Ed Ruscha and the Great American West

A retrospective at the de Young

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
Share This:

The fresh and creative Ed Ruscha retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum celebrates the artist’s spare and inventive artwork, which simultaneously memorializes and satirizes the American West. The artist’s attraction to popular culture, Pop-commercial graphics and use of words in his art has continued throughout his long career.

At age 18, Ruscha left his home in Oklahoma to attend art school in Los Angeles, where he has resided for more than 50 years. Traveling back and forth by car through the open byways of the southwest, the artist found irresistible the flat terrain interspersed with its roadside gas stations, billboards and ephemera. Those recurring images and similarly sparse views of Los Angeles, its streets and buildings, mainly comprise the 99 images in the exhibition, which highlight Ruscha’s skillful use of a variety of media, including painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, books, film and even gunpowder.

“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” is well-presented and curated, with most of the images from the collections of the de Young and the Legion of Honor, the two museums that form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. In 2000, The Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, a branch of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, acquired for $10 Million Ruscha’s complete graphic archive of 325 prints and 800 working proofs as well as the right to future prints. An astute buy!

Nine sections, each representing a different aspect of Ruscha’s oeuvre, sensibly separate the exhibition. “The Long Horizon” introduces Ruscha’s vision of the empty stretches of lonely roadways that he traveled between Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Although solitary, they are infused with Ruscha’s wit and laconic humor, particularly, “Let’s Keep in Touch” (1978) and “Well, Well” (1979).

In the segment, “How to Get There,” we are introduced to perhaps Ruscha’s most famous and most powerful image — the gas station. The 1966 color screenprint, “Standard Station” presenting the roadway view of the sleek red gas station, is a fabulous testament to the optimism of the era of endless supplies of cheap gas and fast V-8 engines. Ruscha has said, “The loneliness of each one of them, the isolation … Out there they were these islands on a flat plain.”

The section, “What is Out There,” which features likenesses of the billboards, weeds and debris littering the sides of the roads, is followed by “When You Get There.” It contains Ruscha’s views of Los Angeles, the city he simultaneously loves and loathes. In 1966, the artist created a small accordion-folded book, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” with offset reproductions of his photographs of all the buildings on the Strip. The book was pivotal in Ruscha’s artistic development and reputation. Both the photos of the tacky buildings and store fronts, as well as the tiny book, are on display.

“View from Above and to the West” captures Ruscha’s bird’s-eye view of the iconic images he associates with Hollywood. Photographs of parking lots taken in the 1960s from a helicopter and a dark eerie series done 50 years later present a stark contrast of the Los Angeles landscape.

In “The View from Hollywood,” fuzzy imperfect dark images of coyotes, buffalo and teepees that the artist airbrushed on printing plates or canvas in the 1980s reflect the artist’s love affair with 1950s black and white cowboy movies. Although interesting because of the technique, this section seems out of sync with the rest of the exhibition.

Ruscha’s well-known representations of the Hollywood sign are found in the segment, “Into a Hollywood Sunset.” The 1977 highly-colored romantic “Back of the Hollywood Sign” at sunset is juxtaposed to his 2006 lithograph, “Landmark Decay,” of a deteriorated monochromatic sign.

In “The West You’ve Read About,” we see Ruscha’s use of various words or phrases as the main theme of his pieces. “A Particular Piece of Heaven” (1983), one of my favorites, with its subtly colored sky and ocean, is a positive message about the West. Images such as “Rancho” (1970) and “Rustic Pines” (1967) made with gunpowder, seem more like an exercise than a creative artistic statement.

“The End,” the final section, comprises various pieces that include in their body, the words, “The End.” Subject to varying interpretations (e.g., end of life, end of the movie, end of the continent), I hope that these images are not signaling the end of the artist’s self-perceived creativity. From all accounts, Ruscha seems to be going strong, with works as recent as 2015 included in the exhibition.

Energetic, witty, refreshing and engaging, “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” exemplifies Ruscha’s artistic style, which combines his unique version of Pop and Conceptual Art with commentary on the condition of the American West. It’s a wonderfully creative exhibition that’s easy to enjoy.

By Emily S. Mendel


© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum is lucky to house one of the most significant museum collections of Japanese prints...
The de Young’s exciting retrospective of 20th-century photographer Irving Penn (1917–2009) highlights the broad breadth of this creative artist. Although...
The de Young Museum opened its abundant costume department storage closets for its newest exhibition, “Fashioning San Francisco: A Century...
Search CultureVulture