LOS ANGELES — Ed Ruscha is as humbled as he is bemused over the first of five volumes out this week chronicling a lifetime of achievement. “Part of me wants to say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But here I am in 2004, I’m...
LOS ANGELES — Ed Ruscha is as humbled as he is bemused over the first of five volumes out this week chronicling a lifetime of achievement. “Part of me wants to say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But here I am in 2004, I’m still working,” he deadpans. “They haven’t hammered the lid yet.”
Far from it. Nearly a decade in the making and co-published by Steidl Verlag and Gagosian Gallery, which represents him worldwide and is hosting his New York personal appearance for the book today at its Madison Avenue site, the 464-page compendium, “Ed Ruscha Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume One: 1958-1970,” just begins to tell the story of the prolific painter, printmaker, photographer and filmmaker.
The volume begins with a 1958 work entitled “1938” that he painted as a student at Chouinard Art Institute (now part of the California Institute of Arts), which he attended from 1956 to 1960, and, despite the volume title, closes with works from 1969. In fact, Ruscha says he stayed away from the canvas in 1970. “It was a dry year for me,” he laughs. “I was doing other things, making prints, this and that. But I didn’t do any painting that year.”
Three years shy of his 70th birthday and with a full crown of white hair, it’s easy to forget this still boyish man was actually there, in person, through many of the contemporary art world’s defining movements — Pop, Conceptualism, West Coast Cool. To wit, he insists: “I’m not that different from when I was 18. I’m thinking just like I was when I was 18.”
Okay, but while he once held fast to the opinion that museums were a big yawn, and his aversion to the notion of time and history has helped him break preexisting ideas of art, Ruscha has wised up to the inevitable. “History is going to take its course no matter what you think about it,” he now admits. “And this [catalogue] is a way ofmaking it official.”
This very modern artist left Oklahoma City at age 15 for Los Angeles, a city he’s immortalized repeatedly with both affection and disdain. He continues to work in Venice, Calif. With this volume, he addswith a sense of nostalgia, “it’s like I’ve gathered up 136 of my older children —some are clowns, some are not — and I’m gathering them for a group family photo.”He even guiltily admits to a favorite among them: “Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western.” Four decades after writing in his journal that the painting “seems to have invalidated” all his previous works, Ruscha’s impression remains unchanged. “This is maybe my best painting. All the magic comes together in one sweep. Everything I wanted to say in a painting, I was able to satisfy with this one.”
Of course, he didn’t let that stop him from pushing forward. “Yeah, I continued to paint,” he quips. He travels to Australia next week to open a sizable show of his paintings from the last 10 years, as well as photos, book works and some 100 drawings spanning his career, at the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition then travels to Rome and Berlin.
The catalogue is thoroughly detailed, with every step a work has made and critical commentary. Even more telling are snapshots of the pages of his studio journals, allowing a peek at blueprints of his paintings (down to noting he would sign his name on the back of a canvas in charcoal) to listings of chores. The paint recipes are particularly revealing considering the May 18, 1962 entry: “Had to fly to France to see some doctors. Guess what: I’m colorblind! [sic]”
The real-time look into his thought process will be missed in future catalogues no doubt, since the journals are less a part of his life now. “I don’t do much of that now. I sort of fell out of the habit of it.”
The catalogue is only the latest in the Ruscha library, which includes brief collections of his serial documentation of Los Angeles and elsewhere, each literally entitled: “Twenty Six Gasoline Stations” and “Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles.” Among the most collectable and cribbed by other, newer, artists and a subject he continues to document with the help of a crew, is “Every Building on Sunset Strip.” The accordion booklet cost $15 in 1966; today a first edition can go for $1,500.
As for new projects, Ruscha matter-of-factly says “they just keep rolling along. I find myself taking detours on this highway. I may come back and revisit a medium. I continue to work.” He laughs. “So that’s troubling to everyone who’s working on these catalogues.”
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