Ed Ruscha’s 1963 “Standard Station” has become an icon of a vanished Camelot. The artist’s 75-work retrospective that opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art features a 1989 reprise of the station, truncated, abandoned and corroded black by smog. The contrast with the optimistic original has the jolt of truth. The American standard is not what it used to be.
In 1963, no sight was more familiar to Mr. and Mrs. America than the Standard station on the corner. Drive the family Ford in and Joe would fill her up with super at 25 cents a gallon, check the oil and clean the windshield.
It was all so commonplace that people were baffled when the young hot-dog L.A. artist Rusha made a picture of one of the stations. He rendered it in Old Glory colors against a gorgeous sunset. He saw the building in awed perspective as if he were sitting in the gutter looking up at a cathedral.
The picture would become as renowned as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. Nobody knew exactly what made these images so compelling. They just seemed right for the time--sort of pleasantly subversive.
Today we know. Standard stations started crumbling into myth with the Mideast oil extortions of the ‘70s. Now we pay a buck fifty in advance for the privilege of pumping our own, and to maintain even this reduced standard of civilization, we are massing hundreds of thousands of troops on the borders of Iraq.
Ed Ruscha’s intuitive abilities as a social soothsayer contribute mightily to his remarkable talent. The retrospective proves he is even more extraordinary than we thought. Organized by Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, the show is dominated by recent work seen here for the first time. It redeems the artist for those of us who found his middle period a bit of a slump.
In the beginning, it was easy to take him for a down-home Oklahoma kid with a Pop sensibility, a lot of unforced charm and the dangerous good looks of the young Elvis. He did weird, funny things. He produced a fold-out photo book of all the buildings on the Sunset Strip, made a hilarious movie about sex and saltine crackers with Larry Bell and then “road tested” a typewriter by throwing it out the window of a speeding car. Not enough of that Ruscha shows in this retrospective.
Instead, the early Pop period is represented by a purposely abraded painting of the words “War Surplus.” These days, it is bound to be read as “Surplus War,” a muffled protest against the old mess in Vietnam. Ruscha has been prescient, but he is also the affectionate lyric loony who painted “Annie” in homage to one of the more glamorous birds of the Pop era. It’s not in the show. No painter has ever been more accurate or endearing than when Ruscha confessed that, “I don’t know what in the hell I’m doing.”
In short, he is a real artist.
This show, however, has been organized to play up his later image as a precursor of Conceptual art, a darling of the heady European retardataire avant-garde that has produced enough boring elephantine art to fill dozens of warehouses and scores of Ph.D. dissertations.
Fortunately, Ruscha survived it. Turning 53 this week, he’s as at ease posing for a bluejeans ad as he is being anatomized by a semioticist. Who minds being both the guru of the academics and the quintessential star of L.A. art? Unfortunately, the Beaubourg show is heavy on Ruscha’s sometimes problematic word-work canvases. Even with that limitation it is clear he’s never given up the essential goals of a real painter, namely to produce sensations that are more physical than purely intellectual. When Ruscha paints the word “Vaseline,” you can feel it slide and giggle at the implications. His sense of absurdity lurks in “High Speed Gardening.” His intimacy is alive in “Those Golden Spasms.”
He’s a little naughty sometimes. But in “Sex,” the sheer nastiness of the painting shows how leery everybody has gotten about the subject.
Yet even when his paint surface is as tacky as Velcro, Ruscha keeps plugging away. He’s self-conscious about the artist’s new role as social commentator in “Japan Is America.” He makes up for it in “He Busts Into a Union Hall and Yells Out, ‘O.K. What Is it You Guys Want, PONTIAC CATALINAS?”
Increasingly, however, the work is dominated by unease. It grows black like that of Goya’s final period. It is not ferocious like Goya, it’s worried.
Worried about America.
The new paintings are done in black silhouette like old American folk-art portrait cut-outs but they look sprayed and atmospheric, adding to the sense of regret and mounting gloom.
He starts at home with “Black Hollywood.” It’s a perceptually remarkable picture in that it uses the barest suggestion to turn a word into a landscape. But it is far from a happy vision of Tinseltown.
Those modest, dark bungalows he’s been painting are like houses you glimpse at night from the freeway, their lighted windows glowing with a wonderful sense of private mystery and fragile security. Intimacy is hallmarked with inserted monograms. Others have a line on the bottom to sign on, playing up the ephemeral reality of everyman’s ultimate refuge.
America is in a literal uphill struggle against the endangerment of its myth of greatness in shrouded images of a wagon train, a Chevy pickup and an elephant that looks like Sisyphus.
Two Clipper ships leaning hard into the wind are identified first as “Man, Wife” then as, “Chain and Cable.” It’s all about strained relationships searching for stability, a troubled vision but not a hopeless one. It’s uphill but we’re struggling. Sometimes it makes him weary. He sees a bogged-down anchor and longs for “Industrial Strength Sleep.”
For the first time, there’s something epic in Ruscha’s work. The sea pictures call up Herman Melville. Sinclair Lewis’ shade is evoked in an image of an “Exit” sign and a cemetery for other placards. Ruscha still makes jokes. “Cemetery for Signs” could be an amiable put-down of MOCA’s exhibition “A Forest of Signs,” and the poet’s rejection of his branding as a Conceptualist. Anyway, its not very important.
What is important is Ruscha’s sounding of new depths. He is no more just an L.A. artist anymore than L.A. is just a province of somewhere else. He takes on Anselm Kiefer in “17th Century” and blows fresh air into the more ponderous precincts of German Neo-Expressionism. He still can’t resist little in-house art jabs. Luckily he always reverberates his way into wider territory.
His use of Gothic lettering is not new, but now the letters carry the gravity of biblical association. His capacity for dealing with abstract concepts is not new either, but it has never opened greater philosophical space than in “Five Past Eleven.” Here a huge Big Ben-style clock face looks out on a bamboo pole floating before it and becomes a picture of all of us searching for meaning by fishing in time.
Something quietly triumphant about this exhibition echoes a phenomenon that’s been going on here for a couple of years. L.A. artists such as Ed Moses, Joe Goode, Tony Berlant and Frank Gehry have come to full artistic maturity in their 50s and 60s. Now Ruscha joins them in reminding us to take heart. Growing a full-blown artist takes a long time.