By KURT COLE EIDSVIG October 2, 2023
Visitors to the Ed Ruscha retrospective at the MoMA are at once confronted by Charles Atlas Landscape from 2003. Swelling out on each side, the painting on shaped canvas renders a perfect cross of expansion rods, metal joists, or scaffolding, and these poles push at the constraints of the picture. Looking through these stand-ins for windowpanes, we find an expansive sky at twilight in gradient blues and salmon hues, swallowing up a small swath of land and extending out in the distance. The grounding of the cross is no coincidence, as the coming snippets of franchise architecture, mass media reproductions, iconic fonts, and roadside signs in the galleries that follow capture the iconography of a uniquely American religion. In Ruscha's hands, we're witnessing the various missionaries of capitalism inhabiting the sunset of America while the new divinity of excess bulges at the seams.
Sixteen-year-old Ed Ruscha hitchhiked from Oklahoma to Miami in 1954, the first of many travels, recordings, and sojourns in the United States and Europe that provide the underpinnings of the artist's sensibilities. True to form, the exhibition has the feel of a former hitchhiker finally making it to the driver's seat and taking us along for the ride. As such, each room of the retrospective opens up into a reminiscence about the places he's been. The connections to returning are literal in works like Vicksburg and Dublin (both 1960), as even these early paintings were created in the spirit of elusive memory. But the entire retrospective mixes nostalgic familiarity with a wide-eyed growing understanding that landscapes revisited often look different, bigger, and more powerful than our younger selves realized or our present selves had the ability to remember until now.
Nowhere is this re-remembered realization more apparent than in the required reappraisal of Pop Art inherent in ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN. We're forced to reconsider the roots of Pop as well as the traditions of Post-War America as we travel in the passenger seat with a man who's seen it all. This is Pop Art at its most fundamental, as Ruscha brings us back to the source. Tracing back to his inclusion in the seminal exhibition New Painting of Common Objects in 1962, a group show that included Warhol and Lichtenstein, we're reminded of the aims of early Pop. Forget the excess and glitz of today's versions of appropriation; seeing Ruscha in this magnificent retrospective allows us to bask in the inherent power of Pop as an offshoot or sibling of minimalism. By removing unnecessary impediments to meaning, we find a different experience lurking underneath. Ruscha's work harnesses the basic building blocks of expression and existence—Oppenheimer-like atomic possibilities—and the results are just as extreme in comparison with today's fledgling firecrackers. It's as if we've been observing an art historical version of the children's game of Telephone. With Ruscha guiding us to the starting points, we're reminded of the possibilities of Pop when in the hands of a master.
Ruscha's work renders America in a way that celebrates both the infectious invention of the artist and the fallacy of the American dream while simultaneously playing prophet to the homogenized strip mall worshippers we've all become. In the iconic Standard Oil, 10-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, 1964, Ruscha elevates a gas station to the same status as a church while reminding us that churches are a dime a dozen in this sprawl of urban imperialism, even as the price of gas soars. We've cut the old West in half with our Post-War roads, and the world will never be the same.
ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN provides a pilgrimage of the spirit from every scale. Paintings like OOF, 1962, are heard as much as seen. By leveraging the basics of language, as a rendering of sounds or a set of directions to inspire tones, guided exhales, and nearly magical incantations, Ruscha appeals to the primal requirements of connection inherent in the human desire to communicate. The awe in taking in these paintings is in being reminded how small we can be as individuals when faced up against the eternities of our marks, wall drawings, and scrawls–our attempts to make meaning and connection in the void. Ruscha's cross-genre approach is as much about symbol and sound as visual art. Snapping pencils, guttural moans, and musical notes carry sounds past the picture plane. And, as Charles Atlas Landscape warns, Ruscha's work will always push and push past the boundaries of expectation. The pictures literally transcend by travelling across highways, counties, or state boundaries. But more so, they shove beyond the constraints of traditional visual art by including words, sounds, scents, textures, and explorations into scale.
When it comes to words, we expect them to be louder the larger they appear. Just think about the last time you received an email with a word or phrase written in the passion of CAPS LOCK or an escalating font size. Even in the increasing contemporary cacophony of sound and image, a message written in all caps comes through as a shout. Bury a word in a small font on a wide swath of white paper, and our minds translate the meaning as a whisper. But in the unique framework of Ed Ruscha's masterful Pop Art career, the opposite is true. His words extend beyond the scale of the page, the text message, or even a poster. Ruscha's words provide the monumental experience of beholding a snow-capped mountain or a star-filled night sky. So far beyond our typical powers of interpretation, these artworks are experiences that provide a sense of humble silence, a religious conversion, and a head-cocked listening to the spheres spinning. Placed against the bustle of MoMA, the huge canvases, intense color contrasts, and near-frenetic presentation of extreme experimentation, ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN conveying an otherworldly quiet is all the more accomplished. We are buried in a barrage of texts today. How can a single word placed on canvas seem so large? How can it carry so much weight without becoming loud? Like examining artifacts from an ancient culture, Ruscha's explorations into language, image, and picture-making cut across the boundaries of time. Using words, he examines the very nature of symbols. Even deeper than Warhol employing soup cans or other manners of mass production in contemporary society, Ruscha goes to elemental markings that are mass-produced and retain their meaning, or at the very least try to, despite their placement, repetition, and utilization. But Ruscha challenges those ideas by taking words out of their traditional context and using both banal and deeply meaningful approaches to challenge what words and sounds can mean.
He also explores what visual art can mean in relationship to touch, texture, and smell. As with his textual works, Chocolate Room confronts traditional minimalism but in an altogether different way. Visually, the tones, shapes, and sizes present like a shattered Richard Serra or Donald Judd, an installation allegedly devoid of traditional expression. But Ruscha's project is imbued with sensory response. So, while all that surface emotion is allegedly drained away, the sweet twinge of chocolate scents, an embedded essence seeping through the air, barrages the brain from all sides. Documented to trigger the release of oxytocin, the pleasure-increasing hormone, chocolate is almost chemically impossible to ignore. In addition, the printing-press technique of fabricating these chocolate shingles brings focus to texture and touch. Subverting typical manufacturing, Chocolate Room's origins meld love, as associated with carrying a box of chocolates to the object of our affection and the commerce of this generationally repetitive act. Does the myth of America have roads of gold or walls of chocolate? It may be hard to decide.
This same attention to texture, touching, and sensory response mixes with a spirit of scientific experimentation in Ruscha's use of various liquids throughout his works. Employing blood, whiskey, and tobacco to draw letters, Ruscha gives new meaning to the all-too-contemporary question of, What's behind your words? Further, Stains, from 1969, is a collection of seventy-six mixed media stains on paper, capturing the shades of gunpowder, gasoline, urine (human), chocolate syrup (Hershey's), and ketchup (Heinz). Here, Ruscha attempts to answer the question of what we are made of. Like Darwin on the HMS Beagle, this is Ruscha collecting samples from an embryonic American culture inevitably about to spread, disperse, germinate, and evolve.
From the wondrous intimacy of his books to the sprawling breadth of installations, we are stretched and sculpted in a push-pull of experience, understanding, and impression in ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN. We're reminded of scale from the actual size of objects placed against the larger-than-life scale of words, and we're encouraged to squint, stand back, and get swept up in the rush as his individual works pile up on themselves and create a holistic, spiritual experience. In Ruscha, we recognize how important even a single word might be on a road trip, as they are the difference between danger and excitement, getting lost, or finding your destination. And his work transcends in a multitude of ways. We're transformed by the silence and struck by the unnecessary complexities upon exiting. Much like a spiritual seeker who disavows themselves of earthly possessions to get to a deeper experience, Ruscha works tirelessly to present art in its most elemental form. The results are just as life-changing.
ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN is on view at The Museum of Modern Art from September 10, 2023 – January 13, 2024. WM
Kurt Cole Eidsvig is the author of the books OxyContin for Breakfast, Art Official, and Pop X Poetry. His work has won awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital, and the University of Montana. A visual artist as well as a writer, he maintains a website at EidsvigArt.com.view all articles from this author