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by Marlena Donohue

(Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood) During an April show in London of new works by Venice-based artist Edward Ruscha, the London Independent featured a chit-chat between Ruscha and fellow Venice resident, Dennis Hopper. The pair interviewed each other in a kind of free-form, totally-groovy-Studio 54 reminiscence of the ‘60s. Titled The Pop Fathers, the dialogue was sprinkled with phrases like “the music was on fire then", “it was absolutely vital man." Hopper reassures Ruscha that his stature as an artist is bigger than a locale. Ruscha answers that he was fed by the ugly, weird beauty that is L.A., with its concrete sprawl, its freeways, and its interminable, hypnotic driving.

"Standard Station", screenprint on
commercial buff paper, cut edges, 1966.
Photo: Dan Dennehy.

"Heaven,” soap-ground aquatint
on Somerset cream paper, 1988.
Photo: Dan Dennehy.

"Hell,” soap-ground aquatint on
Somerset cream paper, 1988.
Photo: Dan Dennehy.
Like actor/artist Hopper, Edward Ruscha is indeed an international art star born in Nebraska, raised in Oklahoma City, but schooled and molded right here. As such his brand of Pop art is decanted through a prism that is uniquely regional; when you see those crimson skies in a Ruscha print, the sort that occur in L.A.’s seasonless Octobers, you know exactly where you are; when you see the Hollywood sign stenciled and fantastic as life here can get, you know exactly where you are.

Ruscha’s special brand of SoCal Pop can be felt throughout the 200 images in this excellent retrospective of prints and artist's books. Many of the most famous works on view--like the first deadpan multiple photos of Sunset Boulevard, or the familiar Standard (1966)--have made the rounds through international venues over the years. But it is a treat to see them en masse.

Ruscha grew out of the beat generation of the ‘60s, symbolized by Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, Jack Kerouwac’s prolonged adolescent antics and Jack Pollock’s hell raising. He mastered that paradigm but was young, talented and slick enough to see an ethos using itself up.

So he took the best of it, added what he absorbed in the circle of Warhol and New York to come up with something new in its day: that blend of wacky experimentation and heady, tight process loosely described as west coast Pop art. Ruscha was primed for Pop because he began as a commercial artist. He studied at Chouinard, thus cut his teeth on strong theory and good craft. As you’ll see through the show, he is an absolutely astute technician who thinks through every mark and keeps his process so controlled we could marvel at that alone. Like the gesture painters that were his first inspiration, Ruscha is interested in the abstract mark, the graphic quality of line, the energy of color and texture, and the ability of all those abstract means to carry lots of complex information. It is tempting to focus on his use of odd materials--gun powder, blood, egg yolk--as signs of Pop’s co-mingling of low and high art, but he seems to me most and always interested in pigment on surface and common objects as icons.

Though some of the more recent prints like 51% Angel, 49% Devil get formulaic, these works are for the most part visually engaging. The show is also a terrific de facto refresher course on the post-modern history of print-making. When the ‘60s co-opted mass media and common objects as the purview of high culture, the screen print and lithograph, used until then mostly for mass marketing, got a huge shot in the arm. Print shops that specialized in working with blue chip artists sprung up, like our own Tamarind and Gemini G.E.L. This history can’t be avoided as a subtext behind this show.

Ruscha built a career on this great ironic tension between graphic means and the resonance of language, between the notion of an official art academy butting up against a gritty real world, between the magic of the artist’s touch and dispassionate precision of mass production. All these very groovy indeed juxtapositions lie at the heart of much good conceptual art today (Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari, tons of others), so that father of Pop though he be, Ruscha points backward and forward and manages to remain ever with it, man.

"51% Angel/49% Devil,"
lithograph on white Rives
BFK paper, torn and
deckle edges, 1984.
Photo: Dan Dennehy.