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03.31.2010
The Dude
Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz
Fellow Ferus Studs John Altoon, Billy Al Bengston, Irving Blum, and Ed Moses, taken by William Claxton, 1959.
William Claxton/Courtesy Demont Photo Management

Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles
Alexandra Schwartz
The MIT Press
$29.95

A Blvd. Called Sunset. Sand in the Vaseline. Dude. I think there is something dangerous going on here. The words and phrases at the center of Ed Ruscha’s paintings and drawings consistently evoke the places and ideas, the tropes and attitudes that characterize Los Angeles in the popular imagination.

Yet to call him an “LA artist” is to drastically understate the case: Throughout his restless, formally protean career, Ruscha has seized on the banal-sublime commonplaces of the City of Angels—swimming pools, parking lots, gas stations, the word “dude”—not only as the subject matter of his art, but as the foundation of an entire ethos. It is a testament to this highly ambiguous achievement that Ruscha’s work—as well as his carefully calculated public image—often inspires the same feelings as the city itself: fascination, perplexity, queasiness, exaltation.

The complex, symbiotic relationship between Ruscha and his star-dusted adoptive city (he grew up in Oklahoma) is the subject of Alexandra Schwartz’s new study, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles, which is, shockingly, the first full-length critical treatment of the artist. The book is loosely organized around four major aspects of Ruscha’s career: his role in LA’s early avant-garde art community that coalesced around the Ferus Gallery, his ambivalent engagement with Hollywood culture, his ongoing interest in the urban structures and built environment of Los Angeles, and his canny self-promotion in the media.

While each of these topics constitutes an original, potentially fruitful approach to Ruscha’s life and work, Schwartz has unfortunately spread herself too thin. Few of the book’s premises are developed in sufficient depth, and the lack of a substantive overall argument about Ruscha’s relationship with LA deprives the study of a coherent narrative. What we are left with mirrors, unintentionally, some of the sprawl and tangle of a freeway interchange.

The book’s strongest thread by far deals with Ruscha’s strategic adoption of various mythical SoCal personae, such as the classic cowboy, the bohemian avant-gardiste, the Hollywood “bad boy,” and the “carefree California funster.” As critics and historians have tended to focus more on Ruscha’s formal artistic production than on the performative aspects of his career, this shift of focus is both original and overdue.

Particularly appealing is a discussion of Ruscha’s highly theatrical self-presentation in publicity photographs destined to appear in magazines and exhibition materials; here, the author admirably captures the disconcerting ambiguity of Ruscha’s media machinations: Is he a sardonic critic or a cynical exploiter of Hollywood-style mass culture, or both? Overall, Schwartz is circumspect in her treatment of the artist’s “sly, self-conscious masquerade.”

While she approves of its potential as an ironic deconstruction of artistic, sexual, and social identity, she judiciously observes that Ruscha’s position as a white, straight, male, critically-sanctioned avant-garde artist allowed him the security to try on various provocative guises without running the risk of being ridiculed or marginalized.

Unfortunately, the problem of identity is the only theme that Schwartz treats with adequate critical and contextual depth. A chapter focusing on Ruscha’s social and aesthetic involvement with Hollywood culture, typified by his close relationship with Dennis Hopper, begins promisingly enough but fizzles out in a welter of quotation and anecdote.

Further on, Schwartz intriguingly proposes to elucidate the relationship between Ruscha’s photographic projects and new developments in contemporary urban theory; yet instead of a coherent account of this relationship, we get summaries of classic texts by Kevin Lynch, Reyner Banham, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown interspersed abruptly and almost arbitrarily with descriptions of Ruscha’s deadpan architectural taxonomies. Here, as elsewhere, the author appears content to remain on the surface of a potentially fascinating topic.

This tendency to substitute description and citation for sustained critical analysis is the major flaw of Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles. While Schwartz is often successful in evoking the profound ambiguity of both Ruscha’s artistic project and his relationship to Los Angeles, she generally declines to make any sweeping or even modest conclusions about what this ambiguity might mean—either about Angeleno and American culture, or about Ruscha’s place within art history.

The next critic to tackle this artist’s enigmatic, deceptively superficial oeuvre will need to be more aggressive in asking what lies behind the palm trees and parking lots so beloved of American art’s coolest dude.

Michael Paulsen

Michael Paulsen is a frequent contributor to AN.