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INTERVIEW : Getting a Read on Ed Ruscha : The ‘quintessential’ L.A. artist talks about success, the changing city and his exhibition opening today at MOCA

Good ol’ Ed. Steady ol’ Ed. Perennially witty, wise and handsome, Edward Ruscha is an artist we can count on to deliver sharp lines in a paradoxical context.

For 30 years or so, he has floated big block words and phrases in gorgeous sky paintings, like equivocal messages from a cynical underground. “Those Golden Spasms,” “I Remembered to Forget to Remember,” “Industrial Strength Sleep,” “Japan is America” and so on, with all due disregard for tidy interpretations. He is equally famous for turning Los Angeles’ banalities into high art. Gas stations, parking lots, coffee shops, apartment houses and the Hollywood sign have all been immortalized by the West Coast wildcat of Pop art.

A renegade kid from Oklahoma who arrived here in 1956, Ruscha has been equally at ease with art folks and the movie crowd, having hung out with stars and played in several films, including a bit part in Alan Rudolph’s “Choose Me.” Naturally he became known as the quintessential Los Angeles artist. This wasn’t always a compliment, but we didn’t care. His shows were booked into the best galleries on both coasts and he was ours.

He still is, in spirit and domicile, but it’s been a long time since Los Angeles could claim exclusive rights to Ruscha appreciation.

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The latest evidence is “Edward Ruscha,” an exhibition of 75 paintings that features works from the ‘80s along with a few key pieces from earlier periods. The show opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art and continues through March 24, but MOCA didn’t organize it. Neither did another American museum. The exhibition is a foreign import, organized by Bernard Blistene at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and Elbrig de Groot and Karel Schampers at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. The show appeared at those two institutions as well as at the Cultural Center of the Caixa Pension Foundation in Barcelona and at London’s Serpentine Gallery before winding up in the city that has become so much a part of Ruscha’s identity.

Still, he thinks too much has been made of the L.A. connection. “It’s a bigger question than what Los Angeles is all about. I think my art would have been very much the same if I had gone to New York City or Minnesota,” he said. “I was attracted to the concept of Hollywood and the lifestyle here. But I’ve grown to mistrust it because it has changed. I didn’t bargain for digital access parking in some concrete structure. Real heaven for me was to drive somewhere and park right in front. Now the city is going vertical. I have a recurrent nightmare of Euro-Asian systems analysts taking over.”

His 1985 painting, “Japan is America,” alludes to that nightmare. “That’s hard cynicism,” he laughs. “But I have no ill feeling. It’s an exaggeration to get at the truth of how we feel. It’s also an excuse to make a painting.”

Ruscha has no plans to move away from Los Angeles--"I still like it, it’s just harder to get around"--though he does flee to the desert quite frequently. Changes in the city don’t hinder his art, which often comes from earlier experiences. “When I paint a picture of a house, that goes back to my roots,” he said. “I travel a lot, but I don’t come away with new inspiration. That goes

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back to my stupid teen-age years.

“Basically everything I’ve done in art, I was in possession of when I was 20 years old. I use a waste retrieval method of working. I’ll go back and use something that disgusted me 15 years ago but that I had enough sense to think about. Some artists change dramatically. I see my work more like history being written.”

The history of Ruscha’s own career was fairly steady until a few years ago. Unlike the all-too-familiar young artists who make it big for one season or veterans who struggle for decades before being recognized, Ruscha has joined a rare breed: the respectably successful, well known artist who suddenly becomes hot stuff.

About five years ago he won an important mural commission--his first ever--for the Miami-Dade Public Library in Miami, and the project got the attention of the art press. A show of his early paintings at Tony Shafrazi’s New York gallery was the talk of the town in 1988. Around the same time, collectors were said to be signing waiting lists for his new work at the going price of $100,000 or so. Meanwhile New York auction prices for his older paintings edged up from $192,500 for “Lisp” (November, 1988) to $209,000 for “The Future” (May, 1989) to $297,000 for “Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today” (November, 1989).

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Ruscha had shown his work in Paris for many years, but all of a sudden offers for big museum shows came in from Japan and Europe. His current exhibition and heightened fame have inspired a spate of reviews and features, including the cover story for Artnews magazine last December.

During an interview in his spacious Venice studio, the 52-year-old artist appeared to have taken the blitz of popularity in stride.

“If I had been more involved with the hub of the art world it might have affected me more. But I’ve been in L.A. for a long time and that has helped me. I hid out here, so I didn’t get spit out with some art movement. That allowed me to stay around longer,” he said.

“It’s a real fickle situation. There are so many cycles. I’ve always been prepared for the possibility that my work might dry up and no one wanted to see it. A long time ago (fellow artists and I) used to say that if we had to drop the whole thing, we could do it without taking any demerits for it. But I’ve worked so long--about 30 years--if I can’t handle it now I wasn’t made for the job.”

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As if listening intently to what he just said, he added emphatically, “I was made for the job.”

As Ruscha tells it, he has been on the road with art for three decades, and it has been “a bumpy ride.” He can handle success, but account for it? Forget it.

Was it his compelling black-gray-and-white silhouette paintings of elephants, trucks and skylines that burst on the scene in 1986-87 and grabbed attention? Soft-edged, sensuous and sometimes word-less, these paintings struck a new, romantic chord for some collectors, but Ruscha denies a dramatic departure. “The silhouette paintings are different but not so different. There’s a lot of influence of photography, as there has always been. The beauty of black and white is something I’ve always worked with in graphite, ink, charcoal and photography,” he shrugged.

Perhaps there’s something to the oft-stated theory that Ruscha’s work assumed new importance because it was viewed as a seminal influence on younger artists who use words in their art, such as Mitchell Syrop, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger? “I don’t see that younger artist using words in their work are influenced by me. They are more into media than painting or sculpture,” he said with finality.

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As for his popularity in Europe, Ruscha figures that he simply got swept up in foreign captivation with all things American. “You see it all across the board. If you want to know about American music, go to England. There are James Dean fan clubs in Tokyo,” he said.

People from other countries “are genuinely interested in what is going on in America. That may be one of the factors in choosing my work,” he said. “They see me as curiously American, as opposed to other artists who have a more international look.”

Foreign interest in America is not news, but for Ruscha it is a turnaround. “I ran into difficulty in Europe a few years ago because of the words in my work. People said the audience couldn’t speak English and the words couldn’t be translated because they were loaded with innuendoes peculiar to American experience. Now that curtain has lifted,” he said. “They are more curious about what artists are up to. I guess it’s the American sense of freedom that fascinates them. Europeans are more bound by convention. There’s an explosion of artists in Europe, but they seem to be involved with common causes--social, political, but also the visual influence of painting.”

Curators for the current exhibition originally wanted to stage a retrospective--"all the old favorites, the gas stations and other things I am known for,” Ruscha said. Having had a retrospective in 1982-83--which was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was booked into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art--he persuaded them to do a show of works from the last decade.

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A few early works provide a foundation: a murky 1959 canvas on which he lettered “E. Ruscha”; paintings from 1966-67 with words such as “chemical,” “automatic,” “rooster” and “Vaseline” marching across fields of graduated color; a 1977 painting of a brick fireplace, called “No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk.” From these beginnings, the exhibition launches into an array of word works and silhouette paintings. The Los Angeles show offers the bonus of 20 works not seen in Europe. They include a new version of Ruscha’s Standard gas station image, from the collection of Douglas Cramer, and Jane and Marc Nathanson’s promised gift to MOCA, “Faster Than a Speeding Beanstalk.”

Preparing for the show has caused a flurry of activity on the quiet industrial street where Ruscha works. An electronic gate moves back and forth to admit visitors. Inside his clean, white, warehouse-like studio, he points out a scale model of the museum’s galleries, which he has used to plan the installation. An assistant answers the door and helps with physical labor. The telephone rings every few minutes. Not exactly peaceful, but Ruscha indicates that this situation is far from normal.

He moved here five years ago after 20 years in a shabby courtyard complex on Western Avenue. “I needed a place with four big walls to work on the Miami commission, and this was perfect,” he said, explaining that the studio formerly belonged to his Los Angeles dealer, James Corcoran, who used it for storage and special presentations.

When the excitement dies down, Ruscha is a “pretty regular” working stiff. “It’s more or less a routine. I bring my lunch pail to work,” he said. “As long as I have an excuse to do something, I have all the time to do it. I’ve been doing it for so many years that I’ve forgotten why, and that’s probably as it should be. You have to treat art like a baby--commit yourself to it, set aside time for it. If you don’t, you have problems.”

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He employs assistants a couple of days a week to stretch canvases and perform other mundane tasks, “but I work better when I’m completely alone. That’s when I can really level out,” he said. “I’m the kind of artist who needs singular control over the work. I’m not disparaging of artists who have other people make their work. Sculptors do that and it can turn out very well. But painting is such a solitary thing. I’ve never found anyone to put the strokes on for me. Not that I have a religious stance about it--I’ve seen it work too many times--but I don’t have an assistant-oriented system.”

Questions about the sources and meaning of his work are more difficult to answer. Taking a stab at it, he offers, “I yield to impulses, to subjective suggestions.”

The words and images in his art come from various sources--printed and spoken works, ordinary objects, experiences and memories. Ruscha’s abiding love of words has something to do with an early interest in printing and typography, however.

“I developed a kind of typography that I call Boy Scout Utility Modern. It’s not about the history or range of typography. It’s the kind of thing a carpenter might apply to making a letter form. I like it for just that reason. I’m more interested in words than how they are made, but I like them to look homemade. Some people wear shoes that say something; some people wear shoes that don’t say anything. I use a type face that doesn’t say anything. Everything just comes together to make the words,” he said.

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“Sometimes I feel like I’m doing book covers for mysterious stories. Or story titles, though that is not my intent,” he mused. Paradoxical combinations of words and images come from “deep cynicism about where I live and what I do,” he said, but he has no formula for success. If he did, he probably wouldn’t trust it. “I’ve been so galvanized by the art world and I have so many feelings when it comes to art that I think it’s the automatic thing, the intuitive thing that has the power,” he said.

Still, there are essential elements of his art. “The quest for paradox has always gripped me as an artist. There has to be negative conflict. Disturbing things have an attraction to them. The idea of subversion is a powerful subject. It’s not a question of making pretty pictures. That’s not what art is all about,” he said.

Originally captivated by the irreverence of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement, Ruscha now talks about discovering earlier art history. “I had no interest in easel painting until recently,” he said, and he satisfies that interest by going to museums. But old art doesn’t feed his work. Twentieth-Century American life is his constant inspiration.

“All my images have a connecting link in a continuity. I’m not sure what that link is and I don’t really care. It’s like contemplating a toothpick,” he said. “Art for me is the act of making it. Reasons behind it are completely secondary. The mysterious element will never be uncovered and that’s as it should be. The day I go to a Freudian analyst (to figure it out) is the day I should have my head examined.”

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