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Standard Model: Ed Ruscha at the de Young 

Wednesday, Jul 20 2016
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Ed Ruscha's love for, and fascination with, the Western United States is apparent in every gallery in the exhibition, "Ed Ruscha and the Great American West," which is up at the de Young Museum through Oct. 9. Some 99 of the artist's photos, prints, paintings, and drawings of gas stations, coyotes, buffalos, the Hollywood sign, and parking lots fill the downstairs galleries.

Calling Ruscha's images sensitive, poetic, bland, and evocative, museum director Max Hollein — who just took the position after simultaneous stints as director of several museums in Frankfurt, Germany — said he was proud to be heading an institution that put on such a fantastic show, with many of the works from the de Young's own collection.

"These celebrated works offer a distinctive voice on the psychological and physical landscape of this country," Hollein said. Ruscha "remains engaged in the sublime and mundane reality that surrounds us."

Although the exhibition looks at much of Ruscha's career, with pieces from the 1960s through recent work, organizing curator Karin Breuer says she didn't want to put on a full retrospective, choosing instead to present the range of Ruscha's work.

Breuer agrees with art critic Amei Wallach — who, in The New York Times, called Ruscha a "triple threat," equally adept at printmaking, painting, and photography, all of which are represented in this show.

"For him, there's no hierarchy," Breuer said. "He developed ideas in one form and sometimes they emerged in different art forms over time."

Take Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas. It started as a picture in Ruscha's 1963 photo-essay Twentysix Gasoline Stations, then became a drawing, then a painting, and eventually a print.

Ruscha also did a series of photographs of all the buildings on the Sunset Strip, the commercial section of L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. Those photos, such as Schwab's Pharmacy (1976), hang on the walls of the exhibit, scored, Breuer says, as reminders they were shot on film — something people probably won't remember in 50 years, and which is foreign to many now.

After graduating from art school, where he studied graphic design, Ruscha took a job at an advertising agency in downtown Los Angeles and spent his lunch hours on the roof, photographing parking lots. He visited the same rooftop 50 years later, in 2011, to take photographs that showed how the cityscape had changed in that time.

Ruscha's road trip from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, in 1956 at age 18, had a big effect on him. He and a friend drove a 1950 Ford to attend the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). The open, desolate landscape of the West, the restlessness of the road, and the sights through a car window still influence his work. The wide proportions of several of his works appear as if he'd painted them through a windshield.

As a kid, Ruscha spent his Saturday mornings at the movies, watching cowboy serials. He credits those movies for his long, rectangular canvases, and there are other references to how cinema influenced his work in the exhibition, such as the blurry images of coyotes, teepees, and buffalo that recall Hollywood Westerns.

For years, Ruscha kept a studio in East Hollywood and said that if he could see the famous Hollywood sign, he knew the weather wasn't too smoggy. He first did a screen print of the sign in 1968, putting the sign at the top of the hill (rather than mid-slope where it really is) to better show the dramatic sunsets behind it. A whole section of the exhibition, "Into a Hollywood Sunset" is devoted to his renditions of the sign, including ones from the early '70s, in which he used Pepto-Bismol, the diet drink Metrecal, and caviar instead of ink.

Another gallery, "The West You've Read About," showcases word paintings, in which a phrase or even a single word hovers on the canvas, seemingly detached from the image. Honey ... I Twisted Through More Damned Traffic To Get Here, reads one. Slobberin' Drunk at the Palomino, proclaims another.

This kind of humor may be one reason Ruscha has maintained such appeal for decades, Breuer thinks.

"He has this tongue-in-cheek, laconic irony," she says. "He also focuses on things that we might otherwise overlook, like vacant lots and the view from a car window. These are scenes that are part of our lives that we don't necessarily think of as worthy of being a subject fine arts."

Breuer jokes that Ruscha made it easy for her to think of a subject for the final gallery since the words "the end" have been included in his prints, paintings, and drawings for two decades, such as in The Final End (1991–1992), showing a foggy background with the words choked with weeds.

For years, Breuer has wanted to do a comprehensive show of Ruscha's work. Everyone seems to love his work, she says.

"I've been stopped by young people who work at the museum, and they say, 'He's one of my favorite artists,' and they've admired his work since junior high school — which for them is about five years ago — and then there's older people who see him as an internationally acclaimed artist," she says. "Here's a 78-year-old who's been making art for nearly 60 years and he just keeps coming up with great ideas that are so appealing to a younger and older audience."

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Emily Wilson

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