(Interview courtesy of Martin Gayford)
On the screen in Ed Ruscha’s studio is a single image bearing two words in black, the very ones that have appeared at the finale of a thousand films: the end. It seems highly appropriate to an artist who works in Los Angeles, the world capital of the film industry, his own feelings for which are perhaps summed up in the cryptic message of another picture, Hollywood Is a Verb.
The art of Ed Ruscha – the subject of a retrospective in London this autumn – is oblique, sardonic and somehow saturated in the feeling of the West Coast. He is a major artist from Los Angeles, one of several figures who do not quite fit into the history of 20th-century American art as it is usually told.
Ruscha is generally classified as a Pop artist, along with Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, but though he may be as important as his East Coast contemporaries, he does not appear to belong in that narrative. LA art was different.’Ruscha,’ wrote JG Ballard, ‘has the coolest gaze in American art.’ In comparison with the New York masters of Pop, Ballard argued, ‘Ruscha is closer in spirit to Vermeer, who quietly compressed a universe of experience and sensibility into his modest domestic interiors.’
Looking at the work of Ruscha (pronounced Roo-shay) gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works ‘are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence’.
Hopper, Ruscha explains, was ‘one of the first people who was a real member of the Hollywood world who was interested in art – collecting it, making it and documenting it.’ In 1964 Hopper took a wonderful photograph of Ruscha exuding charisma and standing in front of a shop window containing a neon sign (tv radio service) and, reflected in the glass, the street, a passing car, the whole mobile urban scene. This is itself one of the most memorable images of the Los Angeles art world in the 1960s – a tiny subculture in a city that few outsiders thought of as producing art at all.
As far as the rest of the world, and America, was concerned, in the 1960s New York was the global capital of art, and Los Angeles was a city of cinema, private eyes, urban sprawl and smog.
Of course, over the past 45 years things have changed. ‘Nowadays,’ Ruscha observes, ‘there are a lot of movie people who are art collectors. The entertainment industry seems to have opened up to the art world and to be truly interested in it. There are a sizeable amount of collectors.’ Indeed, in the 21st century the art scene in Los Angeles – revolving around a resurgent LA County Museum, with the Getty Centre looming like a temple on the brow of a hill, and a host of other galleries – is almost as powerful a presence as the film world. But that is a recent development.
The story of the Los Angeles art scene in its early years is still little-known – but Ed Ruscha has a starring role in it. He certainly looks the part. In old photographs Ruscha is broodingly handsome, his appearance somewhere between James Dean and Kirk Douglas, with maybe a smidgen of Chet Baker. At 71 he hasn’t lost that touch of cowboy glamour. In March he made GQ’s list of the 10 most stylish men in America, and did so in a characteristically laidback manner. To the magazine Ruscha described his preferred get-up as ‘loose and lazy’, adding that for a quarter of a century of his life he had worn nothing but used clothing. ‘When I do wear a tie, it’s usually a bolo [bootlace] tie. I have a collection of ’em – I like those little strings that dangle.’
Before Ruscha moved to Venice he had a studio in East Hollywood. It was there that he made a series of paintings and prints of the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee, giant letters in the landscape set against a sky turned Technicolor red and orange by pollution: epic, decadent and with a touch of the sinister.
The effect is much like the mighty names that appeared at the start of a film: MGM, Paramount, or – the subject of another Ruscha picture – 20th Century Fox. ‘When I would see movies as a young kid,’ he remembers, ‘I would see those logos and they were almost as memorable as the movies. That 20th Century Fox logo was indelible.’
Ruscha used to use the Hollywood sign, he has said, as a smog-indicator. ‘If I could read it, the weather was OK.’ As that remark suggests, despite having lived a great deal of his life in Los Angeles, he is not altogether in love with the place. He professes wonderment at the enthusiasm for the area felt by many British expatriates, such as David Hockney, another old friend (who asked me to send his regards). Hockney is still amused by an exchange they had some years ago, when Hockney announced his intention of painting the Grand Canyon. ‘I take it,’ responded Ruscha, deadpan, ‘that will be a miniature.’
‘David is one of many British people who have a true affinity to this city that I never really understood,’ Ruscha comments. ‘It puzzles me that people can come to Los Angeles and actually get excited about it.’
But he also admits, a little grudgingly, that there is a ‘certain neurotic anxiety’ about the city that nourishes him. ‘It’s oily about the edges,’ he explains. ‘It’s gritty, but at the same time it promises something. I don’t know what, the fountain of youth, maybe.’ Ruscha divides his time between Venice Beach, where he does most of his work, and a retreat a few hours away in the emptiness of the Mojave Desert: ‘The desert is my favourite place to go,’ he says.
‘It’s an elixir. There’s a frenzy about this city that begins to aggravate me every so often. For that reason it’s great to get out.’ On the other hand, Ruscha has done more than anyone else – with the possible exception of Hockney – to fix the image of Los Angeles. Early one Sunday morning in 1967 he flew over the city in a helicopter, with the aim of recording the empty car-parks. The resulting images were contained in a book with a precise yet odd-ball title, Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles.
The resulting photographs are almost abstract. The thousands of parking spaces marked on the Tarmac around the LA Dodgers’ baseball stadium appear from above like the remnants of some distant civilisation. ‘Ruscha’s images,’ Ballard wrote, are like ‘mementos of the human race taken back with them by visitors from another planet.’
Ruscha’s books – a new one, an illustrated edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, is launched in London on October 12 – are among his most original creations. Everything about them is stylish – the typography, the imagery, the coolly what-you-see-is-what-you-get titles. Other examples include Every Building on the Sunset Strip (which documented just that), Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, 1968, and the gnomic Various Small Fires and Milk, 1964.
Although Ruscha was included along with Warhol, Lichtenstein and others in one of the earliest Pop art exhibitions – ‘New Painting of Common Objects’ (1962) at the Pasadena Art Museum – his inspiration was always personal and distinct. Some of his best-known images come from that era, such as the Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962, the trademark in question being 20th century fox) and his equally sweeping epic view of a Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963). His word art developed intensively in the 1970s and 1980s, when he occasionally employed such unconventional media as gunpowder, blueberry juice and spinach.
From early on his work has revolved around certain themes – signs and buildings in the western landscape, words in space. All of those come together in his reinvention of the artist’s book, one of his most individual achievements.
‘I began to see books and book design, typography, as a real inspiration. So I got a job with a book printer. He taught me how to set type, and then I started to see the beauty of typography and letter-forms. Somehow that led me off on this little path, almost like a bumper car, you know.’
You only have to listen to Ruscha for moment, to his slight cowboy drawl and cornball imagery, to realise that he is a westerner. And that part of America, it seems, is where his heart is. ‘The western part of the US has a deep meaning for me, as opposed to the eastern part, and the rest of the world,’ he says. ‘That’s where I like to explore and like to be.’
He was born Edward Joseph Ruscha IV, in Omaha, Nebraska, on December 16 1937, and moved with his family to Oklahoma City in 1941. Unusually for the Mid-West the Ruschas – a complicated Irish-Czech-German mix – were Catholic. Ed grew up, he has recalled, ‘a wannabe altar boy’.
‘When I got to California it was an awakening that I didn’t need this religion, it didn’t mean anything to me. I just sailed away from it.’ (It left, however, some traces on his art: for example in the enormous shaft of light like a baroque altarpiece after the saints had been beamed up that he painted a decade ago for the new Getty Centre.) He father worked in insurance and was a practical man – ‘Like, too practical. When I decided to go to art school he didn’t totally approve of that because it didn’t promise his son a living.’
His mother supported his urge to become an artist. Ruscha took painting classes from the age of 11, which appealed to him partly because of the smell. ‘The only thing I really got from it was the fragrance of oil paint. When I walked in the class, I loved that. Paint in a studio was always an odour that was right close to my heart. So I began to like it just for that.’ He also showed signs of talent.
‘I liked what I had seen of poster design and commercial art, so those began to infect my thoughts. And I started looking at photographs like Walker Evans’s pictures of the dust-bowl, of which Oklahoma was the centre.’ Caused by drought and over-farming, the apocalyptic dust-storm of the 1930s – on top of the great depression – caused mass poverty and emigration. Many ‘Okies’ fled west to California. Walker Evans’s documentary photographs of dust-bowl poverty were very recent in the mid-1940s. ‘I identified with that and also the movie The Grapes of Wrath. That was an experience that influenced my thoughts on where I came from, and what it’s all about.’
In 1956, at 18, he drove west down Route 66 with a friend, Mason Williams (later to become famous as a writer, musician and composer of the late-1960s hit Classical Gas). New York sounded distant and cold to a teenager from Oklahoma, and he bought the Californian dream. ‘It had an irresistible flavour to it that drew me out here. California had sunlight and jazz. Chet Baker [star trumpeter of the LA cool jazz school] was an Okie himself. The glamorous aspect of it was the movies. The vegetation here appealed to me, too: palm trees and exotic desert flora. So did car culture, I was never truly engaged in racing cars or customising cars or anything but I appreciated that, and I liked the hot-rod world.’
Ruscha and Mason Williams were part of an enormous influx of people in those days. ‘The first thing that hit me,’ Ruscha once recalled, ‘was the number of people that were coming here. In the late 1950s there were something like 1,000 people a day, bringing in 750 cars every day. I was overwhelmed by that, and also by the smog.’ LA was the fastest-growing city in America, rapidly becoming the image of future urban life.
What it didn’t have was much in the way of indigenous art. ‘The LA art scene was very small in those days. New York was capital of the art world without a doubt in the 1950s and 1960s. Los Angeles at that time was a cultural dry spot, the Australia of the art world – way out there, very small and undeveloped. There were two or three people who actually collected art and we young artists had no idea about how to reach them.’
Ruscha slowly found his way. ‘At first I thought I wanted to get into advertising or some sort of design. Or perhaps become a sign painter. It was all glamorous to me, the life of an artist. It had its high moments, the only thing it didn’t promise you was a living. But I was 18 years old, so that wasn’t scary. It didn’t matter.’
In fact a body of remarkable artists was forming, unheralded in Los Angeles at the time, centred on the curator Walter Hopps and the Ferus Gallery, run by Irving Blum (a crucial work by Ed Kienholz, another important artist from the Ferus group is on show at the National Gallery in London this November). By the early 1960s, according to Ruscha, there was a ‘heart-poundingly romantic scene around the Ferus Gallery with all the right people, and they were all doing the right things. It was a daring time.’
In 1963 at the Pasadena Art Museum Hopps organised the first-ever retrospective of work by Marcel Duchamp, a great and important figure in modern art. This was the occasion on which Duchamp was memorably photographed playing chess with a nude woman (Eve Babitz, a member of the LA art world).
The city was full of inspirations – the contemporary architecture, the commercial imagery, cars, driving. ‘It was a big soup of influence,’ Ruscha says. ‘I found myself being influenced by everything: things I liked and things I didn’t like; even the half-way stuff pushed me along. I did commercial art on the side, painted signs, and lettering. At one point I worked at a Japanese gift emporium, my job was to personalise these things with a brush and paint, write their names on. I worked there one month and could live the rest of the year on that. The rest of the time, I painted.
‘I never know exactly what I’m up to, but I think I’m up to something. Every time I think about my work, I think it all started at 18 years old, and the way I felt then is really still the way I feel now. A lot of my thoughts and beliefs, how to construct a picture and all that, the things I was doing then are really what I’m doing today. That can baffle a person.’
In fact you might say introducing a personal kind of visual perplexity into the world of art has been Ruscha’s vocation: cool, beautiful, stylish bafflement. His word art says it all: Get Outta That Spaceship and Fight Like a Man, Tourists Generally Have Straps, Let Me Putty Your Window Panes, They Called Her Styrene, The End.