Ed Ruscha and the Great American West

Ed Ruscha, Filthy McNasty's (Sunset Strip Portfolio) (1976/1995) © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, Filthy McNasty’s (Sunset Strip Portfolio) (1976/1995) © Ed Ruscha

In the exhibition Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through October 9, 2016, iconic and everyday items – buildings, roads, parking lots, gas stations, telephone poles, billboards, roadside trash – are seen through the lens of Ruscha’s by turns affectionate, ironic, bold, and playful vision. Ruscha’s artistic output is vast, in a variety of media including painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, film, and book art. This exhibition focuses on one of Ruscha’s favorite subjects, the images and constantly evolving idea of the American West, in 99 works that also act as a significant retrospective of the still-active artist’s work.

In 1956, the eighteen-year-old Ruscha (pronounced “roo-SHAY”) drove from his home in Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, to study at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts). After graduating, Ruscha took jobs as a layout artist for ad agencies and magazines. That background in commercial art emerges in many of his works. He become fascinated by the sometimes ordinary, but often unusual and artificial, architecture he found around Los Angeles, which he described as “as fake as Western storefronts in Hollywood movies.” He called some of those building fronts “dingbats,” and emphasized their odd lines and superficial details in many photos, drawings, and etchings, including an accordion-fold photo book of Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966).

Ed Ruscha, Standard Station (1966) © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, Standard Station (1966) © Ed Ruscha

In those days, gasoline stations, like the one depicted in the Pop Art-inspired Standard Station (1966), were relatively new. Their bright colors and clean lines looked especially dramatic, isolated as they often were within a lonely landscape. Photos of these stations, such as those in his 1963 photo-essay Twentysix Gasoline Stations, look like they were taken from a car driving past or at side of the road, which in fact they mostly were.

Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, as so many have been, Ruscha made a conscious effort to look more intently at ordinary objects, like roadside detritus, signs, trees, and so on. Eventually he even did his own edition of On the Road as artist’s book with his own photographs. In recent years, Ruscha has returned to this idea in a series of acrylic paintings called Psycho Spaghetti Western. He finds a sort of beauty in human debris, like the tire and cardboard box of #5 (2010).

Ed Ruscha, Psycho Spaghetti Western #5 (2010) © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, Psycho Spaghetti Western #5 (2010) © Ed Ruscha

He has also been attracted to city streets, documenting them from rooftops and even from above via helicopter. Some of the rooftop photos are matter-of-fact, filled with the strong diagonals that often mark his work. Later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the vision became bleak, almost post-apocalyptic, in the Metro Plot series with its dingy grays and blacks. Even if the vision is dark, there is much delight to be found in the textures of his print Laurel Canyon/Ventura Boulevard (publ. 2001), with its roughly scratched-in road grid with street names.
Ed Ruscha, Hollywood (1968) © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, Hollywood (1968) © Ed Ruscha

Another of Ruscha’s icons is the famous Hollywood sign, which he has depicted from many different angles, sometimes with artificially colorful, cinematic backgrounds of the sky and hills – like in Hollywood (1968), where the sign recedes into the distance against a warmly dramatic sunset – but later with the sign decayed and falling apart, against a monochrome background or sometimes with those same colorful skies now acting as an ironic commentary. He almost always – inaccurately, as it happens – portrays the sign at the crest of the hill, giving it greater emphasis as well as providing the opportunity for a more dramatic backdrop.

Film is a constant theme in Ruscha’s work. He has a liking for elongated, thin canvases that accentuate lonely landscapes, which he has likened to widescreen Panavision movies. A series of prints from the 1980s features black shapes against a gray background – reminiscences, ghosts even, of wagon trains, tipis, and buffalo long disappeared, drawn from Ruscha’s memories of the old cowboy serial films he once loved. Oftentimes the images have scratches to evoke those old films, and the imperfection and selectivity of memory.

Ed Ruscha, A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) © Ed Ruscha

Single words like “Texas” and “Trailer” and “Rancho,” and longer vernacular phrases like “God Knows Where,” become dramatic icons in some of his works. Ruscha had a job as a typesetter at one point, which gave him a love for words and typefaces. “Some people paint flowers, I paint words,” he once remarked. He has had a habit of recording words and odd phrases that he happened to encounter in conversation or on the road. A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) would seem to have some ironic intent, especially in the utilitarian font Ruscha employs – dubbed “Boy Scout Utility Modern” – that gives the superimposed words, all in capital letters, a stark, declamatory feeling. Yet the warmth of the Pacific Ocean and the illuminated sun-dappled sky seem genuinely affectionate.

Ed Ruscha, The End (1991) © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, The End (1991) © Ed Ruscha

Another phrase often found in his works is “The End,” often in a Gothic or Old English typeface not unlike what might be seen at the close of a Hollywood movie, and sometimes with those vertical scratches and specks of old films. Is he referring to the literal end of film in the digital age? The end of the road? The end of the possibility of a Romantic vision of the world?

Visit the de Young Museum website to find out more about Ed Ruscha and the Great American West.

Died Eating Library Paste

This gravestone can be found at the Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery in Goldfield, Nevada. Apparently this “unknown man” was starving and came across a tub of library paste that had been put in the trash. While it might have seemed safe enough to eat this combination of flour and water, the paste also contained alum. Alum has commonly been used in the past in baking and pickling, and still often turns up as a deodorant. But it can have toxic effects on the human body. There probably wasn’t much alum in the library paste, but in this case, combined with the man’s already-weak health, there was enough to kill him. It is hard to know how authentic this grave marker might be. But it makes for a good story.

Emperors’ Treasures

Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor.

Kublai Khan as the first Yuan emperor.

Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art From the National Palace Museum, Taipei, recently on exhibit at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, featured over 150 pieces in various media selected from one of the world’s great collections of Chinese art. Asian Art Museum Director and CEO Jay Xiu, a co-curator of the exhibition, enthused in the Museum’s member magazine: “This is the absolute ‘best of the best’ of Chinese imperial art. Jade, paintings, ceramics, calligraphy … This will be a rare opportunity to experience these priceless treasures.” Most of these works had not been seen in the United States before.

The exhibition was presented within the frame of the stories of nine of China’s rulers. Eight emperors and one empress, spanning 800 years of art and history, were represented: Han Chinese emperors Huizong and Gaozong of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE); Kublai Khan, Mongol founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); Yongle and Xuande of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); and Manchu monarchs Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong and Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). These dynasties, explained the exhibition panels, tended to have their own artistic tastes – the “dignified” Song, “bold yet subtle” Yuan, “brilliant” Ming, and “dazzling” Qing.

Collecting art treasures wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics for these emperors – it was political. Emperors were seen as custodians of the culture, and this gave them power. In most cases, the works featured here would only have been seen within the emperor’s court, and were inaccessible to the common folk. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we can still enjoy these works today. They are very well-preserved because, for the most part, they weren’t hung up or on display for extended periods. They spent most of their time carefully stored away, and were only taken out occasionally at the request of the emperor.

Grotesque Stones by Emperor Huizong. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Grotesque Stones, by Emperor Huizong. Photograph © National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Emperors not only collected great works of the past and present, but were in many cases creators themselves. For instance, Huizong (1082-1135) – the name means “Glorious Emperor” – was an excellent calligrapher, inventor of the “slender-gold” style of calligraphy, as well as a fine painter and a patron of the arts. An example of his calligraphy in the exhibition, Grotesque Stones, praises an unusually shaped rock (looking like “a beast about to pounce”) in writing that is strong, elegant, disciplined, and very distinctive. Huizong’s court aspired to the past glories of the Bronze Age through excellence in interpreting Confucian teachings, creating new music, and reviving ancient rituals. The Song Dynasty, in fact, was one of the great creative periods in Chinese history.

Huizong, however, eventually had to go into exile when the Song lost much of its territory to an invasion by the Jin. The court relocated further south, and his Northern Song gave way to the Southern Song. Huizong’s son Gaozong (1107-87) became the first emperor of the Southern Song. Author of a book called The History of Brush and Ink, he was known for his skill in calligraphy, painting, and poetry. Paintings of this time tended toward the intimate, as opposed to the more monumental works of the Northern Song. One such Southern Song painting, Walking on a path in spring by Ma Yuan, was recently discussed here.

The Yuan Dynasty (the word Yuan means “great primordial”) was established by the Mongols, who came in from the north. Its art was more rustic and vigorous than the refined Southern Song. One of its best-known emperors, Kublai Khan (1215-94), wasn’t himself an artist. But he recognized its importance, and created institutions for the preservation of artistic styles, ritual objects, and items for court. He embraced Chinese culture, somewhat to the consternation of his fellow Mongols.

Vase with West Asian Entertainers

Vase with West Asian Entertainers

Han Chinese rule and culture was restored with the emergence of the Ming Dynasty (Ming means “bright”). After the overthrow of the Mongols, Ming rulers wanted to return to the old ways of the Song and of Confucian philosophy. It was Emperor Yongle (1360-1424), whose name means “Perpetual Happiness,” that sent the famous explorer Zheng He on his seven voyages. Trade flourished in far-flung regions during this period, and Chinese silk and porcelain became known all over the world. Symbolic of these interactions with the wider world is the Vase with West Asian Entertainers, one of only two like it still surviving. Created for export, the work’s shape and handles evoke West Asian and Near Eastern models. Yongle was also responsible for creating the Forbidden City in his capital Beijing.

Naval exploration was scaled back during the rule of Xuande (1398-1435), the fifth emperor of the Ming Dynasty. Focus returned to the homeland, and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of great material prosperity, and growth in China’s cities. A painting by one of Xuande’s court artists, Li Zai (d. 1431), Mountain villa and lofty retreat, is a grand composition, over six feet tall, filled with detail, with an active, lively zigzagging motion through the different vignettes of the scroll.

Mountain Villa and Lofty Retreat by Li Zai.

Mountain Villa and Lofty Retreat by Li Zai.

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“Suffering is a treasure, for it conceals mercies;
The almond becomes fresh when you peel off the rind.
O my brother, staying in a cold dark place
And bearing patiently the grief, weakness, and pain
Is the Source of Life and the cup of Abandon!
The heights are found only in the depths of abasement;
Spring is hidden in autumn, and autumn pregnant with spring.
Flee neither; be the friend of Grief, accept desolation,
Hunt for the life that springs from the death of yourself.”
– Jalal-ud-Din Rumi (translated by Andrew Harvey)

Meat-shaped stone

Today’s Wordless Wednesday features the “Meat-shaped stone,” one of the most famous works in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Dating from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), possibly from the nineteenth century, it is a piece of banded jasper that has been carefully carved (including the drilling of tiny holes to imitate pores) and stained to resemble a piece of fatty pork belly marinated in soy sauce. It is said to resemble the pork dish dongpo rou. The “Meat-shaped stone” was the culminating work in the exhibition Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Photo: National Palace Museum, Taipei

Sunday Salon 9-18-16

Sunday Salon badge squareI am deviating from the usual format for these Sunday Salons today, in order to point out the obvious – after a long period of of dormancy, my blog is active once again. My goal here simply is to write about things that interest me, with the hope that they might be of interest to you, too. Music, books, film, history, travel, visual art, worthwhile quotes, and more will all find their way here. I haven’t quite reached my goal of writing a blog post every day. But my recent record of 11 posts in 13 days is pretty reasonable. The diversity level hasn’t been too bad, either:

* Yesterday’s short look at Nalanda, the ancient university in India
* A discussion of Ma Yuan’s lovely thirteenth century painting Walking on a path in spring
* A look at David Helvarg’s book The Golden Shore, on the relationship between California and the Pacific Ocean
* Pictures from my recent visit to Point Lobos, California
* Some history on the Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo, a visit to which was also part of that California trip
* Words from Karen Armstrong, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Mencius on the subject of compassion
* My appreciation of Star Trek: The Animated Series
* A note on Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian
* The collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí in the animated short Destino
* Video of 1,000 komuz players performing recently at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan

This has already been my busiest blogging month since May of 2014, and there’s plenty of time yet. Among the posts I have in the works are some thoughts about two art exhibitions I saw recently in the Bay Area, Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei at the Asian Art Museum, and the de Young Museum’s exhibition Ed Ruscha and the Great American West. I would also like to write about Cemetery of Splendor, the most recent film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, along with some general words about this great Thai director and his wonderful, puzzling, mysterious films. An unusual list of some of my favorite symphonies is coming, as is as a detailed look at Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

One other important point I’d like to make will be the subject of another short blog post soon. But I’ll anticipate myself by saying that one thing you won’t find much of in this blog is negativity. My point in writing is to share my enthusiasms! The freedom with which people criticize, complain, troll, and otherwise share their bile online has become tiresome. And I don’t want to add to that. Moreover, in talking about books and films and such, I don’t consider myself a critic, and it’s the last role I want to take on. I want to share my excitement about these things, not sit in judgment on them.

To conclude, a cartoon, very relevant to the current state of my life, from the series Nancy.


Ancient libraries and lost knowledge are, not surprisingly, a great fascination for many people, including yours truly. An obvious example is the great library at Alexandria, Egypt, perhaps the largest and most important library of the ancient world, which was constructed in the third century BCE and flourished as a center of knowledge until it was destroyed, possibly by a fire set by the army of Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, or by several separate acts of destruction in that and succeeding centuries.

nalanda-university-1For me, of equal or even greater fascination is another center of ancient knowledge, Nalanda. Located in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, modern-day Bihar state, Nalanda included both a university-like school and a Mahavihara, or large Buddhist monastery. Nalanda was originally just a village, on a significant trade route, where some sort of school developed, perhaps as early as the sixth or seventh century BCE. The Buddha himself is said to have lectured there, and his contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of and most important figure in Jainism, also taught there for several years. In the third century BCE, the famous Buddhist emperor Ashoka supposedly built a temple at Nalanda. A few centuries later, the important Mahayana Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna also studied there, later becoming a teacher and leader of the institution.

Nalanda flourished during the Gupta Empire of the fifth and sixth centuries CE and for many centuries thereafter. Royal patronage led to the building of monasteries and other structures. Students and scholars from as far away as China, Korea, Tibet, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Greece made their way to Nalanda. Mahayana Buddhism was a main focus of study, but the curriculum also included the various Theravada forms of Buddhism as well as Sanskrit, logic, medicine, and the ancient Vedas. While a center of Mahayana Buddhist learning, much of what came to be Tibetan Buddhism was developed at Nalanda. Padmasambhava himself, one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have worked at Nalanda in the eighth century CE.

nalanda-university-monasteriesSome of the information we have about the early history and activities of Nalanda comes from the writings of Xuanzang, the much-traveled Chinese monk, who traveled through India between 630 and 643 CE. He visited Nalanda twice, once in 637, followed by a two-year stay starting in 642. He described his surroundings: “… the whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls standing in the middle. The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops are congregated together. The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors (of the morning), and the upper rooms tower above the clouds.” He also wrote, “The lives of all these virtuous men were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind. Thus in the seven hundred years of the monastery’s existence no man has ever contravened the rules of the discipline. The king showers it with the signs of his respect and veneration and has assigned the revenue from a hundred cities to pay for the maintenance of the religious.”

Tibetan sources mention the existence of a huge library at Nalanda comprised of three multistory buildings, the Ratnasagara (Ocean of Jewels), Ratnodadhi (Sea of Jewels), and Ratnaranjaka (Jewel-adorned). Ratnodadhi was the largest, standing nine stories high. While the exact number is not known, the library may well have held hundreds of thousands of volumes, many of them Buddhist texts but also including subjects like literature, logic, grammar, astronomy, and medicine.

Historian Sukumar Dutt writes that the history of Nalanda “falls into two main divisions – first, one of growth, development and fruition from the sixth century to the ninth, when it was dominated by the liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age; the second, one of gradual decline and final dissolution from the ninth century to the thirteenth.” Nalanda declined as Buddhism began to disappear in India. Even Xuanzang, in the seventh century, noted during his travels in India that Buddhism was of less and less interest to people. A combination of a rise in Hindu philosophy and the Muslim invasion of northern India in the early thirteenth century was probably responsible for Nalanda’s demise. It was probably destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1200 CE. Although it’s just a legend, it is said that the library was so huge that it continued to burn for three months after it was set ablaze.

nalanda-university-excavationSome teaching continued for a while longer, but on a vastly smaller scale. Gradually Nalanda was forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century through the work of the Archaeological Survey of India. A thorough study of the site began in 1915. Archaeologists eventually found eleven monasteries and six temples, along with meditation halls and classrooms. Many of the buildings are, or were, decorated with sculptured panels and murals. Only a small percentage of the site, however, has been examined.

According to Xuanzang, over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers lived at Nalanda at its peak. What is now officially known as the Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara (Nalanda University) at Nalanda, Bihar was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. It’s now a popular tourist destination. Wandering through the ruins, one can only imagine what daily life might have been like during its heyday, the intellectual and religious activity … and the library, and how much we have lost.

Looking at Ma Yuan’s Walking on a path in spring

I recently had the opportunity to view the exhibition Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through this Sunday, September 18. In the coming days I’ll write some more about the exhibition as a whole. But today I’d like to focus on one of its many highlights, the painting Walking on a path in spring by Ma Yuan.

Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225) was a court painter during the reigns of Southern Song Emperors Guangzong (r. 1190-1194) and Ningzong (r. 1195-1224). He, as well as his great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and son, served as court painters within the Imperial Painting Academy. His works, along with those of his fellow court painter Xia Gui, became the basis of the Ma-Xia school of painting, which inspired later generations of both Chinese and Japanese painters.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), one of the great creative periods in Chinese history, is divided into Northern and Southern periods. An invasion by the Jin ended the Northern period in the mid 1120s, after which the Song court moved south of the Yangtze River and established a new capital at what is now Hangzhou. The Southern Song sought to restore peace and continue the traditions established in the North. Artistic styles evolved during this time, too: the Northern Song, for instance, tended to the grand and monumental in its paintings, while Southern Song works are more elegant, intimate, and quiet.

Those latter descriptors certainly apply to Ma Yuan’s Walking on a path in spring, sometimes called Walking on a mountain path in spring or simply A mountain path in spring. Painted on an album leaf, ink and color on silk, the work contains what have been called the Three Perfections of Chinese art – painting, poetry, and calligraphy.

Most of the focus of the work is at the lower left – the artist who came to be known as “One-corner Ma” specialized in this type of composition – with the right more open and suggestive. A nicely-dressed man, while walking on a path along the bank of a stream, contemplates a scene from nature. Willow branches above him and flowering branches below him frame his figure. He touches his beard as if in thought. There are also two birds in the scene, possibly orioles. One is poised on a willow branch, and the other is in flight, perhaps startled by the arrival of the man. Another figure in the lower left, possibly a young man or even a child, carries a qin, or Chinese zither. He is taking a step forward, in motion, while the scholar seems to have stopped in order to appreciate the beauty before him. While we can see some branches and rocks off to the right, much of the scene before the man is hidden. Even the mountains, curving off into the distance from the upper left of the painting, are eventually lost in the mist and fog.

The poem in the upper right hand corner of the painting is by Emperor Ningzong (1168-1224), who regarded his court painter Ma Yuan as a favorite. There are various translations, but I’ll use the one from the China Online Museum website:

“The wildflowers dance when brushed by my sleeves.
Reclusive birds make no sound as they shun the presence of people.”

A considerable number of Chinese paintings include poetry. There’s always a question in such works as to whether the poem or the painting came first. Which one inspired the other? In either case, the poem obviously focuses our attention on the relationship between man and the natural world. Both the man and the birds in Ma Yuan’s painting are looking off to the upper right – perhaps they are all focusing on the calligraphy!

Who is the man? His gauze hat and fine clothing indicate he is a man of some stature, quite possibly a scholar. In some Southern Song paintings, a white-robed figure dressed as a scholar could be the Emperor himself. In that case, the painting becomes a celebration of the Emperor’s ability to remain close to nature in the midst of his responsibilities. Whoever the man is, he seems to find pleasure in lonely, out-of-the-way spots. The other human figure at the lower left might represent the intelligence, the cultivated nature, of the robed man, who apparently has the means to travel with his own personal attendant/musician.

There’s an interesting contrast, even irony, to be found in the fact that a scholar, well-dressed and apparently of some refinement, looks at a scene from nature in quite a different way than, say, a farmer who had to toil in it every day. It is, in some respects, an artificial scene that we’re witnessing in Ma Yuan’s work.

Yet it is also a graceful and elegant painting that balances observational detail and mystery. As James Cahill puts it in his book Chinese Painting, “Ma Yuan envelops his subject in an aura of feeling with an extreme economy of means, relying upon the emotional associations of his images and the evocative power of the emptiness surrounding them.”