Book Review: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz–“learning what I do not know”

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

RuschasLAMITI received a book about six months ago as a gift: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz.  At first I thought it was a travel guide, for I was headed to L.A. a few weeks later and I just assumed it was a book detailing the more out-of-the-way spaces to see.  Except that it was much too nice a book for a mere travel guide: small and compact with fine paper, hard-board covers and peppered with illustrations. I put it aside to read it at another time. (I have since spilled an entire cup of coffee on it in a place where food and drink was forbidden. Deserved bad karma!)

Anyway, boy was I wrong about the travel guide…and ignorant of an artist and a whole school of painting.

I had been completely unaware of Ed Ruscha–and of Los Angeles art.  And I was not alone. In fact, much of the book’s focus is how the Los Angeles’ school of Pop Art has always played the poor sister to New York’s more celebrated school.  And yet, unlike many cultural movements in which a western migration can honestly be traced, Pop Art in America seems not to have originated on the East Coast and worked its way across to California. Apparently, according to Schwartz, Pop Art seems to have arisen simultaneously in various parts of the country, reacting to and inspired by the same cultural influences.

In 1962, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles mounted an exhibit entitled “The New Painting of Common Objects.” The British critic, Lawrence Alloway–the man who coined the term “Pop Art”–cites it as being the first exhibit of American Pop Art.  In fact, the gallery–and its curator Walter Hopps–was the first to exhibit Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup Can–arguably, the defining image of Pop Art–two months before it was shown in New York.  The list of artists at “The New Painting of Common Objects” exhibit included Lichtenstein, Dine and Warhol from the East Coast, Phillip Hefferton and Robert Dowd from the Mid-West, and Edward Ruscha, Joseph Goode and Wayne Thiebaud from the West. It was the nation’s introduction to Pop and a major stroke for the establishment of Pop Art in the country. This, and the fact that the respected art magazine ArtForum had its offices above the Ferus Gallery where the show was staged, would seem enough to move the spotlight onto the Los Angeles’ art world, but it wasn’t.  But New York is much too big a player. (Ultimately ArtForum moved there, as well.)

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966. Photo: CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966.
Photo: 2004 CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ruscha hit the L.A. scene young, having hitchhiked in from Oklahoma at the age of nineteen. He enrolled in what is now the California Institute of Arts and afterwards worked–like his contemporary Warhol–in advertising.   And like Warhol, his collages, his word-art, the signage and everyday objects, and his photographs greatly showed the influenced that advertising had on him.

Ruscha’s work is vibrant and fun, enigmatic and engaging, uncluttered and beguiling. Besides his artwork, he has created numerous books and films, and often collaborates with artists, writers and publishing houses on lay-out and cover designs. He still works and lives in Southern California.

To be truthful, the book, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles itself, however is a bit heavy going and academic at times. (It was published by MIT and was originally Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation). But nevertheless, it is a wonderful introduction to Ruscha’s art.

At least for me, for whom he was a completely new name. And one that I am enjoying discovering.

“Always learning, even if it’s simply that I do not know.”

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