Just because someone says something, doesn’t make it true. We know this. (And its corollary: don’t trust everything you read on the Internet.) We know this, and yet almost always choose to give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, it’s more appropriate to call bullshit.
Take Ed Ruscha, for instance. I met the man in Albuquerque a few years ago. He was standing in the vestibule of the Tamarind Institute, waiting to head out into the heat with his good friend, Dave Hickey. (Who was sitting on some concrete outside, looking like he might have a stroke right then and there.)
I’m not much for hero worship, and rarely get starstruck, so I walked up to Mr. Ruscha and said hello. He said hello back, and offered up a beefy, California smile. Pushing my luck, I told him that he had been quite the topic of conversation at a lecture I’d recently attended at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. (They had exhibited the re-constructed, seminal exhibition “New Topographics.”)
William Jenkins, the original curator, Frank Gohlke, one of the artists, and Britt Salvesen, the curator 2.0, were talking about the New Topo movement, and Mr. Ruscha’s name came up again and again. (Mostly in an embittered, black sheep kind of way.) They’d say things like, “Unlike Ed Ruscha…” and then talk about their photographic intentions. It happened so many times, I giggled.
I mentioned this to Mr. Ruscha, thinking he’d find it amusing. His response caught me off guard. “New Topographics? Never heard of it. What are you talking about,” he said.
I stammered something about the group of art stars that were included, like Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and the Bechers. “Surely, you must know who I’m talking about?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Never heard of them.”
What to say then? I’m pretty sure I went with a sorry for the confusion, such a pleasure to meet you, and then shuffled off. I don’t have a tail, obviously, but if I did, it would have tucked comfortably between my legs as I walked out into the blazing sun. (My friend David was a witness to the entire event. He took a photo, but unfortunately, my eyes were closed.)
Surely, I would have loved to call bullshit. I don’t care what anyone tells me, I don’t believe that Ed Ruscha has never heard of any of those artists. It defies logic. But it does fit in squarely with the longstanding stereotypes about his adopted city, Los Angeles. (i.e., People often lie to your face.)
Despite that familiar drawback, folks continue to move to LA in search of blue skies, beautiful beaches, In’n’Out burgers, and lofty dreams. Whether you’re a hot farm girl from Iowa looking for a big break in the Valley, or a grumpy, record-store-clerk-looking sculptor hoping to get into art school at UCLA, there is gold in them thar hills. And people will do almost anything for gold.
Personally, I have some fondness for LA. I almost moved there back in 2002, but got hustled by some hucksters who realized I spoke no Angelino. (I moved to Brooklyn instead, which was a blessing.) But I’ve been back many times, and find a lot of charm in the seemingly charmless unbroken stretch of strip malls and palm trees. It’s so American, that perfect mix of artifice and optimism. It’s beautiful and seedy at the same time.
At it’s best, art aims to capture and coalesce the essence of a person, place, thing, or idea. Irrespective of his aggression against veracity, Ed Ruscha has managed to represent LA better than any artist before or since. His series of commercially-produced artist books from the 60’s are brilliant, and continue to resonate to this day. He gives us LA as Atget gave us Paris, Walker Evans gave us the Great Depression, or Robert Frank gave us the Beatnik version of the USA.
Much as I’d love to take credit for that lovely thought, (and would if I were an insufferable Hollywood studio exec,) it comes to us via Virginia Heckert, the curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She compares the work of the four legends in the excellent new book, published by the museum, called “Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments.”
I’ll say it straight out, I love this work. (I do prefer “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” but this is great too.) Yes, it’s dry, and seemingly effortless, but that’s part of why it’s so good. The more you look, the more you realize that the humor and nonchalance dance quite well with a nihilistic passion for a misunderstood place. These photographs are a bit of a love letter, albeit wrapped up in a healthy dose of irony. (Even the lazy cropping lends tension.)
Ed Ruscha might be the most symbolic American artist since Andy Warhol. He doesn’t try, he just is. He’s cool and unemotional, but his work reflects a respect for craft, tradition and obsession that is borderline sentimental. (And Hollywood by way of Nebraska and Oklahoma is the perfect, plucky backstory.) These gray pictures, which eschew hard whites and rich blacks, speak to the reality of a world in which we’re all hypocrites, to some degree. (I should know, after hearing my wife try to delicately explain to my young son why it’s OK to fib sometimes, to spare someone’s feelings, weeks after we told him that it’s never acceptable to lie.)
Ms. Heckert’s essay is admirable, and also allows for the inclusion of some excellent plates by other artists. (Including the aforementioned New Topo Masters: Shore, Adams, and Baltz, who were said to be influenced by Mr. Ruscha’s work.) Then come the plates, which have a great rhythm. My only complaint is that they added a few additional pictures that were released as prints in 2003, (despite Mr. Ruscha previously saying he’d never sell prints, and basically trashing the whole idea entirely,) and they do feel a bit tacked on.
He might not have ever admitted it, but there was a lot of work and thought that went into seeming so casual about the whole thing. And his initial editing instincts, back in 1965, were spot on. The book seems to naturally end where he wanted it to.
Given that I’ve never, ever ended a column with a quote before, let’s try it. Ms. Heckert summed it up perfectly, so we’ll let her have the last word today:
“Whether Ruscha plotted his route in advance or happened upon his subjects by chance, whether he was familiar with the neighborhood or exploring new locations expressly for the purpose of finding subjects for his book, is ultimately irrelevant, because his photographic depictions of Los Angeles apartment buildings are simultaneously arbritary and inconsequential- and at the same time carefully edited and quintessential.”
Bottom Line: A re-issued classic, get it while you can
Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
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