Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting – Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
29 May 2010 – 5 September 2010
The main exhibition this summer at Moderna Museet is Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting. Ruscha is a legendary artist in the USA, and especially in California, where he finds his subject matter. For many years, he has enjoyed the esteem of European pop art lovers and is now definitely one of the world’s most highly acclaimed artists, and in great demand. Moreover, he has never before been featured in a solo exhibition in Sweden.
Ed Ruscha, Echo Park Studio Los Angeles, California, 1963
© Foto: Joe Goode
This exhibition, which is a collaboration with Hayward Gallery in London, shows more than 70 paintings, spanning the period from 1958, five years prior to his debut in 1963 at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, to the present day.
“The western part of the US has a deep meaning for me, as opposed to the eastern part, and the rest of the world,” says Ed Ruscha. “That’s where I like to explore and like to be.”
Ruscha’s appearantly obvious subject matter may seem to be taken from an advertising campaign: iconic West Coast Americana, such as sunsets and petrol stations in vast desert landscapes, absurdly realistic mountain ranges, portraits of words, monumental pieces where entire sentences stand out against a dreamlike background. Is he one of the first pop artists, spearheading conceptual art, a contemporary surrealist – or a bit of each, all together? Clearly, he is at the intersecting point between abstract and figurative art. These paintings are not “about” flags, pain-killers, signs, buildings, or whatever they portray in some sense, but neither can they be taken as abstract images. And, with a few exceptions, Ed Ruscha does not choose identifiable trademarks, unlike the most famous pop artist of the USA, Andy Warhol.
Ed Ruscha (born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska) grew up in Oklahoma City in a Midwestern family of mixed Irish, Czech and German descent, of the Catholic persuasion, which was unusual in that part of the USA. “A wannabe altar boy”, he describes himself as a child. In his teens, he worked for a printing and bookbinding company specialising in bibles in the classic 19th century style. This is where Ed Ruscha first became interested in typography; he had been drawing since age 11, encouraged by his mother. An early influence, far from the glamour of Hollywood, was Walker Evans’ famous photos from the depression in the USA, taken at the time of Ruscha’s birth. Robert Frank and Man Ray were also important early sources of inspiration.
Before his 20th birthday, Ed Ruscha went to Los Angeles, where he began studying art and commercial graphic design at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts). “I think it was probably a good thing for me that I had about 20 years after school to develop what I was doing without anyone paying much attention,” says Ruscha. At the time, Los Angeles was in the shadow of the leading art metropolis, New York. Moderna Museet focused on this hierarchical situation in the exhibition series Time & Place in the museum’s anniversary year 2008, which featured three crucial 1960s art scenes, including Los Angeles.
© Foto: Paul Ruscha
Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire, 1964
© Foto: Paul Ruscha
On the surface, Ruscha mixes, deconstructs and presents the surface of American popular-culture imagery. But although Ruscha is firmly rooted in design and advertising strategies, he was equally influenced by the artists who were canonical when he embarked on his career – Jasper Johns perhaps being the most seminal of these. Boss (1961) can be seen as a homage to Johns.
This was the first painting in which Ruscha used an ordinary word as his “subject”; it was followed by several others: Oof (1962-63), Noise (1963) and Sin – Without (1991), to name but a few. The chosen words and phrases may appear arbitrary, but on closer examination they open up to a mass of possible interpretations. ‘Oof’ is the word Ruscha associates with the sound uttered by someone who gets boxed in the stomach.; ‘sin’ means one thing in English, but it also means ‘without’ in Spanish. War Surplus (1962) and Japan is America (1985) both have their respective potentially ominous dimensions. Honey…I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic To Get Here (1984) is yet another evocative title, suggesting movie dialogue and American suburban idyll/boredom.
The letter ‘o’ in Boss leans slightly to the left in Ruscha’s work, implying the laid-back attitude one easily associates with Ed Ruscha’s personality. Incidentally, he was selected as one of the USA’s “ten most stylish men” by GQ in 2009. His sense of style is obvious not least in the typeface he designed: Boy Scout Utility Modern is clean, terse and without serifs.
Baby Jet, 1998
© I konstnärens ägo. Foto: Paul Ruscha
Ed Ruscha was presented at the Venice Biennale – in 1970 with 360 chocolate-coated papers installed as roof tiles, in 2005 as the US representative – and at Documenta Kassel in 1972, for which he also made the official poster. Major Ruscha retrospectives include The Works of Edward Ruscha, organised in 1982 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and shown at the Whitney Museum in New York and other museums around the USA and Canada; The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, which opened in 2004 at the Whitney Museum, toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and other American institutions; and Ed Ruscha Photographer, 2006, shown at Jeu de Paume in Paris, Kunsthaus Zürich and Museum Ludwig in Cologne.
Courtesy Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Images © All rights reserved