The city where an artist works can sometimes matter a great deal. This certainly was true in the Italian High Renaissance. When Michelangelo met Titian, he proclaimed that had the Venetian painter but been trained, as he, Michelangelo was, in Florence, then he, too, would have been a great master. But Titian’s painting was different from Michelangelo’s because it responded to the visual culture in the Venetian maritime republic. In the United States, there is often a dramatic opposition felt between New York painting and works made in Los Angeles, “Tinseltown” as it is nicknamed thanks to Hollywood. Hence Robert Motherwell’s condescending remark that Richard Diebenkorn painted as he, Motherwell, would have, had he remained in California.
If Andy Warhol was the creator of New York-style pop art, Ed Ruscha is LA’s premier pop artist. The exhibition “ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN” of over 200 works, produced from 1958 to the present, in various media—painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, artist’s books and installations—displayed in MoMA’s sixth-floor galleries, gives a generously full picture of Ruscha’s career. And there are some instructive parallels between the careers of these two very different personalities. They both believed that the tradition of abstract expressionism, developed in New York and LA, was exhausted. Warhol was born in 1928, just nine years before Ruscha. And because Warhol spent the 1950s in New York working as a commercial artist, both men entered the art world at roughly the same time, in the early 1960s. Ruscha, too, studied commercial art; before Artforum moved east from its home in LA, he had designed that publication. Both Ruscha and Warhol were interested in using mechanical techniques to supplement or supplant the traditional activity of painting. And early on they both made images derived from comics. Ruscha’s Annie, 1962, can be set alongside Warhol’s Dick Tracy, 1960. Both were interested in Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and both borrowed from the pre-existing visual cultures. Ruscha’s Hollywood, 1968, his appropriation of the famous sign, is akin to Warhol’s presentations of newspaper headlines. Both he and Warhol loved showing disasters. Warhol’s car crashes and electric chairs deserve comparison with Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, 1967, in which a typewriter was thrown out of a speeding car, and think of his Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965–68. Both artists also explored non-traditional media— Ruscha’s drawings in 1967 made with gunpowder and Warhol’s late 1970s Oxidation paintings, made using urine.
Ruscha and Warhol met early on, since Warhol had his first real gallery show in LA, where his Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, were shown. (Now they are at MoMA.) He met Ruscha, and asked a good question: Why were there almost no people in Ruscha’s artworks? (There are some small figures in some of the photographs of Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966.) According to the catalogue, Ruscha told Warhol that “I don’t like imagery of people. Instead of using people, I’ll use something else.” Notwithstanding all of these parallels, Ruscha and Warhol are as different as Titian and Michelangelo or Diebenkorn and Motherwell. Like Warhol, Ruscha was raised Catholic. But there are no sacred images in “NOW THEN.” Neither are there any portraits or appropriations of artistic masterpieces, to name two of Warhol’s prominent subjects. And it is difficult to imagine Warhol making an ironical word painting like Ruscha’s I DONT WANT NO RETRO SPECTIVE, 1979.
In offering this dramatic contrast between art in New York and LA, I certainly do not suggest that geography alone determines how Warhol or Ruscha developed very different forms of pop art. What also is at stake are their individual personalities, which obviously are very different. Still, a great artist makes effective use of his visual working environment, as Titian did with the highly distinctive lighting of Venice and Diebenkorn with the landscapes found in California. And that’s what Ruscha has done in LA. After growing up in Oklahoma City, he chose to study in LA because he was fascinated by “cars, suntans, palm trees, swimming pools, strips of celluloid.” LA is a classic driving city, the right place for someone whose great subjects are all the stores on Sunset Boulevard. Ruscha is often interested in depicting words, chosen for what they look like or how they sound, not for what they mean. He cares about “the depicted word,” as Jeffrey Weiss nicely calls them in the catalogue. And in his recent works, he loves juxtaposing words on enormous painted landscapes. Many of these works are anti-aesthetic versions of the billboards that are ubiquitous in LA.
Walking through this show reminded me of what I felt when I was in LA, some years ago, doing research at the J Paul Getty Museum. For an American Easterner, Los Angeles seems an exotic place, and so I spent a surprising amount of time seeking to understand the historical and political context. What the Getty hilltop building provides, I argued in the book that I eventually wrote, is “a variety of framed and unframed vistas,” views “that need only have attention called to them to become works of art.” At the time, I knew too little about Ruscha to understand his relevance to my puzzles. But now, if some New Yorker who had never been to LA asked me what that city was like, I would tell them: Go see “NOW THEN,” for Ruscha offers a note-perfect account of his city. In April 2024 this retrospective comes home to the museum of contemporary art, LACMA, in Los Angeles. How appropriate! ❚
“ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN” exhibited at MoMA, New York, from September 10, 2023, to January 13, 2024.
On wild art, see David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro, Wild Art (London: Phaidon, 2013) and Aesthetics of the Margins/The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2018). Carrier’s In Caravaggio’s Shadow: Naples as a Work of Art (2024) is forthcoming.