Ed Ruscha and the Great American West
de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco CA 94118
July 16-October 9, 2016
Made in San Francisco: Ed Ruscha Etchings, 1982-2014
Crown Point Press
20 Hawthorne St. San Francisco CA 94105
July 12 – September 3, 2016
Ed Ruscha, arguably the quintessential California artist of the past 50 years, has famously trained his lens on the peculiarities of the Los Angeles landscape, yet he has many admirers throughout the state. San Francisco’s welcoming presence has been both a source of creativity and a leading advocate of his legacy for many years. This summer, two of The City’s preeminent cultural venues celebrate the artist with a retrospective of his etchings produced at Crown Point Press over three decades and a comprehensive grouping of diverse works examining his vision of a once and future western United States at the de Young.
When Ed Ruscha hightailed it out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1956, he could have turned left, and he might have turned right. Right was the still dominant cultural capital of New York, despite the waning days of abstract expressionism. Left was the disparaged west coast, the Hollywood-ransacked, barren wasteland of suspect culture. He made the trip west with Mason Williams, future songster (“Classical Gas”) and head comedy writer for the smirky Smothers Brothers, whose television program Comedy Hour in the late sixties was a benchmark in the culture wars of the era.
By the time his childhood friend was yucking it up and savaging the foibles of a culturally, socially, and politically divided America with the Smothers Brothers, Ruscha had already made his mark in his adopted Los Angeles. With his immaculate social skill set, he slid smoothly into the fulcrum of LA artistic life; he became the young turk at the Ferus Gallery and pioneered the emerging field of artists’ books with a line of conceptually rich photographic works depicting the bland Los Angles landscape with a bureaucrat’s resolve. His skills and reputation over the decades continued to increase with the production of text driven paintings, for which he is perhaps best known. He is, without argument, the most admired artist in California, both by colleagues and public alike.
Avoiding New York’s abstract splash, Ruscha cultivated a decidedly cool reserve that has served him well from books to paintings, prints to lifestyle. The first time I laid eyes on him was at a reception for an opening at Peter Mendenhall Gallery in Los Angeles, which he shared with renegade artist Joe Coleman. Ruscha was courted by actresses Cybill Shepherd and Lauren Hutton, yet drove away alone in a Lamborghini. Being as shallow as the next person, I was pretty impressed.
Ruscha’s work is very much in the manner of a Hollywood theatrical production employing both backdrops and props. The backdrops are reoccurring support systems entertaining a shifting array of props, which flush out the message. Stage settings take the form of books, billboards, sunsets, mountains, maps, and horizontal landscapes. The props in the case of his famously droll series of inexpensively produced books are gas stations, parking lots, swimming pools, and nondescript buildings. His repeated use of the Hollywood sign (both front and back) is another prop in the service of sunset backdrops. More recently, mountain landscapes have joined the sunsets and the setting for his various textual messages.
While his gloriously glowing sunsets garner the majority of praise, Ruscha’s vision of the western states are perhaps best exemplified by billboards and road maps. They are the stage settings upon which the message rests. And the message is this—the future is blank, and you write your own ticket to get there. His vacant billboards convey the inadequacy of words and our inability to predict the future. Roadside billboards give rise to expectations of things yet to come; in Ruscha’s west, they never do.
The maps, defined only by frugal placement of lines indicating named cross streets, transport us through unspecified terrain. His Petro Plots series (Laurel Canyon/Ventura Boulevard, Hollywood/Vine) accentuate the indefinite nature of the landscape. Is it wasteland, aerial view, post-apocalyptic vision, or simply the primacy of the road? Like all art rich in meaning, it’s up to us to decipher the work; no one interpretation is better than another.
Although not included in the exhibition at the de Young, Ruscha’s Los Francisco San Angeles, a portfolio of seven color soft ground etchings, printed at Crown Point Press in 2001, and the L. A. S. F. series produced in 2003, on view at the Crown Point Press exhibition, are my favorite works of map studies he has done. Unlike previous map works, which indicate the formless topology of Los Angeles roadways, Los Francisco San Angeles, mixes the streets of his adopted city with those of San Francisco, where the engraving were produced. Columbus/Sunset, Geary/Wilshire, Melrose/Market, etc., add something new to the mix. They are not real world locators adrift in unspecified geographies, but conjoined landscapes, expanding our vision when imagining the west.
In her catalog essay, Words and Landscapes, Kathan Brown, Founding Director of Crown Point Press, writes, “I see these maps as endless, going off in different directions. As maps they are systematic but not usable. As landscapes, they create expansion without horizon lines. But, toying with the idea of Ruscha as a landscape artist, we should think about straightforward word pieces like Roughly 92% Angel or Real Deal…Art doesn’t fit well into theories; few artists stay on a straight and narrow path.”
Valerie Wade, director of Crown Point Press, contributes a text based on her first hand observations of Ruscha’s working methods over several decades. Her essay, Signs+Streets+Streets+Signs, confirms the artist’s methodical confrontation with both subject and style. “Ruscha always approached his subjects without sentiment, in a factual, straightforward manner. This strategy prefigured a signature look in future drawings, paintings and prints.”
The Crown Point Press exhibition features 39 prints (including two portfolios of seven prints each), accounting for all the work he has produced at Crown Point since 1982. The earlier works are long out of print and exceedingly rare, and many are on loan from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Crown Point Press Archive.
The painted text works are abundant in the Fine Arts Museums exhibition, which is broader in scope than the print-only display at Crown Point Press. Word paintings, such as Rodeo, Trailer, Rustic Pines, Wheels Over Indian Trails, Slobberin Drunk at the Palomino, God Knows Where, Honey….I Twisted Through More Damned Traffic to Get Here, Busted Glass, and finally, The End, are as much indicators of the western experience as named streets on a featureless frontier.
In her catalog essay, Fertile Ground: Ed Ruscha’s Great American West, Karin Breuer, exhibition curator and Curator in Charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, housed at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, notes that, “Another painting, America’s Future, might be Ruscha’s clever reference to the American historical themes of Manifest Destiny and westward expansionism, but more likely it alludes to his own journey as a mid-twentieth-century pioneer. It is certainly emblematic of his first trip west as an adult in 1956, seeking escape from Oklahoma and finding his future in California.”
Los Angeles may be the point of departure from which Ruscha’s creativity developed, but his ties to San Francisco are strong. In October 2000, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco acquired the complete graphic archive of Ruscha’s 325 editioned prints and approximately 800 working proofs, housed at the Achenbach Foundation in the Legion of Honor. The Museum continues to expand its collection of Ruscha’s printed works by adding new issues as they are completed, including those produced at Crown Point Press. We can expect to see more Ruscha exhibitions at both venues in the future.
In 2013, Ruscha was elected to the SFMOMA board of trustees for a three-year term. More than a Los Angles artist, he is a California artist, a national treasure, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2005. Ed Ruscha continues to exemplify the restless wanderings of an inquisitive citizen adrift in the landscape of the vast American west.
 Kathan Brown, “Words and Landscapes,” in Made in San Fancisco: Ed Ruscha Etchings: 1982-2014, Crown Point Press, San Francisco, California. 2016. Page 10.
 Valerie Wade, “Signs+Streets+Streets+Signs,” in Made in San Francisco: Ed Ruscha Etchings: 1982-2014. Crown Point Press, San Francisco, California, 2016. Page 79.
 Karin Breuer, “Fertile Ground: Ed Ruscha’s Great American West,” in Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/University of California Press, San Francisco, California. 2016. Page 13.