The hook for the Whitney’s large retrospective of Ed Ruscha’s works on paper is photography. Not the legendary Twentysix Gasoline Stations from 1963, nor the 1966 accordion strip of black-and-white photos that’s a visual inventory of Every Building on the Sunset Strip, but the roadside photographs he took in 1961—fresh from art school with the typical twin-lens reflex of the day—while on a grand tour of Europe with his mother and brother in a Deux Chevaux. They’re the efforts of an innocent abroad replaying, possibly without realizing it, the role of Eugene Atget. Curators Margit Rowell and Sylvia Wolf, in separate catalog essays for this exhibition and its companion show in the lobby gallery, “Ed Ruscha and Photography,” credit those small European roadside pictures as the sources for Ruscha’s all-American deadpan style.
So it makes sense that “Ed Ruscha and Photography,” replete with Ruscha’s post-grad pics of the Old World as well as his 1961 “product still lifes” of cans of Spam and Oxydol, and the subsequent deceptively modest photo books, serves as a kind of prologue or trailer for the drawing show. But the photography revelation might have been better served had the two separate shows been merged. And it would have really shaken things up if Pop photo repetitions or product motifs (or minimalist seriality) could be proved to have flowed from West Coast to East, as the photos imply. You have to wonder about this when you go upstairs to the drawing show. One of the first works is a 1961 head-on photo-collage of a vintage car repeated nine times that practically screams Warhol—except that in 1961 Warhol hadn’t yet quite come up with his own deadpan photo-silkscreen replications. “At the time,” says Ruscha to Wolf in an interview in the photo catalog, “I was into making pictures that happened to be photographs.”
It’s a fine point. Ruscha’s work has always had—in the East at least—an ambivalent, blunt, yet slippery edge. Not exactly Pop, sort of minimalistic, somewhat conceptual, slightly narrative, and rather illusionistic, it slips out of every possible pigeonhole, including that of photography—even though the serial photos have something in common with those of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Despite Ruscha’s hovering words that function as objects in space, and his ribbony or folded lettering that levitates above smoggy grounds, indeterminate planes, shallow space, or its own shadow, his work always retains a flat, noirish opacity—not perspectivally but mentally.
So while this show snags us with its insistence on the generative importance of the photographic image in Ruscha’s work on paper (and, by implication, on canvas as well), it might equally have emphasized his student job as a printer in the days of movable type and opted for Popness, elevating him on the old modern terms of who did what first. It could have stressed the prescient literalness of his materials—dry pigment, particulate gunpowder, granular pastel—which got annulled by his ability to make dryness look wet and other trompe l’oeil skills. The color that snuck in around 1969 was literal too: It came from rose petals, lettuce, coffee, blood, tobacco, ivy, or Fernet-Branca stains. And as Ruscha’s work gets wordier during the ’70s, and the lettering floating in the ether insists on the physicality of ideas, the show could have stressed the West Coast brand of conceptualism. The curatorial emphasis on Ruscha’s photographic vision also slights an even more astonishing and obvious point: the cinematic underpinnings of his artistic mentality. In a city permeated by movie-culture zooms and fades as well as car-culture mobility, his word-as-image art was not only proto-conceptual but—like that of Allen Ruppersberg and Alexis Smith—post-literate, infused with the tradition of Raymond Chandler and evanescent filmic images made to bear the weight of words.
Cinema spillover is pervasive in Ruscha’s work. From his titles alone, a case could be made that the work of art in the age of 3-D typefaces and mechanical reproduction really came into its own at the movies: Stardust, Water Soluble Dreams, One Night Stand Forever, They Called Her Styrene, Corn-Popped Ruscha. His iconic painting of the 20th Century Fox trademark with crisscrossing spotlights offers further evidence, and a study for it on hotel stationery is in this show, along with several studies of the famous Hollywood sign. Hollywood Is a Verb, declares one work. Another—huge, grainy, and gravelly—maps out a pavement of upside-down L.A. street names such as Sunset, Hollywood, and Vine.
In fact, Ruscha’s work is littered with references to the conventions of the Hollywood film, from wide Cinemascope formats and late-night movie-title typefaces to the emulsion-side reversibility of words that leads to his recent fascination with palindromes. On the final wall, just before you exit from the exhibition, you’ll find a few of his ongoing series of small drawings of the ultimate movie credit: The End. The vertical streaks across their surfaces replicate the look of movie film from a reel that’s been scratched by a projector. His style may well have originated in what Rowell calls “the photographic model,” but I’d say Ruscha found his laconic modus operandi at the movies. His murky, flickering, pictorialized words can veer dangerously close to shallow wordplay, but, sensitized by the banal nuances of cinematic conventions and modulated by what the artist has called “the ‘huh’ factor,” they still touch a starstruck nerve.