At the Whitney’s show of Ruscha drawings last year, the now requisite introductory wall paragraph was so creamsicle-bright it almost became illegible. That was a good start. (Don’t tell me you wanted a lengthy explanation before the jokes.) But the curatorial hijinks were just beginning: The museum also displayed his lengthy accordion-book of photos, Every Building On the Sunset Strip, at crotch height. You couldn’t stay bent over long enough to inspect the whole thing. Are unsustainable postures funny? I guess it depends. Then they hung the books meant for handheld perusal on chains just a few uncomfortable inches apart, which inspired subway-style reading intimacy. New York’s revenge on L.A.’s sense of space? Maybe.
A famous painter once said that the best view in a museum was out the window. At this very texty exhibition, the best words were often on the title cards. It is Ruscha’s peculiar genius that a show of his includes concise gems like “Gunpowder on Paper” hidden on the lowly materials section of the tag. He can’t be beat for poetic economy. Convention has the date of the work follow the italicized title, so as one Ruscha byproduct you get: “1984, 1967,” which shuttles us back in time before landing us in 2005, just like Orwell’s book.
When Ruscha draws a picture of the HOLLYWOOD sign in a smooth orange sunset, you get the feeling that he might have designed the original, or at least chosen the font. When in another drawing the sign reads HOLLOWEEN, he is enjoying his prowess to the point of bragging. And then the museum partitions—so bare, so perspectival!—suddenly seem to conform to his clean style, and the whole room at the Whitney becomes a living Ruscha, filled with revealing chit-chat. Even that name, pronounced (rarely) Roo-Shay, is a word he seems to have chosen or invented to beguile. Is it really his family name? His son Eddie uses it, so I guess it is now.
But let’s talk about Ruscha’s batting average. Like any good hitter, Ruscha swings with precision. He has a smooth stroke, which often gets called “cool,” and is often misunderstood as dependable. But Ruscha swings at a lot—palindromes, gas stations, entire empires—and so he occasionally strikes out. The abstract nouns Truth and Hope, set on faded teal and ice blue, are too bland to trouble me visually, so they miss their chance to trouble me philosophically. They hint at a deep agenda, then disappear. The blurry pictures of anchors similarly have a line and a sinker, but no hook. I don’t keep looking or thinking, and I’m not laughing. The word pussy in cursive isn’t much of a hooker, either. Easy, for sure, but too fast to really enjoy. “They Called Her Styrene,” on the other hand, stays on your mind for years. For every Ruscha home run, he fouls off a few.
I bring this up because there is a cult of Ruscha emerging, and a cult of boring irony already firmly in place all over the art world. Let’s keep them separate. Ruscha’s best work is not just flat and removed—it’s also confrontational and deep. “I don’t want no retro spective,” makes fun of the art world, but not before implicating Ruscha himself. We notice the colloquial double negative, but we also notice the Latin root (Ruscha’s hope for the future) and the hot pink it’s painted on. His rejection has perfect rhythm, and, for anyone who cares about who gets retrospectives, it’s also an indictment. He is therefore either a funny preacher or a serious comic, but either way we get it.
So, some Ruscha pictures are boring, but some only use a boring delivery to tell a really good joke. To tell the dead from the deadpan, you first of all have to realize that his movie references don’t just refer to movies. “Get outta that spaceship and fight like a man” isn’t about quoting sci-fi so much as it’s about the humor of manly confrontation. Ditto the drug references, which subtly refer to sex, neuroses, failure, and so on—everything but drugs. So Ruscha’s gunpowder is no joke, after all. But neither are his jokes.
Ruscha’s new show at the Whitney went up just ten days after it came down at the American Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale. Getting off the elevator, you are greeted by a huge white wall with one stark message: Course of Empire. Bad times, you think, and you are right. The first painting you see is a dark charcoal sky above a building called TECH-CHEM. The shape of the canvas, which is repeated exactly in the remaining nine, is elongated way beyond the golden mean. The exhibition space, ingeniously, is a similarly stretched rectangle, and the windows at the Whitney, with their false-perspective frames, make a perfect match for Ruscha’s two-point-perspective warehouses. At the press review, Mr. Ruscha noticed as much and affirmed, gesturing toward the lone window, that he had “no complaints about the zoom effect.” Neither did the crowd.
I, for one, had no complaints about Ruscha’s grey sneakers, which perfectly matched the steely images on the far wall. The shoes’ little USA ovals proudly announced where they were made, and the “Blue Collar” series from 1992 similarly reminded us where Ed Ruscha was made: Western now, he was Midwestern first. And apparently Hollywood has lost some of its luster, because Ruscha has gone back to his Rust Belt-style warehouses of 1992, tackling the traditional and very topical theme of empire by updating the buildings’ signs and changing the tone of the firmament that looms above them. Seems simple enough.
The show’s title sets an ominous tone. The first two pictures, “Blue Collar Tech-Chem” (which reads TECH-CHEM) and “The Old Tech-Chem Building” (which reads FAT BOY) are in the high Ruscha style: Late Capitalist! The sunset skies hold the crisp words in deadpan perspective. His characteristic attention to vernacular is surgically applied. The combinations are simple, sharp, and resonant. We all know what TECH-CHEM and FAT BOY have to do with our empire, and these pictures whip us toward those thoughts.
The second pair of paintings globalizes the recent past. Back in ’92, we used to tool and die; now we stare blankly at foreign words. The sky is no longer ominous, but it isn’t intelligible, either. The smog has turned futuristic, and a very generic red-white-and-blue logo hovers among the Asian characters. The graffiti sits at ground level, but it too is a code, and temporary. So what’s that say?
Then, two more pictures: The Trade School is put behind a ratty chain-link fence, its letters missing. Black and white turn blue and yellowish. The metal is bent. We don’t practice trades anymore—we service each other.
The Blue Collar Telephone Building, meanwhile, has disappeared entirely. In its place, we get a picture called “Site of a Former Telephone Booth,” which shows a pole and a tree trunk. Cellular times, for sure. And empty ones. And then the final pair: The Old Tires Building is expanding, but skeletally. The new facade has a frame, but it’s hard to tell if they’ll finish the thing. The Old Tires Building is old and tired; that’s the joke, but the joke seems old and tired too. And so these latter pairs of paintings, while they capably fill out the series, lack the bite and sting of earlier pairs, especially TECH-CHEM and FAT BOY.
The show’s title, Course of Empire, is itself a repetition, tracing an arc back to Thomas Cole. Thanks to Ruscha, those Hudson River School sunsets now glow faintly from Venice all the way to Venezia, so the sun always sets on the American Empire. But what about Ruscha’s own Empire? He has been enthroned in Italy and New York, and he currently has another show of repetitions, Then and Now (which updates “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” with photos taken from the same exact truck), at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Nobody repeats like Ed Ruscha, but he’s one of the few artists capable of taking real shots at the Empire, and we need him to keep punching. Let’s hope he still don’t want no retro spective.