Six paintings hanging together upstairs in the Hammer Museum all look brand new: Their bold mineral blue, teal and burnt orange backgrounds exude that seductive, fresh quality unique to painting that has barely been exposed to the outside world and spent little, if any, time in storage. This quality only overwhelms for a flashing moment, however. Then the familiarity of their subject matter and style sets in.
Ed Ruscha, the artist who has been synonymous with L.A. cool since he started exhibiting here in the 1960s, made these paintings between 2008 and 2010, working in response to the "original Beat," Jack Kerouac. Each features text from Kerouac's raw, free-form novel On the Road, published just one year after Ruscha graduated from his Oklahoma high school, hopped into his Ford sedan and headed west to California. The phrases, painted across the canvas in all-white caps, are more unwieldy than the crisp, cheeky lines Ruscha has generated himself in the past. Still, they have a devil-may-care frankness that recalls early instances in Ruscha's work. And the iconic mountains centered in the backgrounds come directly from the riffs on American landscape that Ruscha began making in 1998.
If your career spans five decades, you're bound to repeat yourself in one way or another. Bob Dylan has played "Like a Rolling Stone" in concert an estimated 1,753 times since 1963, most recently in Atlanta on July 28. In an arena full of fans, it still feels as specific and urgent as his newer music. But painters don't perform live. Once an image has made its way into a museum or art history book, make something even loosely the same again, and you're in danger of redundancy.
At the same time, ceaseless reinvention is an unfairly tall order. So how much does an artist like Ruscha, already an indisputable icon of L.A. pop, have to innovate in order to stay interesting?
"Ed Ruscha: On the Road" is a curious choice of exhibition for the Hammer. Ruscha has never had a solo show there, despite the half-century span of his career. "The Hammer is an institution that shows new work," explains Douglas Fogle, the museum's chief curator. When it does show artists with already chiseled historical niches, "It's all about finding work that feels fresh."
Fogle first saw Ruscha's On the Road homages when they were still in the studio. They haven't shown anywhere before now, though the exhibition does include Ruscha's gargantuan print rendition of Kerouac's novel, illustrated with images of tall beers, sandwiches and discarded car parts. The book debuted at London's Hayward Gallery in 2009. Like the paintings, it offered a new spin on Ruscha's and Kerouac's history, which Fogle found compelling. "Ed had always been interested in Kerouac," Fogle says. "When I first heard he was doing the artist's book, I was surprised it hadn't happened earlier. It made so much sense."
The artist, like the writer, approached much of his work as a meditation on language. "In the end, though, it's about the painting. There's a lot of continuity with earlier work," Fogle says.
Not all artists maintain that continuity. When Pacific Standard Time, the sprawling, 60-plus-exhibition initiative to probe SoCal art's postwar history begins in October, work by artists of Ruscha's generation will abound in L.A.'s museums and galleries. Rani Singh, senior associate at the Getty Research Institute, is co-curator of one of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time shows, and she's spent the past decade researching the career trajectories of postwar L.A. artists. "There's a complete connective tissue with someone like Ed Ruscha," Singh says. "With someone like Ed Moses" — an abstract painter 10 years Ruscha's senior — "it's harder to trace connections. With Larry Bell" — whose mirrorlike sculpted boxes fed off custom-car culture — "there's a clear line that veers off."
Singh doesn't see veering as more interesting than connectivity. For a curator, the goal is to question why artists do or don't change, and how they're received over time. "When you're part of an historical movement, you don't realize it when it's happening," she says. "It's curious to me how history develops and why one person receives more attention than another."
Historical attention and thoughtful development don't necessarily coincide. As elegant as Jasper Johns' recent prints are, they hang onto the gray quietness the artist embraced in the 1950s, '60s and '70s without retaining that gripping early sense of caged rebellion. John Baldessari's recent time-delayed video feeds don't cut through the haze of mediated reality any more pointedly than his 1970s text painting.
Both artists continue to exhibit and command a hefty market price for early and late work, though they remain known for earlier innovations. Would new work that rivaled the old make them more pertinent to 21st-century art than they already are?
Coming up with something new is often a struggle. "Older artists have a chance to keep things changing and growing," says gallerist Thomas Solomon, whose Chinatown space shows conceptual art from the 1960s and '70s nearly as often as it does contemporary work. "This is a major challenge over a long period of time, perhaps the ultimate challenge. Someone like Philip Guston changing to imagery in painting is a rare occurrence."
When Guston, already established as an abstract painter, exhibited renderings of ungainly, crude figures at Marlborough Gallery in 1970, the critical reaction was scathing. Later, the dramatic move would be seen as the smartest he'd taken. But even subtle transformations can show that artists are in tune with changes in culture.
"Some artists have the ability to retain freshness. Most don't," explains Tom Jancar, whose gallery, also in Chinatown, aims to put older and younger artists in conversation with each other. "Most really do peak at a certain point. What's strange is that no one really talks about the process, though people will suddenly start saying the work is no good anymore.
"Almost no younger artists expect the tapering off of their ideas," Jancar adds. Some, like Ilene Segalove, an artist on Jancar's roster, who spent the 1970s and '80s exploring the influence of Hollywood in her art, stop working until they can devise a project that feels right. In a recent exhibition, Segalove pitted her older and younger selves against each other. Just the contrasting quality of the photographs suggested how much had changed.
Frank Lloyd, whose Santa Monica gallery mainly exhibits artists whose careers began in the 1950s and '60s, has a roster that seems immune to atrophy. "There were only about 50 people around [the L.A. art scene] when they started, so you had to do the work for yourself," Lloyd says. "There's a drive and strength within these artists to take the medium to a place it's never been before."
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Peter Voulkos was in his 70s when he exhibited a body of weirdly bulbous vessels at Lloyd's gallery. Bigger than Voulkos' earlier ceramics and looser than his bronze abstractions, they spun around on lazy Susans and had a prehistoric energy that made their spinning comically inventive. "I see it as my responsibility to keep encouraging artists to develop their work," Lloyd says, even if that means they move in uncomfortable directions that alienate previous audiences.
"Ed Ruscha: On the Road" won't alienate audiences. There's something too familiar about the exhibition's clean deliberateness. Though Ruscha wasn't available to talk about why he had chosen, at this point in his career, to channel Kerouac, he'd have answered smartly, I'm sure. He says pointed things about time. "It's the immediacy that ... makes you not even think about whether something could be ever out of date," he told an interviewer in 1981. But immediacy may be what's missing here.
Ruscha's career is immune to the need for freshness. He's an icon, and deservedly. His work is prominent in museum collections and on the cover of multiple histories of L.A. art. Still, the "On the Road" paintings arrive almost prepackaged, like advertisements for their own legacy. With just a little more restless energy, they might pull you into the moment instead of sending you back through time.
ED RUSCHA: ON THE ROAD | Hammer Museum | 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Wstwd. | Through Oct. 2 | hammer.ucla.edu