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A driving obsession

Times Staff Writer

The fax rumbles through the machine. In neat cursive, Ed Ruscha writes:

There exists in this city a particular spot that holds a deep interest for me at least for now. You arrive at this spot by traveling North on Sepulveda Blvd. in the left lane about 60 feet before reaching the intersection of Palms Blvd. It’s a dip, or rather a scrape in the asphalt toward the right side of the lane -- a dip your right tire will hit if you are correctly in the middle of the lane. It’s always irritating to hit this spot while going 35 miles per hour or faster. But it’s not just another dip in the road. Look at it and it begins to have its own integrity. It’s flame-shaped, like a fireball or meteorite crashing to Earth on this very place on Sepulveda Boulevard. I become more alert nearing this spot, feeling like I’m in some kind of hot zone of the city. To get the best effects from this depression in the street, when possible, I drive as slow as can be done, say 5 to 8 MPH or even slower, letting my tires roll over it like a little love-nudge, kissing the inner side of my treads. For something considered a roadway disturbance, it sure has a powerful amusement for me.

It’s Ruscha’s voice to a T. Observations, a hole in the ground, nonsense and profundities.

A few days later, he pulls into a strip mall parking lot off Palms Boulevard. He looks fit, displaying his trademark wry smile despite having spent several weeks stranded in a New York hotel room. He had fallen ill with double pneumonia after the reception for “Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha,” which opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in June. Bringing together more than 200 of his works on paper, the traveling show opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, along with his “Chocolate Room,” from 1970, an installation of 360 sheets of paper silk-screened with chocolate. The show is the first major retrospective to focus on his drawings. (A previous retrospective, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1982, was titled after his crayon-on-paper drawing, “I Don’t Want No Retro Spective.”)

In his work, Ruscha has created icons of simple city things -- gasoline stations, the streets themselves.

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“Everything you see on the street I’m influenced by,” he once said, “the iconography of the city, the way the city is.”

So on this morning, Ruscha goes off to look at a dip in the road, an “emotional sweet spot” shaped like a fireball. It’s a street in Los Angeles. As seen by Ed Ruscha:

A hole in his consciousness

“The city road department is always cleaning up things, always repaving. And I wonder, ‘How long will that thing last?’ I won’t be heartbroken if they take it away, but I still feel it’s some sort of little nerve ending for me. When I drive home I think, ‘Uh-oh, I’ll be going by the little crater.’ ”

He laughs.

“I would drive north in that lane. I would hit that, and it would be jarring and unpleasant. Every time I was in that lane, I would begin anticipating the hole coming up, and I would just swing around it so I would never have to hit it. This became kind of a focal point in my mind -- that maybe this is some kind of spiritual hot spot for me. I would be driving up here and think, ‘Uh-oh, here comes the little crater.’ I would be ready for it every night. And then I would fantasize about it. You know, people say there are spiritual lines in the world -- all cross each other. Maybe this is where they all cross for me.”

He laughs again.

“It doesn’t have much to say visually. It’s not making any kind of statement. Except it does look like it’s a product of some kind of accident. Since I’ve discovered that, I’ve noticed there are some more of these things, even on this street, but they don’t seem to have the importance that that one does to me.

“Everything has this motion of change to it. And that one, probably, too. But for the time being, it’s like a little emotional sweet spot for me.”

Personal stats

For more than 20 years, his business card read: “Ed-werd Rew-shay, Young Artist.” Today, his paintings fetch millions at auction. Born in Omaha in 1937, he grew up in Oklahoma City but now lives in Swifty Lazar’s old place, way above every building on the Sunset Strip. (When he threw a party there last fall, guests included his dealer, Larry Gagosian; billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad; and Ruscha’s pal Tommy Chong, of Cheech & Chong, on his way to the Taft Correctional Institution, having pleaded guilty to selling bongs over the Internet.)

Ruscha -- who married his wife Danna twice -- is now a granddad of 1-year-old Milo. (Both his son, Eddie, and daughter-in-law, Francesca Gabbiani, are artists.)

He still wears Hawaiian shirts but has modeled for the magazine GQ. He is unaffected. Inscrutable. Cool Ed.

‘Little phenomena’

“There it just sits. If you examined it up close, part of it is made of tar; maybe they tried to fill it or something. It’s another emotional trinket in my life. Where I might focus on something that’s insignificant, that doesn’t have any communal impact. It’s got nothing to say to society except that it’s a focal point for me.... It’s one of those strange little phenomena that has its importance overblown. I do that in my own brain: I’m making it more important than it really is.

“When I’m driving up toward it, I see all kinds of things: what appears to be like a checkmark. And the upstroke is on the incline, going up to meet the roadway, and there’s this little pocket there that’s lower -- it sort of has a steady slope. You can even see the trail of a mark there, not a bump but something. You want to look into the scientific reasons for that thing. Maybe some heavy equipment like a bulldozer was dropped there. A machine! It was a mistake, and they just left it that way. But I’ll be checking up on this. If the city does clear it up, maybe another one will happen to me.

“Signs on the highway sometimes also have that power to me,” he says, “the same emotional strength.”

A man of streets

“Streets are like ribbons,” Ruscha said in the Gary Conklin documentary “L.A. Suggested by the Art of Edward Ruscha.” “They’re like ribbons, and they’re dotted with facts. Fact ribbons, I guess. That’s potential subject matter to me, and so I take some things and I write them down and I look at them forever and forever and forever, and I might use something 10 years afterward that I had noticed before, you see.”

In addition to drawing, Ruscha has painted, worked in photography, with prints, created books and films. His first book, “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations,” came out in 1963, the year of his first solo show at Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard.

Ruscha is considered both a Pop and Conceptual artist, and the painting that got him going was Jasper Johns’ “Flag” -- an American flag in thick brushstrokes, painted in 1954. Among his influences he counts Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson.

His work often depicts words. Sometimes they are palindromes (“sex at noon taxes,” “lion in oil”). Sometimes they’re quotations (Shakespeare, Frank Zappa). Often, they’re just words. His subjects are mundane: in addition to words, small fires, swimming pools, parking lots and -- famously -- every building on the Sunset Strip.

World of the visual

“There’s a fire hydrant in Hollywood on Norton Avenue which has been there for 30 or 40 years. A friend of mine pointed this out to me and commented on how much it looked like a pig. Fire hydrants do, when you look at them -- this little snout that comes out like this.”

This Hollywood hydrant, he says, is particularly piggish.

“Some of the fire hydrants don’t have the pig configuration, the positioning of the little thing that makes the nose, it doesn’t look like a pig. But this one does, and it’s got a little cap on it, a little hat on. It’s just one of those little personal things that you notice ... usually on a route that I take constantly, and I’ll notice things as I go along. Like I might notice those weeds over there and wonder, ‘How long will those weeds be there before somebody says [affecting the booming voice of authority]: ‘Hey! We’ve got to get rid of those weeds!’ ”

His inspiration, he says, may indeed be other people’s weeds.

“It’s a personal vision,” he says. “When it comes to visuals, artists are maybe more investigative or curious.”

A hole in the road can be a meteorite, a fireball, a sweet spot prompting urban memories.

“Artists live in the world of the visual, and I suppose that they see things that stockbrokers don’t see.”


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