This, This, This, and This

The tagline of the magazine in question, Popular Western, was “Complete Quick-Trigger Stories,” which could apply to Ruscha’s photographs but not to his paintings. Even his silliest paintings are stately and brooding, often to a fault. The character of the brooding evolved over time. If the later paintings are—often but not always to their detriment—more explicit about our world on fire, the ’60s work prioritizes pleasure: the laid-back loops of the gas pump hoses, the blocky, confident reds, the crisp fluorescents, and the light and shadow on the glass façade provide little indication of the crises to come.

Ed Ruscha and his buildings

Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68. © 2023 Ed Ruscha.

The weekend before last we exchanged some emails about the artist Ed Ruscha and ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, the big MoMA retrospective of his work, which closed on January 13. In the spirit of the serial and procedural early working methods of the man himself, we imposed some rules on the production: we would take turns and wait for the other’s email before beginning our reply, and each email would focus on a single work or series in the show (though we could devote more than one paragraph to the same work). For the most part we have adhered to our constraints. —TdeM and MK

KROTOV: “Why is this museum on fire?” asks a caption in the third room of MoMA’s Ruscha survey. “Enter the number on moma.org/audio or on the free Bloomberg Connects app.” The contemporary art museum, ostensibly a place where one can spend some time away from one’s phone, clearly disagrees with that premise. Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire was painted between 1965 and 1968, and by this point in the exhibit, and in the artist’s career, it is impossible not to find oneself bemused by alienating language, impossible not to be rescued from alienation by Ruscha’s bemusement. I imagine portions of wall text transposed onto one of his cynical late paintings, of full-color Ansel Adams vistas overlaid with enigmatic fragments: WHY IS THIS MUSEUM ON FIRE? BLOOMBERG CONNECTS APP. But before the cynicism—or rather, before the cynicism and the levity fell out of sync—there was Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire: precise, abstract, obvious, elusive. A masterpiece.

“When later questioned about this provocation, Ruscha offered that ‘the fire is really like an after-statement—like a coda, as in a coda to music,’” the wall text informs us. Questioned? By the time I got to Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire I was reading Ruscha’s quotes before studying the work, his cheerful misdirection and even outright deception an antidote to MoMA’s humorless hostility. Misdirected or deceived or otherwise, I did in fact forget about the fire. I’d remember it again every few seconds, and examine it, and then my attention would be drawn back to the work’s spectacular in-betweenness: is it a painting of the museum, or of a model of the museum, or maybe of an architectural rendering? The perspective calls to mind one of those oversized signs outside a construction site, a promise of a finished building and the future to come, but there’s too much sky off to the right (advertising rarely leaves space unaccounted for), and the background is too unsettling, and oh yes also there’s the fire. It’s a sly, funny painting: institutional critique aimed at his adopted hometown’s art establishment and their shiny new toy.  (There’s something beautifully provincial about the “County” in the museum’s name, evocative of dirt roads and movie ranches, as if the Louvre could ever be called the Paris County Museum.) But above all it is a brutal, haunting image of an arts complex disconnected from its invisible surroundings, a blunt but suggestive metaphor for the urban renewal era and the emergence of what Mike Davis once called “Fortress LA.” A lot of America was on fire in the ’60s. Why not the museum?

DE MONCHAUX: The striving desire that brought about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—for a touch of class somewhere in the sprawl, for something glittering and monumental, for some sign of a convening Society in the unnervingly horizontal and unpedigreed Los Angeles scene—is the same desire that would see that building destroyed and replaced. LACMA was designed, in 1963, by William Pereira, whose next and last project would be 1972’s Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. Pereira’s design for LACMA—a solid composition of foursquare pavilions with big airy atriums inside, linked by passageways and multi-level platforms and pools, all in the usual sea of parking—had the vibe of timeless, late-midcentury brutalism. But here—as at Pereira’s former business partner John Luckman’s simultaneous design for New York City’s new Penn Station—that style’s sculptural simplicity and monumentality in cast concrete was tempered with a stagey fussiness of detail, a liberal application of filigreed bronze grilles and dainty fins and water courts that would characterize a primarily Californian and Texan regional sub-style somewhat self-seriously called the New Formalism. (An avatar of this style was Edward Durell Stone, early co-designer in 1936 of New York’s original Museum of Modern Art building.) Maybe the staginess of the New Formalism came from a touch of show business: Pereira had been an art director for Cecil B. de Mille and even won an Oscar for special effects in a 1942 John Wayne Western, Reap the Wild Wind.

The fire came for LACMA—figuratively—in the spring and summer of 2020, when the complex’s destruction was ruled one of the essential works that could continue during the lockdown. David Geffen had donated a lot of money for something new. The big LACMA campus, of which the subject of Ruscha’s painting was only the eastern half, has always been unsatisfying to its owners and operators. An unbuilt Rem Koolhaas design proposal almost demolished the whole campus in 2001, before the museum settled for a fiddly and gloomy Renzo Piano annex instead. Opening circa 2025 will be the worst building by one of the world’s formerly finest designers—the Swiss Peter Zumthor, once a maker of precious cuckoo clock–like wooden hillside chapels and elegantly austere Alpine spas—who here has gone full late Elvis with a sprawling wiggly concrete platform, raised (unnecessarily but for the views from the museum café) some thirty feet above all the parking. This folly is getting visibly cheaper, shedding finishes and features as construction of the 2013 design drags on. Its signature element is a swoopy bridge over Wilshire Boulevard. But in LA, especially from traffic below, this just reads as another overpass. Much of the budget has been diverted to retrofitted seismic foundations for the raised platform, which would otherwise have threatened the La Brea Tar Pits just opposite.

Tar—and everything oily and combustible in the ground—is the point. LACMA opened in late March of 1965; Ruscha has said that his painting was based on his view from a helicopter ride around that time. To needlessly destroy, after only fifty-five years, a building still useful and durable, to squander its embodied energy and carbon footprint (a far greater sum than any accumulated margin of lifetime operational fuel efficiency yet to be tabulated in Zumthor’s replacement building), and to replace it with so very much cast concrete, the material that consumes the most water and petroleum of them all: this is the most wasteful vanity imaginable now that we are all reaping the  wild wind, now that all the world is on fire, now that we are all living in the coda.1

KROTOV: The layout of the exhibit’s crucial second room ensured that I saw Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (black-blue sky, spotlights) long before I saw Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half (cornflower blue sky, no spotlights). The latter was hung on the wall behind Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (blue-black sky, spotlights, and the best title in the show) and thus impossible to glimpse through a doorway, impossible to think about before encountering it face to face. That order of operations established a hierarchy of Ruscha’s gas station paintings, one that began to invert slowly as I stared into the cornflower blue sky, the thickness and visible accretion of the paint in Ace and Boss—done just a year or two earlier—having given way, by 1964, to the serene flatness of everything that followed. I thought about one of my favorite sequences in the favorite sequence–rich Zabriskie Point, when Mark’s stolen plane finally takes off and the camera leaps out into the LA sky, the freeways and tract houses smoothing out into smoggy abstraction, into a color at once grayer, greener, and browner than Ruscha’s unvarying blue but not unrelated to it. As with the fire in Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire I kept forgetting about the ten-cent western being torn in half in Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half. Again, Ruscha offers me an out, however disingenuous: “I wanted to bring unlike things together. And so [the magazine is] no different than maybe a piece of music that might have a coda at the end, or some other element that is unlike the rest of the work.”

The tagline of the magazine in question, Popular Western, was “Complete Quick-Trigger Stories,” which could apply to Ruscha’s photographs but not to his paintings. Even his silliest paintings are stately and brooding, often to a fault. The character of the brooding evolved over time. If the later paintings are—often but not always to their detriment—more explicit about our world on fire, the ’60s work prioritizes pleasure: the laid-back loops of the gas pump hoses, the blocky, confident reds, the crisp fluorescents, and the light and shadow on the glass façade provide little indication of the crises to come.

Did Ruscha depict the American roadside ’60s, or did he invent them? In its worldview the painting has more in common with Hopper’s Roosevelt-era Gas than with Stephen Shore’s downcast Standard station in Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1975, from a few years into the energy crisis, taken at a moment when tar was indisputably the point. Toward the end of the ’60s, Ruscha would photograph a sea of thirty-four parking lots, mixing bemusement and pleasure and dread in a ratio not unlike Antonioni’s. (I’d love to read a transcript of Antonioni’s visit to Ruscha’s studio. Maybe the two men just stood in silence?) But it is a delight to confront, in Standard Station, Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, a more naïve approach to brooding, to luxuriate in Ruscha’s innocent or at least innocent-adjacent desire to bring unlike things together.

DE MONCHAUX: In the mid-1960s, Ed Ruscha and his close friend, the Canadian-turned-Californian architect Frank Gehry, used to hang out at the fashionable clubs and bars on the Sunset Strip. One of the many documentary materials that the MoMA survey directs you to on your phone is a quick interview with the latter about the former. “It was the highlight of Hollywood nightlife,” says Gehry of the Strip. “Ed was curious to document it, and he made a book about it. It’s very cool the way he represented it. There was no emotion about what goes on in there. It was just, look at the Hollywood strip, the Sunset Strip. There it is. It’s a bunch of stupid buildings. . . . We all got copies. I still have that in my library somewhere.” Every Building on the Sunset Strip, a 1966 pamphlet, was initially self-published in an edition of one thousand. It folds out, accordion-style, from a trim size of 7×5 5/8 inches x 3/8 inches thick to a satisfying length of 24 feet, 11 1/2 inch when open. Along the top of the pages runs in black and white a continuous horizontal panorama of all the buildings on the north side of the two and a half miles of the Strip. Along the bottom of the pages runs in black and white a continuous horizontal panorama of all the buildings on its south side. “I felt like [Sunset Boulevard] should be recorded with no prejudice, with no agenda, and no moral,” says 2023 Ed Ruscha, in MoMA material also available on your phone.

Once, at an auction house, I held Joan Didion’s copy of this volume. Every architect I know owns a reprint. Minimalist seriality, difference-and-repetition iteration, radical noticing (as opposed to mere brooding) worthy of an Emersonian transparent eyeball: these are the most useful creative tools of today’s designers. Among the students and faculty with whom I teach architectural design, nobody talks about Frank Gehry and everybody talks about Ed Ruscha and Every Building on the Sunset Strip. The American history of contemporary design is impossible to imagine without this document. Perhaps that’s because the book’s methodology anticipates the data-driven pattern recognition and parametric practice encouraged by computational tools. Perhaps it’s because, now that all the world has become Los Angeles—sprawling, fiery, glamorous—Ruscha’s panoramic visual archive is what allows us to see such a world as best as we can: flattening out the intestinally winding pin-turns of the Boulevard into the orthogonal elevational survey, the page, the screen.

Among the ephemera at MoMA you can see Ruscha’s assiduous floorplan diagram and photographic documentation of the modified Datsun pickup truck he and his assistants used for such projects: long-lens on a tripod in the back, mounted like a terrorist’s cannon on a Toyota Hi-Lux. Unlike Gehry, Ruscha avoided the draft. When I see that Datsun setup, and recall his tales of renting out a chopper to shoot swimming pools and parking lots from above, I think of a boy living out his own fantasies of “Complete Quick-Trigger Stories,” in cosplay as a Huey helicopter door gunner, spraying GPMG shots and dropping cigarette ash into a threatening landscape, palm fronds dancing in the downdraft. “I was against the war,” Ruscha told the New Yorker in 2013, “but I didn’t see any purpose in the boycott. I was never an activist in that respect.” To suggest that anything could be recorded with no moral is of course itself a moral statement. By which I mean an immoral one.

KROTOV: None of the buildings in Every Building on the Sunset Strip is “stupid.” For true stupidity I recommend a visit to Frank Gehry’s own Walt Disney Concert Hall. In the architecture books I used to examine as a kid, the metal panels that make up the building’s whooshing façade looked exciting, adventurous, untamed; at street level they are simply dumb, too big and too vague. Even worse is the south elevation, which never shows up in architecture books—for good reason. Instead of whooshes and swooshes, which would have been something, there is only a flat, boring wall interrupted by boring windows and boring vents: less than nothing. A sole metal panel floating above the entrance to the REDCAT Theater, on the building’s southwest corner, only underscores the hollowness of the entire enterprise. All this to say that it’s no surprise Gehry misunderstands his friend’s project.

Ruscha has always been ironic, frequently cynical, sometimes immoral—but his architectural photography wouldn’t land with such incredible force if it weren’t also ennobling. Some Los Angeles Apartments, published a year before Every Building on the Sunset Strip, presents thirty-four low-rise and mid-rise buildings Ruscha might well have thought were stupid—but which attain, thanks to his radical noticing, a modest but insistent dignity. As in his other artists’ books, he keeps things simple, using stark, mostly square photos, taken with a medium-format semi-professional Yashica camera, with addresses appended below in a declarative and buttoned-up all-caps serif, like something out of a multi-volume encyclopedia sold door to door in 1955. Round breezeblocks and LEE TIKI in tiki font at 1555 ARTESIA BLVD.; concrete panels, stairwells, overhangs, and palm trees at 818 DOHENY DR.; FOUNTAIN BLU in cheesy italics atop a bland two-story stucco and stone-faced complex at 6565 FOUNTAIN AVE.; three rows of ugly windows that coalesce into something emphatically non-ugly at 708 S. BARRINGTON AVE. LEE TIKI, FOUNTAIN BLU—six decades on, these local marketing efforts feel poignant compared to Gehry’s industrial-scale starchitect bluster. Not much of what Ruscha captures in his books is great architecture, but all of it is dutiful and public-spirited, designed for people rather than hedge funds. In the surreal Barrington Avenue, one of the four lovely graphite drawings hung on above the display case containing Some Los Angeles Apartments, Ruscha depicts the windows of 708 S. BARRINGTON AVE shading into a whooshing scroll not unlike the panel at the southwest corner of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Crucially, Ruscha has always understood that some shapes work best in two dimensions.

DE MONCHAUX: I wish that Ed Ruscha would make a painting of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on fire. This was Frank Gehry’s 1997 branch franchise in the Pittsburgh of Spain, the huge, metallic, and lumpy building that inaugurated—courtesy of skillful publicity and neoliberal complacency and pre-millennial grandiosity—the notion of a so-called Bilbao Effect. This was the idea that a provincial county or cultural backwater could and should somehow assert itself with a singular big, fancy, photogenic, sculptural architectural artifact. (Really it was the Sydney Effect, the difference being that Sydney’s 1957–1973 Opera House, by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, is a good opera house and a magnificently humane and urbane civic space. The Guggenheim Bilbao, by contrast, is awkward to show art in and is a mean neighbor to its neighborhood.) Like the Walt Disney Concert Hall made closely in its image, Bilbao was as stately, establishmentarian, pious, ponderous, and instantly obsolete as the hipster artists of 1965 mistakenly thought the then-new LACMA was. Today it is obvious that great architecture is not some heroic individual’s self-expression at urban scale, wrought at very high cost in capital and carbon. Great architecture is, instead, a complex self-regulating homeostatic system hiding in plain sight, a mirror of nature. A perfect example is the vernacular modern building type of the Dingbat: this is the name for circa 1950–1980 apartment buildings like the LEE TIKI and the FOUNTAIN BLU. Dingbat referred to the typography of the buildings’ signage—supergraphic in scale and legibility, designed, like billboards, to be read from behind the wheel—and eventually to the architectural typology itself. These two-story apartment buildings, lightweight stucco-over-wood structures perched, at the exact limit of seismic probity, on steel poles above shaded parking lots below, are—block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood—the true cathedral of Los Angeles. They have always housed a middle class in style, simplicity, and a measure of dignity. The genius of Ruscha was simply to notice them and document that notice.

Although such an act was easily assimilated into the Pop condescension of high to low, I have the feeling that it was something closer to the humanist, ruthless, laconic, compulsively cataloguing street photography of a Friedlander or a Frank: this, this, this, and this.

KROTOV: After the ’60s, after the vacant and sweet-smelling proto–social media spectacle of the Chocolate Room, the MoMA show becomes a chronicle of work that is stately, establishmentarian, pious, and ponderous. Ever the brilliant self-promoter, once an ad man and always an ad man, Ruscha seems to have spent a lot of the past few decades reading the room and profiting handsomely from what he saw. In the early days the self-promotion was joyful, insouciant, and explicit: the destruction of a typewriter and the documentation thereof (Royal Road Test) occurring in cheerful simultaneity, their ostentatious method of more interest (and marketing utility) than their aesthetic result. The frictionless later work continues to insist on its legibility, but with none of the verve—never more so than in a series of boring paintings from the 1980s that depict a clock, a shipwreck, THE END, and so on. This somber, turgid work is Ruscha’s nadir. It could have been painted by anyone, and it’s unfortunate that it was painted by Ruscha—though I’m sure the omnipresent Larry Gagosian had no trouble selling it.2

In any case, I’m much more interested in the outliers, the instances when wealth and self-satisfaction could not get in the way of Ruscha’s dogged, miraculous American ingenuity. The mid-’80s series that includes The Music from the Balconies and Wen Out for Cigrets, with its aerial perspective on the nighttime street grid and its scrawled lettering, is one of the artist’s strongest. (I thought again of Zabriskie Point, and of our age of air strikes.) Better yet are three paintings from the Blue Collar series—Blue Collar Trade School, Blue Collar Tech-Chem, and especially Blue Collar Tool & Die—which struck me with the nearly the same force as Some Los Angeles Apartments. They’re not obvious analogues. Unlike the photos, the paintings are huge, wide, heavy, textureless, and withholding. But the genius manifests in the same way: Ruscha notices and shows us what he sees. For better or worse, America’s true cathedral is now the warehouse. The Walmart, the Costco, the data center, the distribution center, the immigrant detention center, the prison, the megachurch, the Sky Zone Trampoline Park, the Dave & Buster’s, Guantanamo: the warehouse is our ur-typology, and already in 1992 Ruscha saw it coming.

The haunting, monochromatic paintings in the Blue Collar series depict warehouses and warehouse-like structures under large, unfriendly skies. The buildings are stripped of detail because these buildings don’t operate via detail: whether read from a road or confronted up close, they are, above all else, flat, bland, and opaque. To see through the opacity: how does Ruscha do it? Circling the exhibit a second time and finding no human figures I wondered if Ruscha’s great intellectual gift is his disinterest in people, a weird lacuna that sublimely accommodates his profound and sustained interest in space and place, in TRADE SCHOOL and TECH-CHEM and TOOL & DIE. That one of America’s greatest living artists3 is a comically wealthy self-marketer who disdains people is a joke worthy of Ruscha’s own bemusement.

DE MONCHAUX: “Perhaps other than John Wayne,” went a flattering 2020 New York Times profile of Ed Ruscha, “no other postwar American has been described as ‘laconic’ quite as much as he has. It’s a good word for him. Watching Mr. Ruscha enter a room feels like witnessing a cowboy suiting up for his last rodeo. His gait is stiff and slow, but also dramatically deliberate, and at 82, he’s still as handsome as a movie star.” Getting old is one of those hiding-in-plain-sight irrefutable ubiquities that, like the Dingbat, bears ruthless noticing. I like to imagine Ruscha forever in the mid-1960s era when his work was most appealing and useful to me. About the boring, Gagosian-inflated 1980s and 1990s paintings—spray-painted fake scratchy celluloid or hotel-art-ish Alpine landscapes masked out with gnomic statements in Ruscha’s chamfered-cornered font he called Boy Scout Utility Modern—I find myself at a loss for words. It would be easier if he had died in 1970.

I think of the Duke himself, outliving his 1956 apotheosis in The Searchers to bring his ever more brittle persona to The Green Berets, that enthusiastic 1968 take on the Vietnam War—confoundingly contemporary to Zabriskie Point. It was the so-called War on Terror, and its mendacious conflation by the administration of George W. Bush, another cosplay cowboy and summer soldier, that seems to have animated Ruscha’s late work. Boxy towers and big box black sites. 315,190 dead Iraqi civilians. About all this we are now laconic. For the 2005 Venice Biennale, Ruscha had the American Pavilion to himself, and the self-described non-activist put together something he called Course of Empire: the grisaille generic warehouses and office buildings and depots he’d painted for the Blue Collar cycle in the 1990s were retconned and reappeared, duplicated, in color, as ruins. The title was taken from Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole’s five-painting cycle of 1834–36, illustrating the rise and fall of a Roman-ish Empire: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, Devastation.4

In 2017, the first year of the peculiar presidency of Donald Trump, Ruscha painted Our Flag, a very pictorial and picturesque—and very non-Jasper Johns—Old Glory, fraying, almost burning, against a sooty blue-black sky. The painting is a riff on Frederic Edwin Church’s notably uncharacteristic Our Banner in the Sky, painted by that student of Thomas Cole after the 1861 Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. In this uncanny work a landscape painter of otherwise documentary discipline gives way to a hallucinatory vision of a sky in which torn clouds make the stripes, and beyond them actual celestial objects constellate the stars. Was Ruscha’s version as close to protest art as a long-prosperous and apparently fulfilled man in his ninth decade (who never had to bear his forebears’ surname of Ruschitzka, who had it made by his twenty-fifth birthday, who even now has a luxuriant head of silver hair, who accrued a fortune estimated as high as an even billion, who by his own published account has smoked a lot of dope, who once dated Eve Babitz) can get? Or was Ruscha merely ratifying, even dignifying in a Whiggish way, the way things go? “I’m kind of insulated in this place here,” he told Vanity Fair about his 9,000-square-foot studio in Culver City, “But that’s not a complaint.” It’s the privilege of a work of art, unlike a work of architecture, not to confess to any purpose. Whether that privilege extends to the artist themself is an open question. Ruscha—voluble for once—also told Vanity Fair, “I like any attention given to something that doesn’t require attention.” How can the Emersonian eyeballing, in which meditative indifference is divinely transubstantiated into compassionate attention, be distinguished from the flattening gaze of the sociopath?

A coda: Church was among much else an American popularizer of the architectural historian John Ruskin. In 1842’s Modern Painters, Ruskin instructs: “the imperative duty of the landscape painter is to descend to the lowest details with undiminished attention. Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied with equal industry, and rendered with equal precision.”

  1. MoMA, too, is an enthusiastic self-demolisher of its campus, most recently of architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s annexed Folk Art Museum, during its brief twelve-year lifespan a globally significant masterpiece of choreographed sightlines. The results are not worth the lost embodied energy and carbon: the ramshackle top-floor temporary gallery space into which Ruscha was installed—exactly as in the interior of a big box store or warehouse—manages, with its poor proportions, to feel listlessly oversized without ever feeling spacious. Art never ever looks good there. Imagine if artistic masterpieces such as Ruscha’s own were routinely destroyed after twelve years, as we are accustomed to architectural masterpieces being demolished, and generally replaced—I swear I’m no Whig—with something worse. 

  2. And he will have his easiest time yet after this retrospective. Still, I think I would find Ruscha’s palatability to hedge funders, oil executives, and heads of state more offensive if he weren’t the great artist he is—and if others’ attempts at the commercialization of his work weren’t so obviously unsuccessful. The Ed Ruscha Boss Adjustable Cap, not currently available in the MoMA Design Store, does nothing to diminish his work. The postcards on offer in the gift shop feature three of his worst paintings. Is it possible that Ruscha’s totalizing savvy about his own commercialization—his longest durational project—possesses a kind of disarming effect? My most old-fashioned belief is that there’s a major difference between art and marketing—and for all of his and others’ efforts, he continues to fall on the right side. 

  3. KROTOV: I’ve been reading U and I by Nicholson Baker, another dedicated noticer: “That phrase which reviewers take such pains to include when delivering their judgments—when they say that among living writers so-and-so is or isn’t of the first rank—had once seemed to me unnecessary . . . But now . . . this simple fact of presence or absence, which I had begun to recognize in a small way already, now became the single most important supplemental piece of information I could know about a writer . . . Is he alive or dead?—just tell me that.”

    DE MONCHAUX: One dispositive aspect of the experience of this MoMA retrospective is that the artist is still alive, and rich, and well. None of the work is as yet a dispatch from beyond the veil, out of the past. In the second gallery of the exhibit—really with its gas stations and photo-books the only one that matters—I tried the thought experiment: what if I was looking at the work of a dead man? Ruscha has been canonically sorted both as a master of so-called conceptual art, which generally gets mysteriously better when its makers die, and of Pop Art, which—as illustrated in the vast Jasper Johns retrospective recently at the Whitney Museum—gets mysteriously worse. 

  4. Joan Didion, describing a memory of reporting on the presidential campaigns of 1988, wrote the foreword for Ruscha’s 2005 Venice Biennale catalog: “There was no way to drive from LAX to South Central that has ever figured on anyone’s list of the famous scenic tours of Los Angeles County, yet I remember . . . tears streaming down my face, too blinded by the glory of this place I had just abandoned to even notice what streets we were on. Which streets they were did not matter. What did matter were the hard industrial angles, the gas stations and the strip malls and the two-story apartment buildings . . . the very stuff that said Los Angeles to me, all swimming in the lurid light that comes there in the western sky for a few hours before the sun drops below the horizon and the known world goes dark.” 

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