It would be pretty absurd to call the veteran Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha an overnight sensation, but it would also be not so far from the truth. Although he has been making and showing art for over forty years, it is only during the past five years or so that he has truly rocketed into the stratosphere of contemporary art. Following his 2004 Whitney retrospectives, Roberta Smith wrote, “these shows confirm Mr. Ruscha not only as a first-generation Pop artist, but also . . . a Post-pop innovator on a par with Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke,” while Peter Schjeldahl called him “one of the four most influential artists to have emerged in the nineteen-sixties, along with Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Bruce Nauman.”
It’s always heartening to see an underappreciated artist get his due, but in Ruscha’s case, this development is particularly sweet. For many years, his decision to live and work in Los Angeles—until recently isolated from and neglected by the New York-centered art world—has worked against him. Ruscha first arrived on the Los Angeles art scene in the late 1950s; a self-described “Okie,” he left Oklahoma City and headed west to study graphic design at L.A.’s Chouinard Art Institute—and to take part in the smooth Angeleno lifestyle he had long admired from afar. His first paintings embraced the Abstract Expressionist gesturalism his Chouinard teachers professed, but popular imagery—and text—soon began to creep into his paintings. Eventually, he decided that he was a painter, not a designer, and Ed Ruscha as we know him came into being. Since the early 1960s, he has focused on L.A.—its culture, architecture, and industry (e.g., Hollywood)—as the primary subject of his work. His images of freeway gas stations, film studio logos, palm trees, swimming pools, and numerous other symbols of Southern California life both reflect and shape contemporary perceptions of Hollywood (that great manufacturer of American myth) as well as the city (by turns dismal and enchanting) that supports it. As a result, the artist has helped introduce a new, West Coast sensibility to the landscape of contemporary art, and helped establish a novel image of the artist as a Hollywood-style celebrity.
But Ruscha is—and always has been—more than this, and his contribution to the history of twentieth and twenty-first century art is not to be underestimated. His photographic books—works like Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)—were key precursors to conceptual art, their influence surfacing in the work of generations of artists, from Dan Graham to Paul McCarthy to Andreas Gursky. With their deadpan depiction of the Western urban landscape, these books also helped shape the visions of architectural theorists like Reyner Banham, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi. Equally significantly, Ruscha was also one of the original—one might say “founding”—Pop artists. His work figured prominently in the earliest Pop exhibitions—New Painting of Common Objects (organized by Walter Hopps, Pasadena Art Museum, 1962) and Pop Art-USA (organized by John Coplans, Oakland Art Museum, 1963), among others—shows that were divided evenly between West and East Coast artists. It was only later, in the mid-1960s, that the New York Pop contingent (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, et al.) eclipsed the Californians in critical and financial success. But Ruscha’s monumental, gently ironic paintings of commercial icons—the Twentieth Century Fox symbol in Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1963), a highway stop in Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963)—marked a turning point in the evolution of the Pop style. With their seamless integration of image and text, these works launched Ruscha’s career-long exploration of the intersection of visual and verbal language; his numerous word paintings, drawings, and prints constitute an ongoing linguistic experiment that probes the limits of human communication. (One 1977 painting, No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk, says it all.) Echoes of Ruscha’s adventures in language can be seen in the work of artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Lorna Simpson. Long admired among artists but undervalued by critics, Ruscha has been a critical figure in the evolution of contemporary art. We are only just beginning to catch up with him.