Going on the road for Ed Ruscha

Hosted by and

Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, the title of a new survey of the LA artist's paintings and works on paper, is something of a tautology. The two are almost synonymous. There is no other contemporary artist who has so consistently explored and embraced the changing nature of the western landscape, the quality of light, the mythic implications of its history, the absurdity of roadside signage and ordinary buildings. Nonetheless, this cogent exhibition, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco through October 9, is an opportunity to experience anew Ruscha's work of magnificent simplicity.

Image Not Available
Ed Ruscha, "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas," 1963
Oil on canvas, 64 7/8 x 121 3/4 in.
© Ed Ruscha

It was originally conceived with a focus on Ruscha's graphic art by De Young curator Karin Breuer, an aspect of Ruscha's development that has gone hand in hand with his painting. The very first wall of the exhibition features his grand 1963 painting, "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas," with its red and white sign shining in front of diagonal rays of yellow Klieg lights that signal a Hollywood premiere in the blue-black night. No one has ever made a gas station look more inviting as a source of energy, of rest, of illuminated light in the dark.

Image Not Available
Ed Ruscha, "Pepto-Caviar Hollywood," 1970
Color screenprint, 15 x 42 1/2 in.
© Ed Ruscha

The gas stations, of which Ruscha has made countless paintings, prints, drawings and even books, initially referenced his own roots in Oklahoma City, his love of cars and driving the open highway to and from LA, initially to attend Chouinard Art Institute and then for pleasure. His fascination with the city of movie stars and swimming pools generated his signature image of the Hollywood sign. The show includes a variety those pictures including one of my favorites, a 1970 silkscreen done in Pepto-Bismal and caviar.

The elongated horizontality of these and other works refer to the wide open spaces, the possibility of adventure that beckoned Ruscha, those who came before him and those still coming today, even as those horizons are increasingly blocked by thoughtless development. In recent years, he has presented some depressing representations of a western landscape changing for the worse.

Image Not Available
Ed Ruscha, "The End," 1991
Lithograph, 26 3/16 x 36 13/16 in.
© Ed Ruscha

Though most of the work in this show is familiar to those of us who are committed admirers, seeing a show edited to accentuate his long lean compositions snaps into consciousness the ways in which Jack Kerouac's 1958 On the Road has operated as a poetic undercurrent. This is most evident in his simple representations of words as pictures because he has chosen them with such sensitivity to sound, meaning and lettering: "A Particular Kind of Heaven" (1983), "Rodeo" (1969), "Oily" (1967).

Image Not Available
Ed Ruscha, "Schwab's Pharmacy, 1976
from "The Sunset Strip," series published in 1995
Gelatin silver print from altered negative, 20 x 30 in.
© Ed Ruscha

From the outset, Ruscha took photographs and worked from them or published them in small paperback books that he designed and printed. This show underscores his relationship to photography, which parallels similar concerns among the early LA conceptual artists. (More such material is on view at Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills in Ed Ruscha: Prints and Photographs through September 9)

Ruscha talks about the ways in which driving is a way of composing a movie in your imagination. Think of this show as a feature film of Ruscha's long and loving history with LA and with Joshua Tree, where he has kept a second home for decades. It is all the more poignant for the rapid disappearance of the exotic ordinariness that Ruscha has made iconic: dingbat apartment buildings, individualistic signage, even the sounds on the radio.

Image Not Available
Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA, 2016
Photo © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

This worthy show will not travel so it beckons art lovers north where they can also take in the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It reopened last May after a three-year closure to facilitate a new building by the Oslo-based firm of Snøhetta. A giant white iceberg of a structure encloses the 1995 post-modern museum designed by Mario Botta. That building was desperately in need of additional gallery space and that has been accomplished with the three top floors of the addition. The galleries are spacious, well-lit and overflowing with hundreds of works of art collected by Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap. Early supporters of the German figurative art that became popular in the 1980's, one gallery showcases most of their paintings by Gerhard Richter from a luminous depiction of two candles, his personal favorite, to his recent panels of single color. Other galleries showcase Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer as well as German photographers of the period.

The galleries devoted to Pop art include a room hung with Andy Warhol's 1960's silvered silkscreens including "Triple Elvis" (originally shown at Ferus in LA) and "National Velvet." The Minimalist galleries include more than 20 canvases from all periods of the career of Ellsworth Kelly, a survey unto itself.

Suddenly, SF MOMA must be seen as an institution of international importance. The re-opening has revitalized the scene south of Market. Gagosian opened a new space around the corner with Plane.Site, a smart group show organized by Sam Orlofsky that includes examples of drawn and sculptural works by artists ranging from Mark Grotjahn to Giuseppe Penone. It is on view through August 27. Later this fall, veteran Bay Area dealer John Berggruen is relocating to the building next door with a group show of figurative work. It is all worth the trip.