Pop Goes MAM

From the man who put words to canvas and called it art, Ed Ruscha gets a Miami retrospective

Pop art brings to mind those extraordinary images from the cold-war and civil-rights era of the Sixties: a startling moment when the United State's middle class seemingly swept up the proletariat. Mixing liberal democracy with Coca-Cola, Elvis, and Little Orphan Annie, pop art became more than a fad; it became a way of life, a cultural form. Fast-forward 35 years, and pop comes back as neo-pop, though this new version sucks. Some worship it as a second coming of Camelot, but history repeats itself as tragedy. Neo-pop poorly mimics the Sixties with its virtual spectacles, bubbly cyberescapades, Japanese derivations, and with little social redemption. In that era pop gestures were democratic and naive. But the energy and activism of that time have dwindled into headless and unfocused commercial self-indulgence.

I bring up the issue because of the show "Ed Ruscha" at Miami Art Museum. Why Ruscha now? Possible answers: Masters are masters, or, better, pop never dies.

Ruscha's pop history goes back to the late Fifties, following his training at the Chouinard Art Institute (a magnet for Disney animators). After travels that included Europe, he discovered the art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In the beginning of the next decade, while working as a layout and graphic designer, Ruscha experimented with logo-typo pictures in pieces such as Actual Size (in which the word "Spam" is painted in yellow on a black surface) and his well-known Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, which depicts the 20th Century Fox logo.

Ruscha got 26 pics on Route 66
Ruscha got 26 pics on Route 66

Details

Through June 3; 305-375-3000
The Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St.

By the mid-Sixties Ruscha had become an art celebrity. And he took on a snapshot aesthetic typical of American photography at the time: Two of his books from this period include Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, which contains ordinary photographs of filling stations along the once-prominent Route 66; and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, which features a series of stark photos of buildings along the drive that remained an important influence for up-and-coming conceptualists. When Sol LeWitt published his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art in 1967, Ruscha's book appeared as a model.

From this period the MAM show displays some of Ruscha's ribbonlike, sexy word-drawings, such as Optics and Sin, made with gunpowder on paper. I fancied Ruscha's reading of the future with his drawing 1984, done in 1967. He was right on target; his use of digital font for the number aptly depicts an upcoming epoch. Adios is drawn in hyperreal brown liquid, with maggots scattered about. And don't miss the mellifluous Rancho, which, despite its syrupy makeup, took me inside a dilapidated neon-lit highway motel where Duke Ellington's band could be playing on the radio (or better yet, Daft Punk's metallic bubble-gum house).

Ruscha continued to produce books and taught printing and drawing at the University of California. In 1970, when invited to participate at the Venice Biennale, he silk-screened (using chocolate) an installation made with 360 sheets of paper in a floor-to-ceiling arrangement that resembled house shingles. Later in the Seventies, Ruscha abandoned painting for a while and experimented with short film.

Critics see Ruscha's art as a midpoint between pop art and conceptualism. I think his art is pop all right -- if we look at it in a broader sense. He comes from advertising, like Andy Warhol. For instance there are Ruscha's huge ads on canvas. His Boss, Ace, and Fisk paintings (beautiful pieces, by the way) in a sense parallel Warhol's Marilyns and Claes Oldenburg's Floor Cake. Add to these his use of high-gloss and sense of meticulousness, as in his uncanny Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, and you've got real ad-inspired art.

I find that Ruscha's black-and-white unpopulated renditions of modern Los Angeles architecture convey a subtle pop wit. When working with words (the main conceptual medium), Ruscha has too much fun to be a conceptualist. His ideas retain a beauty not seen in the often dry and wordy landscapes of serious art types. Finally the way the artist deals with themes of originality and seriality (preoccupations of conceptual artists in the Sixties and Seventies) also is a contribution from pop art.

Ruscha continued to evolve in the Eighties. Particularly enjoyable from this time is his series of huge airbrushed black-and-white paintings. They seem to be set in a weird, mystical place in the wilderness, or in two-toned B movies. A couple of them are superb: Caribe, which depicts a house shrouded in a foggy, murky environment right out of a David Lynch movie; and Vegetation Made Public, an eerie study in light showing cacti silhouettes against a vast desert backdrop.

I don't like Ruscha's most recent mountainous period. In a sense these paintings come full circle to Ruscha's beginning. Their obvious magnificence betrays the artist's well-kept balance between art and advertisement. They also point to an issue seldom brought up in Ruscha's art: his avoidance of the human form. If the painted word was Ruscha's alternative to the human subject, his rejection and almost obliteration of it later could be seen as a sign of inner struggle and development. He did try to branch out in the Nineties, but in the end the artist was still too dependent on references. In one enigmatic work, he leaves fifteen lines blank, only to put them back in the title: I'll Be Getting Out Soon and I Haven't Forgotten Your Testimony Put Me Here.

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