Artist Allen Ruppersberg once described himself as a cultural flaneur. A French word that refers to a wanderer who strolls the boulevard examining the urban world at a leisurely pace, the term is a perfect fit for Ruppersberg.
A first-generation Conceptualist who came of age as an artist in Los Angeles during the 1960s and ‘70s before moving to New York in 1985, Ruppersberg has said of his work: “One of my intentions is that in the end there be no identifiable style--only a collection of ideas about art and the world.”
Ambling along the wide boulevards of Conceptualism--an open-ended style that can accommodate just about anything--the 49-year-old artist seems to be achieving his goal. Other than a small handful of well-schooled Ruppersberg aficionados, most gallery-goers would be hard-pressed to say exactly what it is Ruppersberg does, precisely because he’s been so successful in executing his work with a light touch.
For “Al’s Grand Hotel,” for instance, a site-specific installation completed in 1971, he rented a house on Sunset Boulevard and transformed it into a working hotel open to the public for a month; Ruppersberg manned the desk as reservations clerk and actually made a living off the piece. Two years later, he completed a work titled “A Lecture on Houdini” that was exactly that; he gave a lecture on Houdini.
In 1974, he busied himself for four months inscribing the entire text of Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” onto canvas panels, a piece he describes as an exercise in conflating the acts of reading and looking (a recurring theme for Ruppersberg, who has made several pieces based on literary classics). An artwork about a book about a painting that metamorphoses into an object with a life of its own, Ruppersberg’s “Dorian Gray” was equal parts physical feat and concept.
For “Siste Viator (Stop Traveler),” completed this year for the Sonsbeek Festival in Arnhem, the Netherlands, he republished, in editions of 100, 20 popular novels one might have found in local bookstores during the years 1920-40 (books the soldiers who fought the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 would have been familiar with).
At a glance, you could summarize his art, which generally takes the form of text-driven installations, as Ruppersberg just poking into things that interest him.
This is as intended by Ruppersberg, whose first solo L.A. exhibition in five years is on view at the Linda Cathcart Gallery in Santa Monica through Dec. 18, but it’s a situation with liabilities as well as assets.
In refusing to hammer away at the marketplace with a readily identifiable signature style, he is perhaps less known than he deserves to be, and his work certainly hasn’t made him rich. Ruppersberg’s art has long been acclaimed by art world insiders. He had a major solo show at the Temporary Contemporary in L.A. in 1985; his work is included in the permanent collections of several major American museums and has had a loyal audience in Europe for years (Ruppersberg has galleries in Paris, Zurich, Milan and Amsterdam). Nevertheless his profile is considerably lower than that of many of the artists he’s been exhibiting with for the past 20 years, such as Bruce Nauman, Terry Allen and William Wegman.
The plus side of operating in this discreet fashion is that Ruppersberg has had the luxury of developing his work in an atmosphere of relative calm--and has been able to survive the financial vagaries of the art world that have taken such a toll on many of his mega-hyped colleagues. If one looks at the art world as a tortoise-and-hare race, one can only deduce that everybody had their fill of overnight sensations in the ‘80s, and it’s the slow and steady tortoises like Ruppersberg who have an edge at the moment.
“The ‘80s were an incredibly retrograde decade,” declares the artist, a tall, rangy man whose reserved good manners give away his Midwestern roots.
“We saw all the bad sides of collecting and money, and the dominant forms of art from that period--Neo-Expressionism and so forth--were really reactionary. Those ‘80s careers were pathetic--everybody lost their heads, and the young artists were the real losers. That era ruined a lot of people.
“Fortunately for me, I started out as an artist at a time when nobody thought about any of the stuff that was considered terribly important during the ‘80s,” says Ruppersberg, who is one of five artists included in “Tables,” the show currently on view at the Lannan Foundation, and is also gearing up for an exhibition of new work in March at New York’s Jay Gorney Gallery.
“It may sound corny, but people really did commit to a life in art because they loved it and they simply couldn’t do anything else. The artists who feel that way have been there all along, but they sort of receded into the background during the ‘80s. It looks like there might be a little more room for them in the ‘90s.”
Meeting with Ruppersberg in his modest Manhattan studio, one learns a lot about his sensibility with a quick perusal of his work space; it’s immediately apparent that Ruppersberg is a collector.
Furnished with a desk and two rocking chairs, the tiny room where he hatches his art is jammed with metal shelves stacked with piles of neatly labeled old industrial films, vintage periodicals, records and pulp paperbacks--the place feels like the hide-out of someone who maintains multiple lives as a researcher, detective, archivist and wistful daydreamer. One imagines Ruppersberg spending endless hours here slowly paging through old magazines, stopping now and then to gaze intently at an image that mesmerizes him for reasons known only to him.
“I love all this stuff and wouldn’t know what to do without my things around me,” says Ruppersberg, who spent three weeks last summer harvesting “stuff” in his hometown of Cleveland (he’s currently collecting old vanity publications) and is eagerly anticipating a visit to a bookstore on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice that, he says enthusiastically, “is full of junk.” Ruppersberg uses this scavenged junk as raw material for his art, which often explores themes of time, memory and the past.
It’s not surprising to learn that Marcel Proust is his favorite writer. “Time passing--that’s my big subject, and there’s nobody better on that subject than Proust,” he says.
Time passing may be Ruppersberg’s big subject, but next on the list must surely come the notion of duality, as his work is largely rooted in a peculiar interweaving of high and low.
Using the coarse, common materials of mass media to express ideas that are rarefied and ephemeral to a perverse extreme, Ruppersberg has described his work as being about “all the contradictions I can find: private/public, past/present, lost/found, fiction/nonfiction, the sky above/the mud below.”
Think of a vulgar still from a B-movie that for some inexplicable reason telegraphs the tremulous lyricism of Proust, and you’ll begin to get a handle on what Ruppersberg is up to. His is a fluid sensibility that resolutely resists being nailed down. There’s no easily recognizable artist’s personality in his art--it’s hard to locate Ruppersberg in the work he makes.
The idea of studied anonymity as a viable persona for an artist was pioneered by Marcel Duchamp, who Ruppersberg acknowledges as “a big influence.”
“One of the things that drew me to him was the fact that his work wasn’t meant to have the aura usually associated with art objects,” he explains. “They recently rehung the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s lots of work up that hasn’t been seen for a while--really stunning art with tremendous presence. The point of those works is to stand in front of them and have this experience, but Duchamp was up to something entirely different. His work was very interior, which is a word I use to describe my work too. My work is about ideas and thinking--it’s quite cerebral.”
That assessment is hard to argue with; what’s open to speculation is how Ruppersberg’s unorthodox sensibility blossomed out of what the artist describes as his resolutely normal, “typically Midwestern” early life in Cleveland as the elder of two children. What set Ruppersberg apart as a child was that he drew constantly and spent a good deal of time in the local library reading the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times.
“From the time I was young, I was intensely interested in what was going on in the culture capitals of the world,” he recalls, “and by the time I was 8, I’d decided I wanted to be an artist. I have no idea where this idea came from--all I knew was that I needed to get out of where I was, and for some reason I had the feeling art could be a way to do that.”
At the age of 15, Ruppersberg saw Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” an event he describes as “my first art experience.”
“Not only was I looking at a great work of art,” he says, “but that film proved there was another world out there, and it was a world I had to get to. I got to that other world too when I moved to L.A. in the early ‘60s. L.A. was like a dream come true for a Midwestern boy--it was the land of dreams then; it was the best,” says the artist, who’s continued to maintain an apartment in Santa Monica since leaving the West Coast for New York.
Moving to Los Angeles on the advice of an encouraging high school art teacher, Ruppersberg enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute in 1962 with plans to become a commercial artist, but all it took was one painting class for him to realize there was more to art than he had imagined. Nonetheless, Ruppersberg continues to employ many of the rendering and composition skills he acquired during two years of commercial art courses; moreover, several central themes of his mature style--the disparity between image and illustration, the idea of words as objects--hark back to that schooling.
Changing his major to fine arts in 1962, Ruppersberg found less creative restraints on his blossoming sensibility in the painting department but still felt hemmed in by the dominant ideology of the time.
“I was in art school in the ‘60s when Formalism was roaring along at full steam, and that meant you had the choice of being either a painter or a sculptor--there was nothing else,” he recalls. “I tried my hand at painting and then gave sculpture a shot because those were my options, but I didn’t believe the things I was making, so I started looking for something else. And that’s where my roots in Conceptual art began.
“I’m part of the first-generation of Conceptualists that includes Lawrence Weiner, Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Joseph Kosuth and Dan Graham--I met all those people in the late ‘60s, and we were all moving in a similar direction. Conceptualism is now in its third or fourth generation, and like any reconstituted style, it’s lost a lot of energy. How many fourth-generation Abstract Expressionist painters make any sense? This is what happens when you get 25 years down the line from the first blossoming of a style.”
Graduating from Chouinard in 1967, Ruppersberg and several Chouinard classmates, including Terry Allen, opened a cooperative space called Gallery 66 at the corner of Melrose and Western avenues. At the time, Ruppersberg was still searching for his own creative voice and was making the multi-paneled canvases he would soon disavow.
“In 1967, I had a pivotal experience--I saw Frank Stella’s ‘Protractor’ series at the Pasadena Museum, and that work made me realize I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “It forced me to sit down and really figure out who I was as an artist, and at that point I started doing my own work.”
That brainstorming led to Ruppersberg’s first one-man show two years later at the Eugenia Butler Gallery, where he showed a work called “Location Piece”: “There was nothing in the gallery except the address of an old office building on Sunset Boulevard where I’d installed a big theatrical sculpture.”
The theatricality of “Location Piece” would prove to be a recurring theme in Ruppersberg’s work, which often explores the way the cinematic world flip-flops between the artificial and the hyper-real.
“Part of what attracts me to film is its intangibility,” says Ruppersberg, who follows trends in filmmaking closely and mentions Quentin Tarantino, the director of “Reservoir Dogs,” as someone currently taking movies into previously uncharted terrain. Additionally, film is of interest to Ruppersberg for its ability to call into question the notion of authenticity and “the real.”
“I think the copy is the truth too,” Ruppersberg says. “I’ve always been intrigued by the value ascribed to originality in art, which is an idea that no longer holds sway as it has for centuries. This is something that’s definitely changed, although not to the degree one might hope for. People still want evidence of the artists’ hand in a work and feel that the hand represents the personality and very soul of the artist.
“I hope the cliche of the artist as tortured creative genius who forges one-of-a-kind masterpieces is on its way out because it’s a tired and stupid cliche. An artist is a normal person who does a job just like a plumber. It’s a profession, pure and simple.”
When one points out that making meaning--which is essentially what an artist does--is a good deal more complex than fixing a sink, Ruppersberg agrees: “Sure, that’s true, but one isn’t necessarily better than the other. We need them both.”
For his exhibition at Cathcart Gallery, Ruppersberg is showing “How to Remember a Better Tomorrow,” an installation he describes as “a random accumulation of objects that simultaneously evoke a movie set and a storage warehouse for a calendar printing company; it’s a piece about our cultural past and personal memory.” Also on view is “Kunsthammer,” a work seen at the 1991 Whitney Biennial.
“Several centuries ago, before museums were invented, aristocratic families had a room called a kunstkammer that was filled with art objects and books, and after dinner you’d retire there and look at things,” he says, adding that he likes the idea of examining things in a quiet, private way and has set up the piece in a manner that he hopes will encourage people to really spend time with it.
Time seems to be the leitmotif of the conversation, as well as of Ruppersberg’s work, and he wraps things up with the observation:
“I’m very happy with the time it’s taken my career to unfold. Careers are funny in that each one’s different and you have no way of knowing this when you’re just starting out. You don’t know what’s gonna happen, and you have to be flexible enough to let it unfold as it will.
“That was always part of my idea about making art too--that it takes the form it’s meant to take--and though I’ve certainly had anxious moments, I’d have to say that generally it’s felt . . . correct the way it’s gone.”