Allen Ruppersberg’s art concerns the slippage of history, the importance of memory regardless of its unreliability and the blurred lines between fiction and fact. He has been mining this territory since 1969 and his work has never seemed more relevant.
His retrospective at the Hammer Museum, Intellectual Property, 1968-2018, makes that perfectly clear. This clarity emerges from the archival chaos of an artist whose content comes from novels, magazines, records, poetry, advertising photographs, old newspapers, xerox copies, movie posters, postcards, videos and even his own drawings. Ruppersberg illustrates the elusive and ever changing qualities of culture.
Originally organized by Walker Art Center curator Siri Engberg and presented by curator Aram Moshayedi at the Hammer, it is only the second retrospective of the highly respected artist. His first was in 1985 at MOCA, just a year after the museum opened. Why? Ruppersberg’s art is easy to enjoy but tough to categorize and define, which happens to be integral to its success.
The Cleveland native, now 74, came to L.A. to study commercial illustration at Chouinard (now Cal Arts), as did many important alumni of ‘50s and ‘60s. Conceptual art was at its infancy but easily embraced by Ruppersberg. This is the background for one of his earliest and best known pieces, Al’s Grand Hotel staged in a craftsman style house at 7175 Sunset Boulevard, May 7 to June 12, 1971. This recreation of a hotel, with furnished rooms, a brochure and letterhead, placed the artist himself in the fictional role of hotelier. The fiction actual began two years earlier at Al’s Cafe, where guests could order from a menu offering impossible but amusing concoctions like “Toast and Leaves.” It became a brief gathering place for artists and collectors who might drop by for a beer.
The artifacts of those projects in this exhibition— the neon hotel sign, the tin plates with carefully arranged inedibles — demonstrate a protean taste for piquant absurdity. It is no coincidence that these took place in Hollywood where personal roles are concocted and discarded while fantasy is encouraged. Like Ed Ruscha, who had graduated from Chouinard ten years earlier, Ruppersberg was living in a Hollywood of fading glamour though there remained now lost evidence in the Brown Derby, the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador, Nickodell’s near Paramount. Hotels, cafes, restaurants: Ruppersberg collected matchbooks and paraphenalia, which are now the only original evidence of their noteworthy existance.
Yet, Ruppersberg was simultaneously influenced by European artists whose influences were poetry and literature as well as the visual arts. Using the games and riddles of Fluxus artists like Georges Brecht, Ruppersberg’s art is rooted in the printed word, from pulp novels to the classics. Narrative is obliquely implied. An unusually peripatetic artist with studios in Cleveland, L.A., New York, and sometimes in Europe, Ruppersberg made use of each location. Even if he, himself, was not exactly there. It became the leitmotif: Ruppersberg’s presence is his absence.
In one body of work, a series of index cards with Instamatic photographs and typed script-like quotations ask, Where’s Al? In Greetings from L.A.: A Novel, a mostly blank paperback was interleafed with occasional phrases of language.
Fascinated by the legendary life of Houdini, Ruppersberg operated as an archivist of L.A. and other locations but was opaque about his own biography, his feelings, his familial relations, his love affairs. Ruppersberg, man of mystery, operates behind the scene.
Indebted to literature as he was, he began copying books, most significantly, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1974). The 1890 Oscar Wilde book is written long-hand across large panels of stretched canvas, all standing in a room as an installation. It is a painting about a book about a painting. Hanging adjacent is his “self-portrait,” actually a drawn copy of the Dorian Gray filmstar, Hurd Hatfield. Ruppersberg puts himself in the position of being the original author, the star of the film, and the artist who weaves together all ideas as his own work.
Ruppersberg does not believe in so-called subliterature, those books of erotic, sensational or even dull but useful information. All printed matter is of interest to him. For one sculpture, he created convincing covers for improbable books that are stacked on a table as remainders. They have titles like "Smut" or "Atomic Radiation."
There are numerous drawings of books from his own library with his scrawled captions, exacting drawings of obituaries or newspaper stories with lurid headlines. The text of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl is silkscreened on sheets of the gradiant colored papers once made by Colby Press. They are mounted on a wall with bench in front where you can put on headphones to listen to a recording of it.
The other dominant factor in his work is popular music. He produces vinyl records of obscure songs with his own labels and cover art. They are released online by his El Segundo Record Club.
Ruppersberg is collector, archivist and historian. His excellent exhibition at the Hammer offers the pleasure of a reading a good book and letting the mind wander over the names, places, trends, songs, high and low points that furnish the collective palace of memory. As he has said, “I try to find things that are on the verge of disappearing so that I can resuscitate them, use them so they are present again.” The show continues to May 12.
Ruppersberg’s memoir continues in another show, this one at Marc Selwyn Fine Arts. It is perfectly titled, "What a Strange Day it has Been." An entire wall is covered in magazine or record covers and other graphics. An index in white type details various people, events and sources with fictional page numbers. Anyone familiar with contemporary art of the past 50 years, especially in L.A., will find references that jog memory. There are artists, writers, dealers and others. Some remain active, some have faded from history. All have a place in Ruppersberg’s own life and career. In this show as well as the one at the Hammer, Ruppersberg’s archive preserves a particular and personal history while expanding its relevance for the future. It is on view through March 23.