Forty-four Sentences about Ed Ruscha
(Originally published as the Catalogue for Ed Ruscha: Books, from the Collections of Sean Licka and Karen Meyerhoff Sweet, organized by Lasse Antonsen. SMU Art Gallery, College of Visual and Performing Arts, September, 1989).
Los Angeles looks and feels very different today from the way it did in 1966, when Ed Ruscha made Every Building on the Sunset Strip. There were no tall buildings then, and no real museums ‑‑ the Getty, Norton Simon, and LAMOCA are all newcomers. Most of the buildings in the book have long since disappeared, without fanfare or mourning, because they were just ordinary buildings, without any history or architectural significance, and they were never meant to last.
I was in high school near Los Angeles then, and I spent many Saturday evenings driving slowly along Sunset Boulevard with five or six other teenagers, all of us crammed into a Thunderbird borrowed from somebody’s father, listening to the radio. “Do you believe in magic?“. “The Sounds of Silence.” “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” “Paint it black.”
Cruising “the Strip” in a T‑bird seemed a million miles away from the world of books and art and “higher things” that soon drew me “East” to Boston. Now, Ed Ruscha’s books make a connection between those two worlds which I used to think never could be reconciled. Ruscha’s (and my) Los Angeles now seems as far away and long ago as Marcel Proust‘s Combray ‑‑ and as worthy of being made into art. As Proust wrote in Remembrance of Things Past, which I read for the first time sitting under a palm tree in Pasadena:
“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
Ruscha’s books belong to the era of Pop art, like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book characters, or Jasper Johns’ American flags. Ruscha’s books are moving pictures about ordinary things like gas stations, swimming pools and “real estate opportunities”. They are usually ironic and often very funny, but they have a visual poetry ‑‑ and sometimes a sense of grace ‑‑ which grows more intense as they age.
Ruscha came to Los Angeles from Oklahoma in 1956, another lost angel in a city where everyone comes from somewhere else, following a dream. Like Andy Warhol, he was raised as a Roman Catholic, and he brought a love of symbolism and mystical transformations to the movie culture and then the counter‑culture of this city built on illusions in an irrigated desert.
Words are always important in the art of Ed Ruscha. His pictures of “Standard” gasoline stations and “Norm’s” restaurant are jokes about not being standard or normal in the turned‑on sixties. Records is a record of a certain time and place. The tacky apartments in Some Los Angeles Apartments have names that are hopelessly romantic: “Fountain Blu“, “Algiers“, “Ramparts Manor“. A truck in Crackers reads “Signs“.
Numbers matter, too. There are nine swimming pools, thirty‑four parking lots, and the twenty‑six gas stations Ruscha stopped at on a drive back to Oklahoma to visit his family.
From the window of the studio Ruscha had in the 1960’s, he could see a sign reading HOLLYWOOD. The big white letters were planted by some real estate developer high up on a hillside that’s nowhere near Hollywood. They are as flat an fake as an old, abandoned movie set, crumpled and peeling, with some of the letters falling down. Ruscha’s many images of that sign make it a real sign, luminous and charged with light. And sometimes a sense of the sacred clings to the palm trees and parking lots. All you need is faith ‑‑ or art.
In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera tells the story of how Beethoven once composed, as a joke, a canon for Dembscher, a friend who owed him money. The musical motif of the canon came from the words “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). A year later, the same motif found its way into one of Beethoven’s great late quartets.
“The words `Es muss sein!’ had acquired a much more solemn ring; they seemed to issue directly from the lips of Fate. In Kant’s language, even “Good morning”, suitably pronounced, can take the shape of a metaphysical thesis. German is a language of heavywords. `Es muss sein!’ was no longer a joke; it had become `der schwer gefasste Entschluss’ (the difficult or weighty resolution). So Beethoven turned a frivolous inspiration into a serious quartet, a joke into metaphysical truth.”
In Kundera’s terms, Ruscha’s books started out light and ended up heavy. What once looked almost like a joke now feels almost like a tragedy.
I didn’t see anything beautiful or profound about the buildings on Sunset Strip, and they certainly weren’t the “higher things” I was determined to find when I left California twenty years ago. But sometimes life’s seemingly random, meaningless moments are the ones that really matter ‑‑ the ones that endure, and finally turn into art.
Ed Ruscha’s books make me feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, when she finally learns that she could have looked for happiness in her own back yard. Or as T. S. Eliot put it in a little book about the same size as Twenty-Six Gasoline Sations:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place
for the first time.”
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com