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