My Back Pages
Several people have been asking, “When did you start writing for publication?” Does the work I did for my junior high school newspaper count? Well, probably not. But since some folks are curious, and since others seem to be reading the “About” page on this blog, I thought I would post some of my early work as an art critic. Here’s a text (unaltered) published Friday, March 18, 1983 in the Orange County Register, Weekend Accent section.
Irony of ironies: a Ruscha retrospective
By Frank Lloyd
Special to the Register
“I Don’t Want No Retrospective,” claimed Ed Ruscha in a 1979 pastel drawing. Nevertheless, it’s here. And it should prove to be the show of the year in Los Angeles. Taking images, signs, and phrases from mass culture, Ruscha has incisively revealed our values and our viewpoints.
This exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art traces the development of Ruscha’s poignant and resonant blend of words and images, from 1959 to the present. Organized by Anne Livet for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the retrospective includes over 150 paintings, collages, drawings, graphics, and books. Several recent works, shown for the first time anywhere, will be added to the show at LACMA.
The work is filled with irony, wry wit and humor. But once we’re past the humor and the familiar rhythm (it’s like “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”), the work becomes surprisingly personal. Or consider the irony involved in the inclusion of Ruscha’s “Los Angeles County Museum of Fire” (1965-1968). Brashly poking fun at the hall of culture, the young artist had envisioned damage to the pretentious edifice. Now the museum rightfully regards Ruscha as one of its best.
When he first arrived in L.A. in 1956, Ed Ruscha had driven west on Route 66 in a lowered 1950 Ford with his friend Mason Williams. Although they intended to enroll in art school, the dream of becoming artists was not their reason for leaving Oklahoma City. What they were looking for was a region filled with cruising hot-rods, cute girls and hip street culture. Eventually, the life of Southern California became the source for Ruscha’s work.
It’s tempting to refer to Ed Ruscha as the quintessential Los Angeles artist. But his work, like the confusing megalopolis, simply defies categorical description. And, as catalog contributor Peter Plagens notes, “Ruscha is not a symptom of his time or place, but a commentator on it.” The work seems to function simultaneously as sign, symbol, word and image. The title becomes the painting, the word becomes the image, and the subject becomes the meaning. The phrases may seem as thin as a one-line joke, but sometimes that joke is so multidimensional as to reveal a cultured attitude. A work from 1973, painted with ketchup on canvas, is an example. Bold block letters on a diagonal spell out the message of phony concern, “Listen, I’d like to help out, but—.” And consider the superficial admission of guilt in “Those of Us Who Have Double Parked” from 1976.
Ruscha’s work was first shown at the Pasadena Museum in 1962. Organized by Walter Hopps, “New Painting of Common Objects” included many of the artists who would be associated with Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine, and Theibaud). Ruscha’s painting, “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” (1963) belongs to this period. In a daring diagonal composition, Ruscha has taken the commonplace out of its context. The result is a striking, stark contemporary icon. The work not only relates to the Pop Art movement, but ties to the vision of America in Edward Hopper’s work.
The artist’s self-published books were highly innovative. “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations” (1962) documented a trip along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. Each gas station is photographed from across the street, in a seemingly amateur style, and is captioned with name and location. Other books, such as “Real Estate Opportunities”, “Some Los Angeles Apartments”, and “Every Building on Sunset Strip”, follow the same format. These books just present the bare facts of the unpeopled landscape but wind up reporting on the activities of the region.
Ruscha brought his innovative attitude to printmaking, experimenting with substances like cherry stain, Metrecal, carrot juice, and chocolate. Isolated and ambiguous words and phrases were rendered in prints and as unique works. “Now Then, As I Was About to Say…” (1973) uses shellac on moiré. “Baby Cakes” (1974) is rendered in blueberry extract and egg yolk on moiré.
The more recent work uses a grand horizontal format. In a vast, empty void, Ruscha floats words and phrases that hover. “The Fifties” (1980) shows a sweeping progression of the years from upper left-hand corner to the lower right foreground. The serene and placid sky is in contrast to his vision in “The Nineties” (1980), which seems much more menacing and fiery.
Ed Ruscha’s work subverts our normal perception of life and talk in the fast lane. Occasionally obscure, the work is accessible not only because of the subject, but because he has isolated the ironies and made us laugh. And anyone who can comment on corruption and vice with a sense of humor is a welcome relief. As Ruscha said, “There’s No End to the Things Made out of Human Talk.”