The financial and bureaucratic issues that complicated the selection of an artist to represent the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale are well known within the art world. After the two principal charitable foundations withdrew their funding, the NEA disbanded its appointed committee as part of a “rethinking” of its own involvement. Then followed a period of stalemate during which it seemed very possible that nothing at all would be done, until a working group of institutions—SF MoMa, the Whitney, the Hirshhorn and the Guggenheim—formed in the autumn of 2004 to select a project, secure its funding, and support its production.
Their choice of Ed Ruscha, among the most established and respected artists working today, was widely applauded. Safe, perhaps, but by no means conservative, the decision was in line with the selections of both Great Britain (Gilbert and George) and France (Annette Messager). The exact nature of Ruscha’s proposal was kept secret, at his request, and known only to the selection committee, curators Linda Norden and Donna De Salvo, studio associates, and representatives at the Gagosian Gallery.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, was closely involved from the outset, overseeing structural alterations to the pavilion, liaising with the Biennale, and coordinating the various logistics. Ten paintings, it emerged, would be installed in Venice: five black-and-white works from 1992 known as the “Blue Collar” series, and five new works, each an updated, full-color response to its predecessor.
The loan of the former group still had to be secured; their owners, museums in Spain, Belgium, and Germany and a private collector in New York, were approached and invited to lend their support to the project. All agreed. With this in mind, Ruscha worked to complete the remaining canvases in his Los Angeles studio. Hatje Cantz began laying out the catalogue, Blue Medium the public relations strategy. A title was chosen, “Course of Empire,” in acknowledgment of the 1836 painting cycle by Thomas Cole that had inspired the project.
Installation took place in early June, supervised by Norden, De Salvo, and Bob Monk from the Gagosian Gallery. Ruscha arrived to give his approval, and the works were mounted. Fundamental to its success was the physical dislocation of the two series into parallel, opposing wings of the building. This method was deemed less didactic, more discreet and engaging. Seen in the warm Venice light, softened by Renzo Piano’s elegant ceiling scrims, the paintings seemed to recall some of those artists more readily associated with the city: Veronese’s candy colors, Tintoretto’s dramatic skies, Tiepolo’s quiet drama.
Visitors were kept at bay until press day, June 8th. During the three marathon days that followed, several thousand collectors, curators, and artists filtered through the air-conditioned pavilion. The press conference was packed, and enlivened by the good-humoured heckles of Tony Shafrazi, the first to show the “Blue Collar” works back in 1992. Many thought that Ruscha deserved a Golden Lion. It went to Messager instead, a popular alternative.
When it came to the party, however, Ruscha was the clear winner. A palace on the Grand Canal, filled to bursting with the art world’s aristocracy. The plastic, dollar-store bracelets that secured entry were traded on eBay for four-figure sums the day before. Kraftwerk might have played for Germany, and Björk for Iceland, but in the candlelit rose garden of Palazzo Papadopoli there were banjos from Oklahoma, Ruscha’s home state. Chewing on candy floss in boots and bolo tie, Ruscha himself led a merry dance from the Hotel Cipriani poolside to an early-morning slot in a St. Mark’s Square bandstand.
Press reaction was altogether positive. “Together,” wrote Benjamin Buchloh in Art Forum, “these works and the conception of their display mark Ruscha’s definitive ascension to the status of one of the truly great artists of his generation.” Visitors who came later in the summer, with more time and fewer people to contend with, seemed to tune into the pavilion’s subtle understatement more readily than those who hustled through during the opening festivities. “Course of Empire” succeeded in exciting both those familiar with the artist’s work and those encountering it for the first time. Robert Gober, four years previous, managed the first but not the second; Fred Wilson, who followed him, the second but not the first.
Given the problems that preceded Ruscha’s selection, and the short amount of time available to both him and his curators, all concerned deserved their congratulations. It is to be hoped that a more serious and structured selection procedure be put in place in good time for the 2007 Biennale, especially considering the fact that we cannot have Ed Ruscha back again.