‘Known Unknown’ Tackles Opposites : Artist’s Exhibit of Posters Deals With Contrasts

Allen Ruppersberg has arrived again at James Corcoran Gallery in Santa Monica, and he has turned the place into a twisted version of Figueroa Street.

The ceiling is filled with plastic, multicolored flags like the ones that festoon used-car dealerships. The floor is covered by fluorescent-colored posters--the kind you usually see stapled to telephone poles.

But these posters don’t advertise heavy metal concerts or revival meetings. They pose questions.

“Why is everything the same?” “Is one thing better than another?” “What should I do?” “Where should I go?”


An answer is provided: “The color of perfection is pink.”

Such cryptic fare is typical of Ruppersberg. Critics have long treated him as an enigma. Peter Plagens, writing in the magazine Art in America, called him “one of the art world’s most unknown known artists, or one of the more known unknown artists.” The Times’ William Wilson says Ruppersberg has used art to create a quirky alter ego, “one of those neurotic guys in the song lyrics of Paul Simon.”

Ruppersberg shakes his head at that description. He says, at first, that the critics are wrong. He says there isn’t any mystery surrounding his work.

“No. Not at all.”


But, after further thought, Ruppersberg admits: “Maybe they’re right.”

On a recent Friday, the artist showed up at Corcoran wearing a red T-shirt, blue jeans and pink tennis shoes. Black hair, marked by patches of gray, flowed to his shoulders, and he looked a young 44.

“The Sky Above/The Mud Below,” his current exhibit, has been showing for 2 1/2 weeks. People have been walking over his poster “rugs,” which are mounted on thin aluminum sheets and taped to the floor.

Ruppersberg was on his hands and knees, brushing dusty footprints off the bright posters.

“They’re not meant to be walked on,” he said. “People don’t know that.”

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 22, takes its name from a 1962 French documentary, a film that recorded the exploration of uncharted jungles in Dutch New Guinea. The movie has little to do with Ruppersberg’s art.

“It’s basically the title I liked,” Ruppersberg said. “I thought, ‘There’s something here about contrasts and the world of opposites.’ That’s what I wanted to deal with.”

And he has put the cinematic connection to use. In the gallery’s anteroom, 13 framed posters hang on the walls--they look like movie posters with “The Sky Above/The Mud Below” logo, and they announce “Coming Soon.” Again, there is something unfamiliar about these familiar-looking posters.


The most vivid among them shows a picture of a bloodied woman fleeing from a masked, knife-wielding attacker. The photograph looks as if it were snipped from a slash movie advertisement. It is pasted beside a drawing of a reclining nude, a Ku Klux Klan handbill and the printed question: “Has the missing link been found?”

It seems that with Ruppersberg, there are always questions.

“I’m out to challenge,” he said.

Having grown up in Cleveland as “a

typical Midwestern person,” Ruppersberg moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He says his distinctive style grew out of living in a city that has no central art community.

“In Los Angeles, you’re really left alone to develop by yourself,” he said. “If you look at artists who have worked in California, there’s usually a very individualistic and idiosyncratic work that comes out of them.”

Yet, like fellow Los Angeles artist John Baldessari, Ruppersberg has incorporated commercial photography in his work. Like Ed Ruscha, another local artist, he embraces the written word.

One of Ruppersberg’s best-known pieces comes in the form of 20 large canvas panels on which he handprinted the entire text of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”


Ruppersberg has also cultivated a love for common objects: wooden logs, books and Polaroid snapshots. He has combined such things in unusual ways to make his art.

“I’m constantly challenging you to see that the great mystery of the world is in the most banal events, the most ordinary things,” he said.

Perhaps that is why some people find Ruppersberg strange. And, to some extent, this style has hindered his career. “Challenging” art is not always the kind that collectors are anxious to place in their living rooms. Ruppersberg has not become wealthy from his art; he’s spent years getting by.

Yet, he has shown continually in galleries and museums throughout the country, and has been a regular at the Corcoran gallery since 1983.

“I particularly like his work and so does Jim” Corcoran, said Cherise Chen, co-director at Corcoran. “We felt it was important and needed to be seen and, hopefully, the collectors will catch up to it.”

Ruppersberg has also received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Museum and the Southern Center for Contemporary Art.

The artist has survived with his reputation.

“It’s not a conscious effort on my part to appear that way,” Ruppersberg said. “It’s probably because of my personality. I prefer to remain in back. I guess I’m quite private in some ways.”