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Ed Ruscha and the Great American West

Ed Ruscha, Standard Station, 1966. Color screen print, 25 5/8 x 40 in. Published by Audrey Sabol, Villanova, Penn. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund, 2000. photo: ©Ed Ruscha

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presents an exhibition through Oct. 9 exploring the art of Ed Ruscha and the American West. The museum acquired the artist’s complete graphic archive in 2000, which included all published editions of Ruscha’s prints and a pledge to receive those made in the future. This exhibition draws heavily from the institution’s permanent collection in a continued desire to bring major exhibitions of postwar American art to the Bay Area.

Born in 1937, Ruscha drove to California from Oklahoma in 1956. His trip roughly followed the legendary Route 66 through the Southwest, and all its billboards, gas stations, and open skies later defined his signature style. Ruscha studied with Robert Irwin at the Chouinard Art Institute, and became an active member of the Los Angeles Pop Art movement during the 1960s. Working in painting, photography, film, printmaking, publishing, and drawing, Ruscha honed his offbeat, humorous approach to subject matter.

What is Ruscha trying to say with all these buildings, roadways, and parking lots? This seemingly expressionless representation of the world around him could make the viewer ask, “Why is it art?” Ruscha’s style might initially seem void of aesthetic meaning given that his conceptualism is, in some sense, baffling and confrontational. Though Ruscha seems to avoid narrative and emotion, what at first seems reductive becomes more meaningful when we consider that the artist’s craft and identity has been, for the most part, removed. The viewer is left to regard these scenes as a simple flat surface — perhaps the same kind of “flattening” Ruscha experienced with the fatigue of a long road trip through the solitude of the Western desert.

Ruscha is also famous for his word paintings. Graphic illustrations of words become objects in space — a new kind of still life with letters instead of bowls containing fruit. A series of liquid stains or splatters form the words “Adios” and “Rodeo.” In A Particular Kind of Heaven, those words float above, looking down from the sky, white print hovering over the sunset. In The End, the words appear confrontational in large dark print covered in white vertical streaks like a film’s bleak conclusion on a damaged reel of celluloid.

The thread that runs through all of Ruscha’s work is his consistency in illustrating the “thingness” of his subjects. Words, like landscapes, apartment complexes, and telephone poles are treated equally in that they are objects taken out of context. This exhibition includes 99 works that travel through Ruscha’s evolving technicolor landscapes, expansive skies, and mundane renderings of retro buildings that make up the great American West and its unexpected possibilities.

Ed Ruscha and the Great American West: 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday, July16–Oct. 9; $20; M.H. deYoung Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park; 415-750-3600, famsf.org

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at mindtheimage.com.

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