The exhibition in Wolfsburg presents a wide selection of paintings, books and photographic works, around 80 items in total. This exhibition owes its dramatic opening to one of these, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, painted in 1963. This large-format work embraces the main themes that were to occupy Ruscha in the 1960s: America as the land of mobility, vast expanses and monumentalised popular culture, as well as his interest in words and lettering. Other pictures from this time show clearly why Ruscha, primarily because of his pictorial language, was associated with Pop Artists; at the same time, however, the photographs exhibited here - complementing the paintings - from the series Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on The Sunset Strip (1966) point to his interest in conceptual art and his concern with questions of urbanism.
Following the inclusion of work by Ed Ruscha in the exhibition Sunshine & Noir: Kunst in Los Angeles 1960-1997 at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, the museum is now presenting a retrospective solo exhibition devoted to the work of this protagonist of contemporary American art. Although Ruscha has frequently been represented in group exhibitions in Germany, and his poster for documenta 5 brought him a certain level of recognition here in 1972, there has never yet been a comprehensive exhibition of his work in the German-speaking world.
The exhibition in Wolfsburg presents a wide selection of paintings, books and photographic works, around 80 items in total.
Ed Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937. Directly after finishing high school in 1956 went to Los Angeles, where he intended to make a career as a graphic designer. The journey by car from Omaha to Los Angeles was to have paradigmatic significance for his perception of the American landscape. He enrolled at Chouinard College and attended course both in applied and free art. In order to finance his studies he worked as a freelance sign-painter and typographer. At the same time he also attended courses in painting where he got to know the Abstract Expressionism that was dominant at that time. Gradually he turned away from commercial art, although he had his doubts about Abstract Expressionism as an artistic dictate. The strongest influences on Ed Ruscha during this period were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Having completed his studies at college in 1960, Ruscha initially found employment in an ad agency before setting out in 1961 on a trip through Europe that was to last several months. Ironically, in Europe and especially in Paris - unlike in Los Angeles - he was able to visit exhibitions where he had the chance to become much better acquainted with the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. On his return to the USA he initially returned to the world of advertising before finally turning his back on commercial art. Some of his most important paintings come from this period. This exhibition owes its dramatic opening to one of these, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, painted in 1963. This large-format work embraces the main themes that were to occupy Ruscha in the 1960s: America as the land of mobility, vast expanses and monumentalised popular culture, as well as his interest in words and lettering.
Other pictures from this time show clearly why Ruscha, primarily because of his pictorial language, was associated with Pop Artists; at the same time, however, the photographs exhibited here - complementing the paintings - from the series Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on The Sunset Strip (1966) point to his interest in conceptual art and his concern with questions of urbanism.
The photographs on show are a selection from the books that Ruscha started publishing in the 1960s. From Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) to Hard Light (1978), his books have given new meaning to the term livre d'artiste, that is to say, to artistic book objects. For Ruscha the medium of the book has a particular status since the paper-back format is above all mass-produced. As Ruscha himself said in 1989: "What inspires me are the mass-media."
The exhibition continues with works from the 1980s oriented towards typography, Sea of Desire (1983) and A Certain Form of Hell (1983), with abstract backgrounds evoking the grandiose colours of a spectacular sunset or of a blue, hazy sky. In the painting The Los Angeles County Museum On Fire (1965) the artist is referring on one hand to the sensationalist reporting that is customary in the media; on the other he is also formulating a critique of the institution 'museum', the place where art is classified and preserved with claims to general validity.
Drawings and photographs add yet further to the picture of Ruscha's aesthetic praxis and ultimately lead the viewer to the Liquid Paintings (1966-1969), which, like Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstrokes, can be read as a critique of Abstract Expressionism.
In addition the exhibition also includes the so-called Shadow or Silhouette Paintings, in marginally blurred black and white that not only calls to mind the smog and mists of LA but also the grainy quality of early black-and-white Hollywood films. The exhibition comes to a close with examples of Ruscha's most recent series of paintings, the Metro Plots and the Mountain Paintings. In the Metro Plots there is no clear distinction between landscape and map and allusions to historical landscapes seen from a bird's-eye view. Los Angeles as an endless agglomeration, divided into quadrants re-emerges as a theme, as it had been in Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building On The Sunset Strip. Meanwhile the Mountains stand as a symbol of the heroic dimensions the landscape has acquired in cinemascope-format in the United States, threatening and majestic in one. Here, too, Ruscha refers directly to American landscape painting from the 19th century and a notion of landscape that is bound up in the concept of nationhood.
To quote Gijs van Tuyl, Director of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, on the creative methods and the present-day relevance of Ruscha's work: "The current exhibition shows the very complexity of his work, which, if anything, seems to elude any kind of art-historical classification. By virtue of his powerful individuality Ruscha has become a role-model for the present open art scene in Los Angeles that has been growing in strength since the early 1990s, a scene that is crucially distinct from the rigour and puritanism of the New York School, with an atmosphere that is closer to that of London."
The exhibition Ed Ruscha has been organised by the Hirshhorn Museum and the Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England. Major funding for the exhibition was provided by The Henry Luce Foundation, with additional support from Melva Bucksbaum, J. Tomilson and Janine Hill, and The Broad Art Foundation. Other funding was provided by The Ansley I. Graham Trust and by Emily Fisher Landau.
A richly illustrated catalogue published by SCALO Verlag will accompany the exhibition, with a foreword by Gijs van Tuyl and essays by Neal Benezra, Kerry Brougher and Phyllis Rosenzweig, priced at 29.
Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg Porschestrasse 53 D-38440 Wolfsburg Germany
Opening times: Tuesdays 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. - Wednesdays to Sundays 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. - Closed on Mondays