THE interview with painter Ed Ruscha is among the best features of the extensive catalog to “Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images,” a large and playful exhibition opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show is a gas, entertaining and insightful, partly thanks to a savvy, subversive installation design by Conceptual artist John Baldessari.
It brings together 68 paintings and drawings by popular Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte (1898-1967) and mingles them with the same number of works by 31 contemporary artists, including six by Ruscha and two by Baldessari. The goal is to gauge the effect Magritte had on the way art has looked since the 1960s.
That decade is emerging as a decisive dividing line between an older idea of Modern art, associated with Europe, and something newer and perhaps more distinctly American in tone. What Ruscha has to say is surprising.
The interview opens with a 1967 photograph of the L.A. painter having lunch with his Belgian counterpart in the garden at the Cipriani Hotel in Venice, Italy, not long before Magritte’s death. Ruscha is then quizzed on direct links between his work and the Surrealist’s.
His reply: There aren’t any. No matter how many ways the question is asked, Ruscha’s answer is the same.
On his adolescent encounter in an Oklahoma City library with Magritte reproductions in a book: “I didn’t respond to his work.”
On Magritte’s imagery as a source for his own: “He wasn’t a source for me.”
On the painters’ mutual strategy of pairing words with images: “Actually, his imagery involving writing never grabbed me.”
Even Magritte’s famous painting of a man’s pipe, sleekly rendered in the manner of an old-fashioned sign from a tobacconist’s shop and underscored with the contradictory French phrase, Ceci n’est pas une pipe -- This is not a pipe -- comes in for unexpected scrutiny. Formally titled “The Treachery of Images,” the painting has been a signature work in LACMA’s collection for nearly 30 years and is the incentive for the sprawling exhibition. What is Ruscha’s take on it?
“I always doubted the importance of that work .... Other people will say that it’s a turning point in art history. They point to it as being a particularly strong, profound statement, and I have doubts about that.”
If anything, exhibition catalogs err on the side of boosterism. But Ruscha’s viewpoint is contrarian. Once you’ve seen the delightful show, complete with several first-rate Ruscha paintings, the interview turns out to be right on the money.
Magritte’s art is all about rejecting majority assumptions about imagery -- this is not a pipe, it’s a picture -- assumptions about what a picture means and, even more important, how it means what it means. Ruscha’s art is too.
His Pop painting “Actual Size” (1962) juxtaposes a billboard-scale label for Spam with an actual label, which streaks across the canvas like a shooting star trailing flames mixed with spattered paint. How appropriate that the product being represented is processed meat in a can.
Spam was invented in the same Depression-era year that Ruscha was born (1937) and Route 66, road to opportunity, was completing as the highway link from Chicago to L.A. Paint-splashed canned meat makes raucous fun of the invocations of nature and autobiography then propping up New York School painting.
The paintings by Magritte and Ruscha both pair commercial images with words. Notably, one emphasizes the handmade, including perfect penmanship, while the other is all about commercial glamour. Both offer a visual conundrum. But Magritte’s feels old-fashioned, like a private, interior rumination -- after all, cogitate is what a professor does sucking on a pipe -- while Ruscha’s is public, showy and comfortable in its ironic pose of commercial vacuity.
The relationship between them is tenuous at best. It’s easy to see why, in the interview, Ruscha is happy to acknowledge what he admires in Magritte’s work while demurring about direct influence.
The show attempts something difficult, even atmospheric -- registering the way an artist like Magritte, a secondary painter in the Modern pantheon but a hugely popular artist with the public, has affected the culture’s general perceptions. Ruscha’s “Actual Size” does not derive from Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images,” but indirectly the Belgian’s pipe made Ruscha’s Spam possible.
Lots of the show’s art operates in this manner. Some also makes explicit reference to popular Magritte paintings.
Robert Gober’s terrific sculpture of an enormous “Cigar,” roughly the size of a person, invokes the Freudian underpinning of Surrealist art. Lying horizontally -- like a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch -- it is excruciatingly detailed, an exact visual duplicate in everything but its size, which asserts the exaggerated prominence of masculine cultural prerogatives.
Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This witty phallic object is oddly inert, like a dead body.
Nearby, Mike Kelley’s elegant 2003 painting “Wood Grain #2" is composed of parallel vertical strokes of brown acrylic streaked with black. Together they create a caricature of wooden slats, through which hazy blue sky is glimpsed. Given the frequency with which outhouses have appeared in Kelley’s past art, a viewer might be wickedly located on a crude throne, pondering the heavens.
Painted on an actual wood panel, “Wood Grain #2" creates a contemplative visual conundrum in which art becomes the heavily trafficked intersection of reality and illusion. A picture of desire is projected on lifeless matter.
Ruscha, Gober and Kelley are playing in a field whose soil Magritte tilled. Other artists borrow the Belgian’s images, putting them to their own purposes.
Vija Celmins’ 1970 “Untitled (Comb)” is a 6-foot-tall sculpture of one of four grooming items depicted in the 1952 painting “Personal Values,” hanging next to it. Magritte literally looms large.
Jim Shaw used Magritte’s well-known image of an enormous stone floating in space as a basis for his 1990 drawing “Red Rock,” but Shaw’s boulder integrates faces from the popular media -- television, politics, music -- as if celebrity keeps it afloat.
Still other artists adapt Magritte’s general strategies, such as turning a body into a coffin or a bedroom wall into sky. Jeff Koons’ 1986 version of an inflatable toy rabbit simply switches a common object’s expected materials -- from ephemeral vinyl to pristine stainless steel. A disposable whimsy is transformed into a sparkling, spotless symbol of contemporary fecundity, somehow sinister and as iconic as a Brancusi carving.
In 1948, Magritte shocked critics by producing a series of intentionally ugly, inept canvases, a postwar rebellion against established Modern European standards. Martin Kippenberger’s 1996 painting “The Philosopher’s Egg” sports a plaid background straight from Magritte’s “The Pebble,” in which a cheesecake Venus rises from the sea beneath a tartan sky. Kippenberger embraced a not-dissimilar revolt among a younger European generation.
The exhibition, organized by LACMA curator Stephanie Barron and Michel Draguet, director of Belgium’s Royal Museums of Fine Art, would probably not have worked without Baldessari’s inspired installation design. Traditional museum shows trying to explore one artist’s influence on others, such as the Whitney Museum’s current “Picasso and American Art,” often stumble as dry, academic exercises in pictorial juxtaposition. They’re the museum equivalent of a classroom slide lecture, failing because art’s expansive resonance gets narrowed.
Artists understand the problem. Perhaps that’s why Baldessari’s two biggest design gestures turn the show upside down.
He’s carpeted the galleries in Magritte-like clouds, rendered in a pattern whose perceptible repetition suggests the sky’s eternity and endless mass production. The ceiling sports a grid of aerial photographs of L.A. freeway interchanges, those in-between spaces of fluid transition from one automotive pathway to another. Standing on sky, you look up to see down on tangled transitional passages.
Metaphorically, the choices couldn’t be better. They frame the juxtapositions between Magritte and contemporary artists, keeping them liquid and unstable. They also assert that the world we live in has been shaped, at least in part, by Magritte. Once your eyes get used to it, the white cube never looked so good.
Baldessari’s most puckish move is reserved for a rear gallery.
Next to a window overlooking Wilshire Boulevard is a marvelous 1982 painting by Sigmar Polke, his friend and colleague. Through color washes and Benday dots, an old optical diagram shows a human eye looking at a candle flame reflected in a mirror. The diagram’s sightline splits in two -- bouncing off the glass and, like Alice tripping into Wonderland, also passing through it.
Such is today’s dizzying mass-media hall of mirrors. (Tellingly, the Polke painting was accidentally printed backward in the catalog.) Baldessari expands on the painting by covering the adjacent window with a see-through fabric printed with a color photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan. Art museum visitors are invited to look at Los Angeles through a New York scrim, which is how L.A. art is typically perceived.
But perhaps not for long. Baldessari prudently chose a photograph of New York at twilight. It’s beautiful, but it’s also very late in the day. Beyond, palm trees beckon.
‘Magritte and Contemporary Art’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Noon to 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; noon to 9 p.m. Fridays; 11 to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: March 4
Price: $12 to $20
Contact: (323) 857-6000