Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles: When Los Angeles Got No Respect

Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire, 1964, by Ed Ruscha

Los Angeles has become a world-class city whose culture and entertainment industry shapes much of the world’s values. Once viewed as devoid of serious culture, Los Angeles is now acclaimed as an arts mecca, a transition symbolized by Jeffrey Deitch’s recent closing of his New York City gallery to become the Director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. But Los Angeles in the 1960’s got no respect. Artists like Ed Ruscha helped invent the phenomenon known as “Pop Art,” only to find their contributions minimized or ignored by New York City critics intent on annointing Andy Warhol and other locals as the Kings of Pop. Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles addresses the art establishment’s diminishing of Los Angeles’ broader impact, and offers rare insight into the Los Angeles of the 1960’s and 70’s, though perhaps not greater appreciation for Ed Ruscha’s vision of the city.
Those tired of the New York City-centrism of American culture, and who feel that eastern critics give the West Coast short shrift, will delight in the first 63 pages of Alexandra Schwartz’s new book. Schwartz marshals a powerful case that New York City critics of the 60’s and 70’s relegated Los Angeles to “regional,” marginal and inferior status, despite Ed Ruscha and others making breakthrough contributions in boosting Pop Art.

The problem was more than the typical one of New York City critics downplaying cultural contributions from a city known at the time for its sun, beaches and celebrities. Anyone who has seen Woody Allen films satirizing Los Angeles knows what I am talking about.

Rather, In the case of Ruscha and other Pop artists, eastern critics perceived Los Angeles as a “Pop City,” so that photographs and paintings of gas stations, apartment buildings, coffee shops, swimming pools or the classic “Hollywood” sign were not seen as critiquing the broader culture. In contrast, these critics saw New York City as such a serious and intellectual place that Warhol’s soup cans or Tom Wesselman’s paintings of refrigerator contents had to be powerful social statements; nobody ever described the Big Apple as a “Pop City.”

Ruscha’s Social Perspective
Contributing to Ruscha’s art not being taken as socially conscious was his refusal to ascribe larger meanings to his work. Schwartz shows how Ruscha was routinely cryptic and standoffish in interviews, giving the impression that he did not care if anyone paid attention to his work. Yet Ruscha’s experience in marketing makes this disinterest appear a pose, and Schwartz gives many examples of how Ruscha encouraged the media attention he claimed to disdain.

While Schwartz does a terrific job at reclaiming the historic importance of Los Angeles’ early Pop scene, I finished the book with less than positive feelings about Ruscha. His adoption of a sexist “Stud” image could be seen as social commentary on male sexism, or was more likely a function of Ruscha’s comfort with this role.

In 1972, Ruscha created a book of cactus photographs titled “Colored People.” That’s a strange term for a white Nebraskan living in Los Angeles to use in that era, and while Schwartz gives numerous explanations for the book title, the most obvious is that Ruscha was mocking African-American struggles for civil rights. Sadly, the painter best known for his now iconic Standard Stations comes off as an embodiment of 1960’s and 70’s male privilege, precisely the type of male cultural figure that helped spawn the women’s movement.

It was not until I finished the book that I appreciated the brilliance of its title, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles . Schwartz recognizes that Ruscha did not seek to portray Los Angeles of the 60’s and 70’s as it was, with its ethnic diversity, huddled masses living in slum housing, crammed freeways, and heavily segregated schools. Instead, Ruscha painted and photographed what became his own private Los Angeles, creating a powerful historic legacy of this bygone era.

And on strictly aesthetic grounds, Ruscha’s works are wonderful to look at, which is why most readers are likely to be attracted to the book. Unfortunately, either to save money or foster a pop sensibility, MIT Press published the book in a very small size that leaves many of Ruscha’s works too reduced to fully appreciate. One could benefit from reading the book with a magnifying glass, as even the text size is unusually small and dense.

randy shawSchwartz has reclaimed an important part of Los Angeles history. While I am not enamored with Ruscha’s personality, she convincingly demonstrates that his artistic works – particularly the Norm’s La Cienega on Fire (1964) used for the cover—are stellar.

Note: One of Ruscha’s comrades whose works are discussed and shown in this book is the late Dennis Hopper. A show of 200 of his works recently opened at Los Angeles Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (curated by Jeffrey Deich) and runs through September 26.

Randy Shaw

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron

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