as it existed and the land as they imagined it (Albert Bierstadt). Somehow Ed Ruscha has done one better, painting and photographing the Western landscape not quite as seen or as imagined, but as experienced. That’s the subject of “Ed Ruscha: Road Tested,” a just-closed exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth and an accompanying book, which was just published. Written and edited by MAMFW chief curator Michael Auping with an assist from Richard Prince, the book is an entertaining romp through Ruscha’s roadtripping-influenced oeuvre — and life.
The impetus for the exhibition and catalogue was Ruscha’s Standard Station with Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half (1964, above), which has been on long-term loan to MAMFW from a private collection. The painting is one of Ruscha’s masterpieces, a canvas that overwhelms the viewer with size, color scale and, well, seeming reality. Something about the scene flirts with trompe l’oeil even though it’s obviously a painting in the way a Hollywood costume epic is obviously a costume epic but which, in its largeness, is its own kind of real. Then the viewer’s eyes get to the ten-cent Western, can’t hear it being torn, and we’re reminded of the illusion.
Auping treats Ruscha’s cars and the road (both the open road, as referenced in Ruscha’s early paintings, sprawl-influenced artists’ books, and finally the more traffic-clogged road as referenced in later Ruschas, such as Talk Radio) as enablers of his artistic practice, as influences that helped lead to Ruscha’s becoming an artist and that sustained him once he’d arrived. Auping underscores that 45 years into his career, Ruscha remains interested in cars: The last works in the book are Ruscha photographs of phallic stick-shifts taken last year.
In the primary catalogue essay, Auping smartly and swiftly moves us through Ruscha’s interest in the open road, detailing how the artist made it from Oklahoma to California (both literally and metaphorically). He contextualizes Ruscha’s first paintings as broadening “the low-end iconography of Pop art,” and notes that Ruscha contributes a pointed America-in-the-early-’60s sociocultural observation: “As Warhol had put the spotlight on Campbell’s Soup, Ruscha did the same for Standard Oil, presenting an early acknowledgment of the country’s increasing dependence on gas and oil.” Auping links Ruscha to a range of art historical precedents, including not just Americans (Hopper’s 1940 Gas) or the contemporary (de Kooning’s Montauk Highway), but to Chinese scroll-pianting via “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966).
Auping also identifies Ruscha’s car(s) as a second artist’s studio. At first blush the idea seems silly, but I came around: Auping’s connection to Ruscha’s driving around Southern California is linked to the “explicitly forgettable” as suggested by Ruscha’s artists books, such as “Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965) and “Real-Estate Opportunities” (1970). Talk Radio (1987, left, promised gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) seems particularly influenced by ‘studio time’ spent in traffic, as suggested by the ‘congestion points’ in the painting.
I was also interested in Auping’s description of Ruscha’s ‘Hollywood signs’ paintings as being rooted in noir. I think those works, part of Ruscha’s ‘sunset series’ and made late in the Carter years and as Californian Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency, are noir-influenced but that they are also intensely engaged with a then-ongoing national conversation about American malaise and the fear of national decline.
The book also contains a train-of-thought essay by Richard Prince, which adds little. A Q&A between Auping and Ruscha is terrific. (Auping has made a sideline out of artist Q&As, and they’re typically among the best I’ve read. MAMFW and Prestel recently collected many of them in this book.)