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Taking the Wheel – with Ed Ruscha at the Modern

by Jerome Weeks 2 Feb 2011 9:08 AM

Car culture and the American landscape have been Ed Ruscha’s twin topics since he took Route 66 west from Oklahoma in 1956. Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum has a major retrospective of 50 years of his art: maps, photos, parking lots, gas stations, the works.


4-1Standard Station with Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, oil on canvas, 1964. (Note the extension of the rear roofline of the station into the lower right-hand corner. Hence, Ruscha’s descriptions of the image as a trumpet blast or a rushing train.)

In 1962, Andy Warhol made an icon out of a soup can. Two years later, Ed Ruscha did the same with his giant pop-art treatment of an Amarillo, Texas gas station. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that the painting put Ruscha on the road — to the major exhibition that’s currently at Fort Worth’s Museum of Modern Art.

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Road Tested features 75 of Ed Ruscha’s paintings, drawings and photographs. Michael Auping curated the show, and he says what distinguishes Ruscha from most pop artists of the ‘60s and ’70s  is that he didn’t paint ordinary consumer products or portraits.

Auping: “Everything in this show is about leaving town, getting out of town or driving around town. At the end of the day, Ed is a landscape artist, looking at fragments of the American landscape from inside the windshield of a car.”

Ruscha says his landscape is the interstate highway, the streets and buildings of Los Angeles, different aspects of American car culture.

Ruscha: “I guess I was more interested in the things around the cars like gas stations. And the notion of a highway, the perspective of vanishing point, was a real metaphor that defined my interest in the whole subject. So it’s more like the culture behind cars.”


 Uphill Driver, acrylic on canvas, 1986

Road Tested begins back in 1956 when the 19-year-old artist drove from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles with a high school friend, Mason Williams, who’d go on to compose the pop hit, Classical Gas, and to write comedy for television (“it was sort of a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride Adventure,” Ruscha describes the trip today). In LA, Auping says, Ruscha restlessly explored the city and studied at what became the California Institute of the Arts.

Auping: “You have this young guy from Oklahoma coming in and experiencing a rapidly growing Los Angeles and kind of being in awe of things that most Californians take for granted. So there is that aspect to it, but what saves it from being simple nostalgia is that he comes at it from an almost anthropological point of view.”

Ruscha documented and photographed LA – Some Los Angeles Apartments (1966), Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) — and did the same with his cross-country road trips, which took him past a certain gas station in Amarillo, Texas, along Route 66 (“At the time, it was just a two-lane road from here to there.”). Ruscha’s transformation of that gas station into what he calls a trumpet blast made his name when it was exhibited in New York’s Ferus Gallery in 1964. In 1962, Ruscha’s works had been exhibited alongside Andy Warhol’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s in a now-famous show at the Pasadena Art Museum. But the New York gallery exhibition was his first positively-reviewed solo effort.

Ruscha: “The gas station paintings came out of my photographs of the stations as I was traveling along, and I took hundreds of pictures. There was an architectural element that I liked, and I could almost see myself cozying into one of those gas stations and living in it..”

Ruscha had excelled in graphic design in high school back in Oklahoma. It’s one of the things that marked his work as distinctive, Auping says. While the Abstract Expressionists still produced dense, drip paintings, Ruscha’s pop art works had an open, geometric precision and often used big, bold words — like the famous Hollywood sign, which he’s depicted in several works.

Ruscha: “It seemed like hard-edged, more defined, focused subjects had more reality to them.”

But Auping says that Ruscha’s influence has gone well beyond pop art — into minimalism, into quintessential American imagery.

Auping: “In Los Angeles, he was far more influential than Andy Warhol was. He started what a lot of us think of as that cool LA aesthetic.”

Oddly enough, although he’s dealt in all aspects of automotive culture in his art — from maps to street signs to adjusting the carburetor of a ’65 Mustang in his 1975 short film, Miracle — Ruscha says he’s not much of a car enthusiast, collector or mechanic. (He admits to owning two antiques, a 1939 Ford sedan and a 1933 Ford pickup, but claims he’s kept them almost by accident). In fact, images of cars themselves actually appear late in his paintings — the Chevy El Camino in Uphill Driver (above) being one of the first in 1986 — lending further weight to Auping’s description of Ruscha artworks seemingly the result of peering through a windshield from inside a car.

If anything is a quintessential American image it’s two buddies taking a cross-country road trip. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, came out the year after Ruscha’s drive to LA. Inevitably, the artist felt an affinity with the novel. Over the years, Ruscha has created a number of landmark photo books — including Every Building on the Sunset Strip and Royal Road Test. And in 2009, he produced a signed, oversized,  limited edition of On the Road with 55 photo illustrations (price: $10,000). Ruscha tracked down examples of the cars that Kerouac writes about – including a ’49 Hudson – but many of the photographs he includes are actually of battered, rusted auto parts.

Ruscha: “All these discards are things that you see on the side of the highway – fan belts, etc. – and I think individually they’re beautiful objects, even in their sorry state. The very idea of finding something that is discarded or forgotten – I can’t get it out of my skin.”

Auping and Ruscha painting

Curator Michael Auping and Ruscha’s Standard gas station

No surprise, then: One of the more influential meetings in his early career, Ruscha says, was with Marcel Duchamp — at a 1963 retrospective in Pasadena. Think of Duchamp’s ‘found objects’ or “readymades.” So it’s also not surprising that for all of their hard-edged focus, there is  a deadpan humor in many of Ruscha’s works. A 1992 acrylic-and-varnish painting is titled A Blvd. Called Sunset (left). It looks mostly like smog. Another is called No Man’s Land. It contains the shape of Oklahoma.

Ruscha: “I was interested in the comedy of everything.”

Weeks: “What do you mean by comedy?”

Ruscha: “I can find funny things in just about anything – including this microphone that I’m holding [laughs].”