The desert is behind Ed Ruscha. The desert is a place where he is liberated. He feels the weather. The dust between his fingers. The sensation of the earth beneath his feet. That blissful, lonely smell. “It’s an important thing for me to do,” he says solemnly, “there are a lot of people who are quite urban, and are committed to living an urban life, and they don’t need to go outside, you know? They’re captivated by their own interests and they don’t need to go camping and that sort of thing. They’re missing out I think.”
The legendary pop artist has ritualistically escaped for the last forty years to one sandy oasis after another, leaving the “crush of the city of L.A.” as he calls it, where he paints and holds offices.
Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha came out west in his youth, attending the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), which he graduated from in 1960. Famously prolific, Ruscha has seen solo exhibitions at countless galleries and museums including the Whitney; Hayward Gallery, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami; Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria; the Tate Modern; LACMA; and the Kunstmuseum Basel. In 2005, he represented the United States in the 51st Biennale di Venezia.
From in and around the Coachella Valley to various spots in New Mexico, he holds court with the big rocks, the rocks that don’t change, the ones that he recognizes by their shapes and that have been there, “For more than a few seconds in the history of mankind. That’s pure nature,” he continues, “I love the desert, it’s like a sanctuary to me, and every time I go there it’s like drinking in the elixir.” Ruscha says all this very gently, full of power. He speaks with the poise of someone undeniably certain within his instincts, like some deft wrestler.
Dave Hickey, renowned art critic, calls Edward Ruscha a genius. He must be. After all, he just sold out his most recent show at Gagosian Gallery in London: a new set of works entitled Extremities and In-betweens. His paintings have reached the 30 million dollar mark at Christie’s.
And how does that genius come about?
“Three words to describe him?” says former studio assistant Shane Guffogg, “A human antenna.” Guffogg, a Los Angeles-based abstract painter, who assisted Mr. Ruscha from 1989 to 1996 at his studio in Venice Beach, says, “I think the automobile had a big impact on him, you know, The West, the idea of space. You think about billboards, this town is full of billboards, which are basically words and images juxtaposed against the sky.”
When you think of Ruscha in that context his work really makes sense. It’s all a response: an image of an image that he has seen. Whether it’s a word, or a silhouette of a doll or animal, his work is all a response to what he’s taking in. True reciprocity.
He insists, however, he’s not trying to instruct his audience with his paintings. There is no hidden dogma, no hidden agenda. He’s too humble for that. He’s too real for that. He’s not trying to win anybody over. Regarding politics, and the topic of climate change, and the surrounding environment influencing our collective state of being, Ruscha seems to convey all of his own retorts with nothing other than slinging paint in mind. “I don’t consciously insert [a message] into my work, as though I’m making people aware of this idea of environment or nature. It’s like a backdoor message that is indirect.”
Guffogg recalls a story of Ruscha’s particular mixture of distance to reality whilst having an unshakable finger on the pulse of almost all he encountered, “I remember I was driving out to Ed’s ranch outside of Pioneertown and passed San Bernardino in this long stretch of nothing,” Guffogg says, “and there was a billboard advertising a bar: “Cold Beer, Beautiful Girls.” And he had just finished the painting of the same name: “COLD BEER, BEAUTIFUL GIRLS.” And I looked at him and said, ‘Hey I know where you got that from,’ and he said, ‘Where?’ And I said, ‘Well, that billboard where that bar is,’ and he said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He had no recollection of it and he thought I was making it up, so he drove out there to check. He’s a human antenna, like I said. Seeing, witnessing, snagging all he can.”
Is that what makes genius: never-ending desire? Ruscha very slowly tells me, with some serious gravitas at play, “I can say that I never, ever get bored. And I don’t know, maybe that can be considered a blessing. It’s never really happened to me. But I’m always trying to move onto the next thing. And there’s lots of hope out there in things that are undone, and things that I wanna’ pry loose.”
He looks like some kind of surfing cowboy, although he is uninterested in either of them, although he has tried surfing and he has tried his hand at ranching. Come to think of it, he sounds a little bit like John Wayne. Which might make sense considering he’s a film buff. “He used to do these things at the studio in Venice. I never understood why at the time,” Guffogg unveils, “He would watch movies and rate them. He would write on the wall how good or bad he thought they were. He would also keep track of the rain. Whenever it rained, Ed would be out there checking measurements and writing it on the studio walls.”
Gathering information. This is life. This is the key to being in line. Not in line factory style, but in tune. Gathering information keeps you in tune; you’ll never be a flimsy guitar if you continue to gather information. Gather information and you’ll weep, and dance, and sing, and provide the masses with jewels only expected from a great Stradivarius.
Ruscha has a propensity for getting in the vehicle with his border collie mix, Lola—one of his wife’s six dogs she has rescued—and taking off. His full schedule keeps him from veering too far into the distance, but he will take a jaunt out to a place like Bombay Beach near the Salton Sea—a sleepy town that his mother described as, “so quiet you can hear your hair grow.” He’ll take a drive just to see what’s up, a drive to get a grip on the state of things.
His favorite novel is On The Road by Jack Kerouac—celebrated king of the Beats—a story, at its core, about setting yourself free and finding your own relationship to the ground you stand on. I can sense Ruscha getting romantic, I think he’s almost gushing. “It’s the freedom to jump into a car or even steal one and drive cross country, experience everything, take it all in. It’s beautiful, even the ugly stuff is beautiful, you take it in, you eat it and love it. It speaks of liberation and an open mind. I always liked the principles that it made, and I felt like maybe I was doing the same when I traveled the western US—leaving home, and the idea of resettling. But those guys were hot and heavy, I mean they were crazy kids, and they didn’t threaten other people’s lives but they had a great time smokin’ dope and drinkin’ and jumpin’ on trains and hoboing and makin’ ends meet somehow. There’s some great honor, it was a very noble thing they had in mind.”
He goes on to tell me that when he was painting his inimitable gasoline stations, people thought he was glorifying Standard Oil Company. “If anything I was satirizing it.” He also tells me he doesn’t sit cross-legged and meditate, but he is meditating all the time, on the fly, while he’s busy doing something else.
Ruscha’s new work is inspired by Louis Eilshemius, an American artist who painted an ovular frame around his work, which consisted mostly of awkward nudes flouncing in the foreground of islands and mountain ranges. Eilshemius was championed by Marcel Duchamp (who made a bit of a living dealing his paintings) and died in 1941 in New York. Looking at Louis’ oval shapes got to Ruscha, who riffed on the idea. “I, just out of curiosity, arrived at sort of like a keyhole view. It became something to work on, and that’s how those things came about.” Those ‘things’ meaning his new work, seen herein, which displays chunks of splendid mountains, viewed voyeuristically through a somewhat cloudy black hole.
Isn’t that perfect? The man who wants to know everything is back to the keyhole? Constantly bringing himself back down to earth, a curiosity maybe only matched by gazing children. Courageously looking at all sides of this thing we call life, unafraid to see the scary mixed with the joyful.
And a silver lining to our climate trauma—all our uncertainty in weather patterns, all our sociological dismay—we have to listen to each other and “Keep going. Yeah, keep marching forward.” The answer rolls out like a finger roll, very welcoming, very open. How else will we survive if we aren’t open? How will we survive if we aren’t available and willing to be vulnerable?
We draw to a close. The dogs are barking. The rattlesnakes are curled up tightly in the distance, the cool desert air is whispering over their hard skins, the smell of dirt crawling up our clothes, the mountains and clouds rubbing noses miles away: there’s so much elegance out there, past the fear, it’s true. Ed Ruscha is 78 years old and unafraid of death. “No. No. Not death at all. I always like that thing that E.E. Cummings said, you know, the poet?” and he continues on, scrambling some lines, affixing his own wit into the verse, “He said ‘dying is fine, but death? That’s nothing, baby… I wouldn’t like it if it was real.”
Written by Augustus Britton