Ed Ruscha Keeps Up the Standards at LACMA

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Right now, you have an opportunity to experience a rather unique reflection of life as art, of nature to culture. Take the escalator to the third floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA and face north towards the mountains and the Hollywood sign. Then turn around and go into the galleries where you can see Ed Ruscha's many renditions of the iconic sign. There is the 1969 print that he published himself, while still a young artist, of the sign against a blazing orange sunset, another print of the sign in the rain, one that is stretched lengthwise as Long Hollywood and, in 2006, a pair of less optimistic views of the letters crumbling and falling to pieces: Landmark Decay and Further Landmark Decay.

One can imagine Ruscha as a teenager from Oklahoma City coming to L.A., imagining and then coming to understand the symbolic dominance of that sign and, of course, the movies and glamour it represented.

These prints, many donated to the museum by Jane and Marc Nathanson, are part of a small exhibition "Standard" organized when Ruscha was honored during the Art + Film Gala and it continues through January 21. Drawn entirely from LACMA's own collection, it is not comprehensive but focuses on Ruscha's long relationship with film and his uncanny ability to express expansive, complex ideas in a single word or image: His 1969 letters of the word "desire" painted in apparent caviar on a marigold canvas with a slightly ominous shadow at the top suggesting potential regret. Ruscha has perfect pitch for the conflation of sound, meaning and symbol. As he says, "I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again."

Ed Ruscha, "Sin-Without," 1990
Purchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council
and the National Endowment for the Arts
© 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved
Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

As such, they operate somewhat like leitmotifs in music, themes that he revisits over the years. Passing time takes its toll. In 1971, "Sin" was rendered in fragile standing letters, all black, gray and white except for the bright green martini olive in the lower corner. In a 1990 painting, "Sin-Without" is almost a billboard in big white letters against stormy dark clouds blocking out rays of light.

Ed Ruscha, "Standard Station," 1966
Museum Acquisition Fund
© 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved
Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA


The show's title "Standard" is indebted to the many Standard stations that Ruscha has rendered as paintings, prints and drawings though it also refers to the word standard as a measure of quality. Keeping up standards. Well, Ruscha has certainly done that.

George Herms, "Euphoria has the right of way #2," 1995
Courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts

Meanwhile, Ruscha is included with a number of other artists using language in their art in a show organized by Aldis Browne, "Letters from Los Angeles: Text in Southern California Art" at Jack Rutberg Gallery through mid-January. Alexis Smith, John Baldessari, Raul Guerrero, Bruce Richards, Bruce Nauman, Wallace Berman and many others are well represented. I particularly enjoyed George Herms' 1995 small collage of brown and red stained papers with the phrase: "Euphoria has the right of way."

Banner image: Ed Ruscha, Hollywood, 1968. Museum Acquisition Fund. © 2012 Edward J. Ruscha IV. All rights reserved. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA