<iframe src="//www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-PWMWG4" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

On the road with Ed Ruscha

1 July 2024

From the July/August 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In the cultural history of Los Angeles, it’s an indelible scene: the 19-year-old Edward Ruscha and his friend, the musician Mason Williams, tearing down Route 66 in a customised Ford from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. Ruscha’s arrival in 1956 in the still-young city and his excitement at its signs and buildings, its colours and its surfaces, inflected most of his art over the coming decades. Even if his enthusiasm is sometimes tempered by unease, or a wry quizzicality, Ruscha is generally considered the artist-laureate of Los Angeles.

Oranges, Peaches, Pears, Apples, Grapes, You Name It (1977), Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian/the artist; © Ed Ruscha

This April, Ruscha’s fullest retrospective to date arrived on the West Coast, travelling from the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA; until 6 October). ‘Ed Ruscha/Now Then’ unspools the standard narrative: after growing up slap bang in the middle of America, Ruscha enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute near Downtown Los Angeles, a school known for its emphasis on commercial art and illustration. As a student, Ruscha was impressed by the art of New Yorker Jasper Johns, whose encaustic, wood and plaster Target with Four Faces (1955) he saw as a small black-and-white reproduction in an art magazine. Besides targets, Johns painted other ‘things the mind already knows’ such as flags (American), maps, letters and numbers.

Ruscha took Johns’ permission to reconstitute signs as abstract paintings and applied it to the proletarian things he saw around him every day. Words formed his surreal, unstable subjects: Boss (1961), Honk (1961–62) and Ace (1962) are all paintings of their titles against brushy monochromatic grounds. Ruscha’s work really took off, however, when he directly synthesised the influence of Los Angeles, as in his panoramic painting Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962), which reproduced the name of one of the city’s marquee businesses, 20th Century Fox. At LACMA the painting hangs, as it did at MoMA, near Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire (1964), a picture of a well-known local diner aflame, which shares the former painting’s diagonal composition, or ‘megaphone effect’, as Ruscha called it. Ruscha’s early paintings combined the attention-grabbing techniques of advertising with the illogical non sequiturs of dreams and nightmares. Even at its most hyperbolic, as with Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1965–68), Ruscha’s art is poker-faced. This ambivalence is best seen in some of Ruscha’s books of photographs: Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), or Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) are all exactly what their titles suggest. Even for ardent devotees of this city, a certain detachment is essential.

There is another story that can be told about Ruscha’s oeuvre, however; one that is less familiar and which is not centred in Los Angeles. In 1976, the artist began building a second home about two and a half hours’ drive inland from the city, in the remote High Desert near Joshua Tree. Since that time, he once told me, he has driven out to his desert bolthole every chance he has got.

There are three main freeways running east out of the Los Angeles basin; all merge around 80 miles inland, near the town of Beaumont. Forty miles on one reaches the High Desert, about 1,200 metres above sea level. The northernmost of these three roads, Route 210, partly replaced Route 66, which Ruscha first drove in 1956; below that is the busy Interstate 10, a transcontinental artery that carries trucks and traffic all the way across the southern United States to Jacksonville, Florida. Then there is the less direct Route 60, the quieter road that Ruscha prefers to take, along which one can spot motifs that have appeared in many of his artworks since the 1970s.

To the west, Los Angeles is curtailed abruptly by the Pacific Ocean. To the north, it is hemmed by mountains. But to the south and the east, it seems to go on forever. Travelling in these directions, it is never really correct to say one is ‘driving out of the city’ because the city never obviously ends. Ruscha painted the infinite grid of Los Angeles’ street lights in the 1980s, in moody nocturnes apparently inspired by the frequent flights he was taking at that time to Florida while completing a major commission for the Miami-Dade Public Library. Perhaps the most evocative of that series is an oil and enamel painting from 1985, bearing an inscription in Ruscha’s own squared-off font, which he designed in 1981 and calls Boy Scout Utility Modern: WEN OUT FOR CIGRETS N NEVER CAME BACK. Despite being a noir-ish cliché of familial abandonment, the phrase perfectly captures the blissful, guilty feeling of freedom that arises from heading out along the open road, the skyscrapers of Downtown Los Angeles dwindling in the rear-view mirror.

Wen Out for Cigrets (1985), Ed Ruscha. Sylvio Perlstein Collection. Courtesy Gagosian/the artist; © Ed Ruscha

On the clogged freeways that run in and out of central Los Angeles, speed is an ethic and an aspiration for impatient commuters and long-distance truckers alike. The abbreviation of written information on street signs and advertising billboards, designed to be legible at 70 miles per hour, generates surreal fodder for a wordsmith like Ruscha. ‘Car pool ok.’ ‘Who hurt you?’ ‘Free play mania.’ ‘Shoulder closed.’ None of these signs, visible on a recent journey along this route, are titles of works by Ruscha, though they could be. PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL. That one is his – a square acrylic painting from 2003, its title spelled out against an image of a snowy mountain, the low sun casting long blue shadows, the scene’s romance clashing against the blunt solicitation of the message.

In town, it’s hard to drive fast enough for long enough to achieve the whirr of dreamy dislocation that one experiences on a long journey. On the freeways, however, it’s all there is. Words and images litter the sides of the road like ‘gators’, the sheared-off strips of tire left behind when a truck’s wheel blows out. (In Florida, they remind drivers of the dark alligators that sometimes sun themselves in the grass beside roads.) Ruscha has painted these gators, most memorably in his series Psycho Spaghetti Westerns (2010–11) in which he carefully rendered roadside detritus resting monumentally upon diagonal horizons.

Psycho Spaghetti Western #7 (2010–11), Ed Ruscha. Private Collection. Courtesy Gagosian/the artist; © Ed Ruscha

The title of the series points overtly to a theme at which Ruscha’s art has long hinted. The Western is both a fictional genre and also a contemporary and historical reality. Born from the 19th-century concept of Manifest Destiny – the belief in the virtue and inevitability of white American westward expansionism – the West remains, in the popular imagination, a golden beacon of hope and opportunity, eclipsing the plight of Native peoples that white settlers violently displaced. That promise is what drew Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s and what drew Ruscha two decades later. It is bound up with the mythical figure of the cowboy, a folk hero (perpetuated in pulp fiction and in cinema) who reaps the rewards of the land’s bounty. By the mid 20th century, cattle ranching was being overtaken in California’s economy by the entertainment industry; Ruscha’s desert home is not far from Pioneertown, an unincorporated community built in the 1940s as a ‘movie ranch’ for Western films and television shows. These days, Pioneertown is popular with tourists and residential property prices are rising. Locals and visitors alike can be seen in Western shirts and cowboy hats. Ruscha himself will often sport a bolo tie, on special occasions.

In the 1980s, Ruscha began a series of paintings without words, depicting black and white silhouettes of recognisable subjects executed in acrylic with an airbrush. (From this point on, almost all his paintings were done in the flatter, more graphic acrylic paint instead of traditional oils.) Uncertain Frontier (1987) is a diagonal composition showing a wagon train progressing into the hazy distance; other silhouette paintings feature Joshua trees, a howling coyote and tepees. Rounding out this corpus of Western icons are paintings of suburban family houses, including Name, Address, Phone Number (1986); driving through the blended settlements known as the Inland Empire, what is most striking for much of the journey is the proliferation of tract housing – large swathes of land filled with newish, nearly identical homes. Certainly, it is less expensive to own a home in Ontario, in Riverside or Moreno Valley than it is in Los Angeles. This is today’s reality of westward expansion: wide highways, gridded streets, pretty, bland names, affordable houses with modest yards, and giant warehouses that store everything that settlers might possibly need, ready for delivery at short notice. Here, too, the mechanisms needed to support this way of life are laid bare. Beside the truck-lined freeway, the Union Pacific Railroad carries modern-day wagon trains – freight locomotives hauling chains of double-stacked shipping containers sometimes two to three miles long. These containers – many bearing Chinese names – are picked up at the port of Long Beach and are destined for cities across the entire United States.

Uncertain Frontier (1987), Ed Ruscha. Orange County Museum of Art. Courtesy Gagosian/the artist; © Ed Ruscha

When Ruscha was selected to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale in 2005, he reprised a series he had made in 1992, titled Blue Collar. That earlier cycle consisted of five black-and-white paintings of nearly featureless industrial buildings, emblazoned with their functions: ‘TOOL & DIE’, ‘TECH-CHEM’ and ‘TRADE SCHOOL’. In 1992, the paintings served as a critique of the kinds of buildings cropping up both in Los Angeles itself and throughout its peripheries. Ruscha said of the series, ‘It’s like a vision of a modern world, a futuristic world, about what architecture and things are going to look like.’ When that future arrived, a decade later, the artist glimpsed another future on the not-too-distant horizon, one in which those same buildings had sunk into decrepitude. The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) shows the factory, now in colour, with non-specific Asian logos along one side and graffiti along the other. The Old Trade School Building (2005) is now fenced by chain-link and barbed wire. Ruscha titled the new ten-painting cycle Course of Empire (1992–2005), after a five-part series from 1836 by the American landscape painter Thomas Cole, describing the rise and fall of an imaginary city.

The Old Tool & Die Building (2004), Ed Ruscha. Whitney Museum of Art. Courtesy Gagosian/the artist; © Ed Ruscha

Ruscha’s observation of change in his surroundings – the parallel effects of growth and of entropy – is rueful, pessimistic even, though not reactionary or alarmist. It is also prophetic; since he completed Course of Empire, in the once rural areas beyond the tract housing of Moreno Valley there have sprung up vast distribution warehouses for Amazon and other businesses. Perhaps Ruscha has been eyeing this future for years. In the 1970s, he painted a number of panoramic landscapes, two- to four-metres long, which he called ‘Grand Horizontals’. In these works, the land itself is mostly in silhouette, but the skies above are rendered as electric sunsets. Even though the best known of these works shows the iconic Hollywood sign seen from behind (Back of Hollywood, 1977), it seems inevitable that these works were influenced by Ruscha’s drives out of town. Oranges, Peaches, Pears, Apples, Grapes, You Name It (1977) lists many of the region’s traditional agricultural exports. Another painting, made two years later to the same proportions, is titled Various Plastics (1979). ‘Your silicones, your polyesters, your urethanes, your thermoplastics,’ read inscriptions floating in the golden sky.

A few miles past Beaumont, beyond a giant outlet mall and the 27-storey skyscraper of the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa, which is operated by the Morongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians, the desert begins. Here the land opens into sandy scrub and the mountains rise up sharply at the edge of the valley floor. Out here, one sees more American flags than in the city; also more billboards for Jesus. Ruscha grew up in a strict Catholic household and, while he has said that his own faith lapsed around the time he left Oklahoma, the language of religiosity often crops up in his work. In 1972 he made a series of oil paintings, each featuring a single virtue: Faith, Hope and Purity. Two decades later, an airbrushed greyscale landscape with dramatic clouds forms a backdrop for the word ‘SIN’. In that painting – titled Sin – Without (1991) – as with nearly all Ruscha’s art, his judgment is ostensibly withheld. Ruscha’s poker face begins to slip slightly, however, in his paintings of the Stars and Stripes. The title of Mother’s Boys (1987) introduces an intimation of military folly in an otherwise straightforward depiction of the fluttering flag; Our Flag (2017), painted after the election of Donald Trump, is histrionic by comparison, the American flag ripped to tatters against an ominous black sky.

Just before Palm Springs, the route to the High Desert exits the eastbound freeway and turns sharply north, leaving the San Jacinto Mountains behind. Mountains first appeared in Ruscha’s paintings in the late 1990s. Literalist analogues of the tonal coolness achieved in most of his output, these monumental peaks – often dusted with snow – are not representations of specific places. Ruscha has called them ‘ideas of mountains’; they correspond just as much to the mountain in the Paramount Studios logo or the Matterhorn in Disneyland as they do to the great Mount San Jacinto that rises abruptly above Palm Springs. While Ruscha may understand these mountains as akin to movie-studio backdrops, they are undoubtedly also inspired by the artist’s familiarity with San Jacinto’s distinctive illusion of vertical flatness, which provides a picturesque backdrop to poolside action in the cities on the valley floor.

Clarence Jones (2001), Ed Ruscha. Phillip G. Schrager Collection. Courtesy Gagosian/the artist; © Ed Ruscha

‘Words have no scale,’ Ruscha has said. Neither do the thoughts those words induce. When Ruscha imposes Los Angeles street names over images of magnificent mountains, as he does in Artesia or Alvarado to Doheny (both 1998), he forces a reckoning between geographical scales and also between the relative scales of ideas. In Darlene Phipps (2002), a life is sketched in outline: ‘DARLENE PHIPPS WRKS. AT A PLASTICS SALVAGE YARD IN ROSEMEAD, CA.’ How does this potted biography measure up to the grandeur of the rugged valley against which these words are positioned? For Darlene, her life is probably vast. A plot twist, though: as with Clarence Jones, the titular subject of another of Ruscha’s paintings (and who ‘REALLY KNEW HOW TO SHARPEN KNIVES’, according to the picture), Darlene Phipps does not exist and is no more than a figment of the artist’s imagination.

As Ruscha no doubt appreciates, driving out of Los Angeles offers a sense of perspective not easily found in the city. It situates the markers of LA life – the place names, the buildings, the social dramas – in a wider system of import and export that reaches around the entire globe. The cargo goods that trundle on trucks and trains in and out of the urban areas are the least of it; far more extensive is the worldwide transmission of sounds and images, stories and myths, that allow Ruscha’s art – which might, in other circumstances, seem almost provincial – to be legible to an international audience. It is these myths that continue to grant Los Angeles a magnetic attraction, which continue to entice people to settle as close to the action as they can.

‘Ed Ruscha/Now Then’ is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until 6 October.

From the July/August 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.