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The Sound of One Hand Painting

Ever since Ed Ruscha came to critical and popular attention as part of the first wave of American Pop artists, his stark, quizzical images of floating words and trompe l’oeil objects have somehow managed to maintain their currency through the rapidly shifting fashions of the following three decades. He has been heralded as a process artist, a conceptualist, and a text, minimal or picture artist: Every subsequent clique seemed to want to claim Ruscha as one of their own. After riding out the ’80s as the seminal artist for the kind of subverted commercial idioms practiced by Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and many lesser lights, he attained a sort of tenure. Now he’s just always there.

The paradox at the heart of Ruscha’s work lies in how his popularity is always rationalized by reams of arcane theorizing about the ontology of linguistics (or whatever passes for an idea this week), but when the work is described, it always sounds like a real dumb joke. Real dumb jokes are often the funniest, but when Ruscha began painting works like Actual Size (1962) — which shows a meticulously realist can of Spam hurtling like a meteor under an enormously enlarged version of its own logo — it was tantamount to sacrilege in the eyes of the art world. And a tone of gleeful sacrilege permeates Ruscha’s early work, though much of it is so what-the-fuck? that it’s impossible to figure out who or what he’s trying to undermine. While his enormous Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1965–68) conveys an obvious slapstick critique of institutionalized culture, what are we to make of the word sauce hovering forlornly in a darkening ocher void; his 1969 series of floating combinations of amphetamines, pencils and olives; or the goofy, Magritte-like bird paintings that occupied him for most of 1965?

En masse — as in the first installment of a projected five-volume catalogue raisonné of Ed Ruscha’s paintings — such peculiarity becomes monumental. The book itself is a model of what an art book should be — two pithy essays and a wealth of biographical and bibliographic data, bracketing 137 large full-color reproductions, including five gatefolds and numerous close-ups showing details of brushwork, edges and other usually excluded information. Presented chronologically, each painting is tracked by provenance, exhibition history and bibliography, plus well-selected commentaries from Ruscha himself, Christopher Knight, Rosalind Krauss, Dave Hickey and many others. The book traces Ruscha’s evolution as he struggles to incorporate the influences of Magritte and Jasper Johns into a unique voice, creating iconic Pop works like 1963’s Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas before hitting his full stride with his late-’60s painting depicting single words spelled out in maple syrup, milk, oil and caviar.

By focusing exclusively on the paintings, however, the book misrepresents Ruscha’s oeuvre — leaving out his brilliant and influential self-published books of photographs, and his printmaking, covered in a separate, inferior catalog four years ago. There are no paintings here from 1970, but it was one of Ruscha’s most productive and innovative years, producing both his News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues portfolio, screen-printed in axle grease, Pepto-Bismol and other non-traditional media, and his innovative immersive print Chocolate Room. The Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings makes it look like Ruscha took the year off. In fact, printmaking had grown to such an importance in Ruscha’s practice as to displace painting entirely.

The thing about a paradox is that even though the different elements seem to contradict one another, they’re somehow inextricable. In Ruscha’s case, this boils down to the idea that the most sophisticated expression of the roots of symbolic communication amounts to nothing more (or less) than a real dumb joke. But when you look at that phrase “real dumb joke” and parse it out without the pejorative taint, you get a surprisingly profound sense of Ruscha’s accomplishment as a visual communicator. Whatever they are — and they’re certainly not birds, or radios, or burning gas stations — his works are as real as they are engaged with our idea of what is real; they are both mute and devoid of ostentatious intellectualism; and they are deeply, inexplicably funny. Real dumb jokes. The last painting listed in the volume — which you’d think would somehow act as a summation of his previous decade of work — is lost, and represented with a blank page. Is this guy a Buddhist or what?

ED RUSCHA CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ OF THE PAINTINGS: Volume One 1958–1970 | Edited by Pat Poncy | Gagosian Gallery and Steidl Verlag 469 pages | $175 hardcover


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