The American West as Seen by Ed Ruscha

by Sura Wood

De Young Museum’s new exhibition explores Ed Ruscha’s fascination with the American West.

“The western part of the United States has deep meaning for me, as opposed to…the rest of the world,” mused artist Ed Ruscha in a 2009 interview with The Telegraph. “That’s where I like to explore and where I like to be.”

For Ruscha, now 78 and regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, his love affair with the Western landscape began early. Born in Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma, he was seduced by Southern California’s sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, golden light and car culture, first while on family vacations, and later, when he attended art school in Los Angeles. There, in the 1960s, he meandered through back streets and roadways, which led to photo essays that he compiled into books such as “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” “Real Estate Opportunities” and “Some Los Angeles Apartments.” In 1976, Ruscha built a studio retreat in the Mojave Desert and has been absorbing the sights along the three-hour drive from his home in L.A. ever since. Those travels have informed the prevailing motifs, repeated across mediums that have characterized his work throughout a long career.

“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” which features 99 prints, drawings, photographs, paintings and artist books, examines his focus on the culture, mythology and iconography of the modern American West and its hold on the romantic imagination. Though the exhibition looks back at 60 years of Ruscha’s life and work, it should not be thought of as a retrospective, notes Karin Breuer, the show’s organizing curator.

“Interestingly, Ruscha’s portrayals of Western imagery or themes have never branded him negatively as ‘just a regionalist artist,’” she says. “I wanted to investigate why that is the case, and celebrate it, while acknowledging that his work encompasses many more concepts and themes than are presented in this show.”

A chronicler of the open road, influenced by Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, the visual vocabulary of Southern California and the movies, Ruscha is associated with both the Pop Art and Conceptual Art movements. He’s perhaps most famous for the intersection of text and image in works where he has superimposed words over big sky Western landscapes, like “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” a large-scale triptych commissioned for the reopening of the de Young in 2005. In this panoramic painting, whose central panel is on view in this show, the words of the title, spelled out in white capital letters, hang over a fading sunset and a deep blue Pacific Ocean; the endless glowing horizon evokes a California paradise of the imagination, the American notion of manifest destiny.

“I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” Ruscha has said. “I see myself working with two things that don’t even ask to understand each other.”

The show is divided into nine thematic areas; the artworks include expansive vistas and tacky buildings—sometimes viewed through the windshield of a car—swimming pools and Standard gas stations, the latter a subject that has intrigued the artist since he first photographed one in 1962. Variations include the 1966 color screenprint

“Standard Station,” with the red and white word “Standard” dominating the image, an outline of a distant phantasm in the 2011 print “Ghost Station” and a lustrous example of immaculate modernist

architecture in the first painted rendering, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” (1963), whose perspective and angular lines Ruscha borrowed from old black and white films.

The landmark Hollywood sign, symbol of the dream factory’s elusive glamour and allure, made its debut in Ruscha’s oeuvre in a 1968 screenprint, on view here. In the cinematic painting “Back of Hollywood” (1977), the sign is portrayed in silhouette from behind, cast against a fiery crimson Technicolor sunset. A pair of 2006 color lithographs suggests an apocalyptic vision; in “Landmark Decay,” the sign slips down a scorched red hillside, while in “Further Landmark Decay,” it has crumbled, its destruction backlit by an ashen twilight.

These later versions are emblematic of Ruscha’s “Panavision” view, reminiscent of wide-screen movies. As a kid in Oklahoma City, he spent his Saturday mornings watching black and white cowboy serials at the local theater, experiences that inspired his photography and the cinematic allusions in his work. His nostalgic, blurry images of buffalo, teepees, wagon trains and howling coyotes, for instance, seem to reference a time and place mythologized in Hollywood Westerns.

In an interview in the exhibition catalogue, Ruscha credits his abiding interest in the rectangular, pictorial format to the movies he saw as a boy. He also recalls memorable film sequences in which a train “comes from an almost invisible point in the distance and just screams into the picture in the form of speed, with the locomotive creating a diagonal slash across the picture plane.” The sharp oblique angles in those action scenes had a profound impact; they appear in multiple images displayed in the show.

Ruscha is also among the artists included in “Wild West: Plains to the Pacific,” a complementary show at the Legion of Honor, which looks at the development of Western lands, from the 19th century to the present, through 175 artworks by Albert Bierstadt, Maynard Dixon, Wayne Thiebaud, Carleton Watkins, Arthur Tress, David Hockney, Ansel Adams, Fritz Scholder and many others.

De Young Museum

July 16 - Oct. 9

Legion of Honor

June 18 - Sept. 11