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Ruscha Rocks at Modern

By Suzanne Sprague

FORT WORTH – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: There are several, almost universal, reactions to Ed Ruscha's work. One is, it makes you think. Dave Hickey, Art Critic and friend of Ed Ruscha: Ruscha's work tends to reward the attention you pay to it.

Sprague: Dave Hickey is an art critic and friend of Ed Ruscha.

Hickey: In other words, it's very handsome, and it's kind of amusing when you first look at it. And then if you pay attention to it, you usually find that there's all sorts of interesting dimensions to it.

Sprague: Ruscha launched his 40-year career with a series of so-called "word paintings" in the early 1960s. He would paint words like "smash," "noise," or "space" across oversized canvases. The lines are crisp, and the colors strikingly contrast. So, the paintings almost resemble billboards - a far cry from the abstract expressionism that was popular when Ruscha began to paint. Kerry Brougher is the chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and co-curator of the Ed Ruscha retrospective.

Kerry Brougher, Chief Curator, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Co-Curator, Ed Ruscha Retrospective: He saw words around him - on highway signs, on billboards - as he drove through the streets of Los Angeles, as he looked through books, as he read the newspaper; and this seemed to be a part of daily life as much as anything else, and something he could relate to as opposed to just an abstract painting.

Sprague: Ruscha originally had planned to become a commercial artist, leaving his home in Oklahoma City for the promise of Los Angeles right after graduating from high school. He often returned to Oklahoma, finding artistic inspiration along the same route that the Modern Art Museum's chief curator, Michael Auping, traveled as a child.

Michael Auping, Chief Curator, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth: And we would drive back and forth along Highway 66, Route 66, or on any of the freeways in Los Angeles, and the experience Ruscha has portrayed is truly the opening up of the West for the baby boomers.

Sprague: Auping and others call it "car culture," a kind of American landscape painting as seen from the back of a station wagon on a family trip. Ruscha portrayed Standard Oil gas stations in ten foot long paintings. But perched in the upper right corner of one is a torn old western novel, painted with such realism that it looks ready to fall right off the canvas. Critics called it Pop Art, but Ruscha rejected the label as too limiting. He also produced "artist books", or one-of-a-kind paperbacks filled with photos from his travels.

Auping: You see the book, you open it, and it's simply 26 gas stations.

Sprague: Or nine swimming pools, or 34 parking lots.

Auping: It's about telling it as it is, not trying to express some sublime vision. You could say, "What makes that art? Why is that art?" It's art in the way he places images on the page. It's art because it's so remarkably deadpan.

Sprague: This almost poker-face approach to art is one of the elements in Ruscha's work that has influenced today's young artists, among them Fort Worth's Brian Fridge.

Brian Fridge, Fort Worth Artist: What I do, I make videos in my freezer (laughs).

Sprague: Fridge's videos were included in last year's famed Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. And next month, he will lead an artist's tour of the Ed Ruscha exhibit at the Fort Worth Modern.

Fridge: I have a pretty strong interest in Ruscha. I've appreciated his work for a while, and I think it's been pretty influential on what I do. I know talking to artists my age, or my generation, it seems like his name comes up more than even like Andy Warhol, because it's hard for an artist to do much with the cult of Andy Warhol.

Sprague: Ruscha has never received the same recognition as Warhol. And some critics have said his paintings are so rooted in L.A. culture that they don't resonate with Easterners. But the Art Institute of Chicago's Neal Benezra, who co-curated the Ruscha exhibition, believes Ruscha's strength comes from his ability to reinvent himself and keep his work fresh.

Neal Benezra, Art Institute of Chicago and Co-Curator, Ed Ruscha Retrospective: And he'll make a body of work over the course of years, but once he feels that he's mined that sufficiently, he won't overdo it. He won't continue to produce. He'll change to something new.

Sprague: Ruscha has described this as an invisible guy tapping him on the shoulder and saying, "Hey man, it's over." He quit painting for two years around 1970 and then resumed his career, experimenting with gunpowder, strawberry jam and other materials. He painted brilliant sunsets and the back of the famous Hollywood sign in California. But in the 1980s, Ruscha changed to a darker style, leaving bright palette and crisp lines behind, as critic Dave Hickey explains.

Hickey: Painting black and white pictures in which images begin to fade away as if in memory, so that the present tends to be rendered in color and in crisp letters, and the past tends to be rendered in black and white and these extremely fuzzy airbrushed images.

Sprague: One painting is an elephant. Another is two tall ships at sea. Others look like frames of aging black and white film. Is this style, this sense of fading away, a factor of getting older? Perhaps. But Ruscha's most recent work, also included in the exhibition, returns to the colors of his early career. He paints the mountains of northern California in rich blues and golds. These five foot tall acrylic renderings look as real as a photograph, but are superimposed with bright, white words, like "blast curtain." Again, Neal Benezra.

Benezra: If you imagine in your own career, in any one's career, coming in at age 30 or 40 or 50 or even 60 and suddenly going about your business, your professional business, the business of your professional life in a different way. Stopping one thing that you're doing rather successfully and saying, "I'm going to do something totally differently." And it brings home how remarkable it is for an artist to do this.

Sprague: Benezra says that's provided a model for his own life. And he expects others who take in the traveling exhibition will find different, yet equally important messages in Ruscha's work as well. The Ed Ruscha Retrospective continues at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through September. Ruscha will be at the Modern to screen one of his short films and discuss his work on September 23rd. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.