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Ed Ruscha: Archaeology and Romance (Austin Review)

Kitty Pearce 7 months ago

Ed Ruscha: Archaeology and Romance at the Harry Ransom Center is an exhibition that explores the beginning of the celebrated artist’s career, specifically his artist’s books. Shaping the cannon of contemporary art, Ruscha has been making art for over fifty years and works in a variety of mediums such as photography, painting, printmaking and film. This exhibition is a brilliant primer to the artist’s practice and how it subsequently influenced his later work. The layout of the show is particularly effective in that it progresses via the publication years of his books.


Ed Ruscha photographed in Los Angeles by Dennis Hopper, 1964

Moving to Los Angeles from Oklahoma in 1956, Ruscha developed a deep love affair with the city. In his work, he does not show the stereotypical side of Los Angeles — the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that we all associate with the city. Instead, he displays the prosaic side with industrial landscapes, commercial signs, and vernacular architecture. Most of the architecture is no longer in existence providing a rueful, nostalgic quality to the work.


Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Third Edition Los Angeles: National Excelsior [artist], 1969 (1963)

Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Third Edition
Los Angeles: National Excelsior [artist], 1969 (1963)

Published in 1963, Twentysix Gasoline Stations is the first of Ruscha’s books. It was described by Artforum editor, Philip Leider, as “so curious, and so doomed to oblivion, that there is an obligation, of sorts, to document its existence.” Featuring black and white photos of gas stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and his hometown of Oklahoma City, the artist provided captions detailing only the name and locations of the stations. The snapshot-like images are primarily straightforward views of the stations taken at various times of the day. Ruscha was not interested in the traditional photographic method of his predecessors. He was simply documenting an everyday relic as unremarkable and nondescript as the gas station in his characteristic deadpan style.


Ed Ruscha, Nine Swimming Pools, 1968

Similarly, in Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, Ruscha (1968) photographs one of LA’s most quintessential and ubiquitous elements — the swimming pool. Employing color photography for the first time in his work, the artist included only nine images of pools and one image of a mysterious broken glass at the end of the book. The turquoise pools are generic in design and eerily uninhabited, though there are signs of life in a few: a wet footprint or rippled water. Furthering this ambiguity, Nine Swimming Pools is predominantly filled with blank pages with images interspersed at random intervals. Rushcha’s work is both irreverent and withholding, making it unnerving in its vagueness and unpredictability. However, if one comes to terms with this, it’s possible to appreciate his astute artistic practice.


Ed Ruscha, Pools, 1968
A portfolio of nine chromographic color prints, artist’s proof 10/10; Vancouver: Patrick Painter Editions, 1997; Gift of the artist to Harry Ransom Center

Ruscha is fascinated with Americana and the artifacts that are indelibly imbued with this spirit; from pop culture, iconography of signage, and Los Angeles’s constant reinvention of itself. The exhibition keenly elucidates the thread that ties the beginning of his oeuvre with his later works. Viewing his many artist’s books, one can’t help but feel a tinge of nostalgia for these bygone relics of America’s past that all seem but a dream to us now.

Ed Ruscha: Archaeology and Romance is on exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center through January 6, 2019.

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