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.

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