When considering Ed Ruscha, whose multifaceted art now engulfs the Ransom Center, pay close attention to the little books.
Touch them. Turn their pages. Then look around at what inspired these mass-produced editions of images by Ruscha — pronounced "roo-shay" — and, just as importantly, what fascinating art they inspired.
The Nebraska-born, Oklahoma-reared, California-based artist works in all sorts of media, including painting, printmaking, drawing and film. Yet his years-long projects typically have turned on small-scale artist’s books that tell stories in a series of unadorned photographs that isolate parts of the American landscape — gas stations, palm trees, swimming pools, parking lots, storefronts, apartment buildings or commercial signs, for instance.
He also trains his eyes on smaller objects, as in his amusingly titled series, “Various Small Fires and Milk.”
Because of its related collections, the Ransom Center is uniquely positioned to tell the most complete story of the artist’s fascinating ways in a show, “Ed Ruscha: Archaeology and Romance,” that runs through Jan. 6.
The University of Texas center is a vast repository of books, manuscripts, art and other related objects, so it’s a natural place to look for the before, during and after aspects of Ruscha’s booklets. The center holds one of the largest and finest collections of photography in the world.
Perhaps more to the point, it also houses the Ed Ruscha Papers and Art Collection, acquired in 2013.
“He is one of America's most influential living artists,” says Jessica McDonald, the center’s curator of photography, “and his work is shown in major exhibitions around the world every year.”
UT’s current show, however, stands out.
“Almost without exception, those exhibitions celebrate Ruscha's finished artworks,” McDonald says. “Our exhibition takes a different approach, drawing from his archive; it includes a broad range of preparatory materials for his landmark artist's books and examines the impact of those books on later works in other media.”
In other words, this show considers Ruscha’s work as a process rather than a finished product: First comes a subject and notes about that subject, then a series of plain photographs, some of which are published in unadorned, mass-produced artist's books — which can look like inexplicable religious tracts or throwaway flyers — then Ruscha creates endless variations on those images in other media.
Let’s face it, this show is a bit arid.
Then again, Ruscha’s work, while beautiful and sometimes even profound, is in itself dry.
Although informed by graphic art and advertising, his work is more restrained than that of the pop art leaders of the 1950s and '60s, such as Andy Warhol, Claus Oldenburg or Roy Liechtenstein, with whom he is sometimes — perhaps erroneously — associated.
While his subjects are taken from pop culture, his “deadpan renderings,” as the exhibit’s organizers aptly put it, lack the forehead-slapping irony of much pop art.
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This show closely examines eight of Ruscha's 16 artist’s books made over the course of decades. All 16 books can be viewed in a closed case near the entrance to the exhibit, but one can put one's hands on the showcased eight books, something of a shock for viewers usually told to keep their paws off the art.
Born in 1937, Ruscha launched the best-known phase of his artistic career in 1963 with the publication “Twentysix Gasoline Stations,” the first of his pocket-size artist’s books. The 400 simple copies went for the price of $3 apiece.
The previous year, he had taken shots of more than 50 filling stations along old Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. Recall that this was the era of the Beats, nascent American road trip culture and a sometimes wry appreciation for commercial design.
Displayed alongside the diminutive publication are six photographs, three of which are in the book, as well as more than a dozen prints and drawings of the gas stations produced over the course of years. Some of them echo the strong diagonals and other techniques found in advertising; others group together the stations by geography.
“Various Small Fires and Milk” contrasts a candle, a cigarette and other conflagrations with, you guessed it, a glass of milk. Unlike the other series, this one seems too close to an insider's conceptual joke.
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"Los Angeles Apartment Buildings," on the other hand, picks up on Ruscha's peculiar documentation of Southern California.
The photographer "pays special attention to the ubiquitous, two-story boxes known as 'dingbats,'" reads the accompanying wall text. "Framed in wood and covered in stucco, the uniform, post-war structures were built to the edges of their lots, with parking spaces underneath to accommodate the city’s spiking population and increasing dependence on the automobile. To give the buildings distinctive flair, developers embellished the flat facades with geometric patterns and exotic-sounding names like 'Algiers,' 'Capri,' and 'Fontain Blu.' ... Integral to what architectural critic Reyner Banham called the 'mass-produced fantasy' of these dull dwellings."
"Every Building on Sunset Strip" is the kind of streaming documentary of a streetscape that we've grown accustomed to, but Ruscha's work antedated most efforts to preserve these evocative, if sometimes forthrightly ugly, processions of buildings. He went on to revisit the Strip several times during the next four decades; he did similar projects with Hollywood Boulevard.
The climax of the exhibit is a wide, breathtaking corner where the viewer is transfixed by two groups of photographic prints that display swimming pools and parking lots, key features of the Southern California landscape. The pools, taken from their lips, lure us into the momentarily comforting blue while discomfiting us with their lack of human presence.
The parking lots, however, were shot from the air and, at first, are almost unrecognizable for their functions. Instead, they become abstractions, some of them undeniably lovely. They also echo contemporary discussions about land use in urban and suburban planning.
"Real Estate Opportunities" leads Ruscha to vacant lots, the kind of temporarily abandoned urban spaces that most passersby tend to ignore but, as the artist confirms, are full of their own surprises.
We see a good deal of the planning — notes, proofs, receipts, etc. — that went into "A Few Palm Trees" and the care that Ruscha invested in every aspect of his projects.
One could easily get lost in the details of this show. Ruscha approaches his subjects and themes systematically and relentlessly. He is a role model for artists who seek to immerse themselves completely in their subject matter over the course of decades.
Does that explain the "Romance" of the show's title?
Although none of his paintings are on display, it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive look at his methods and practices. Remember, the only place the art lover can witness Ruscha's singular step-by-step progression is in Austin at the Ransom Center.