reading ruscha

with all the hoopla around the archigram archival project, another archival website has gone a bit under the radar—granted, the archi-radar is entitled to ignore art archival at its peril—. i’m talking about the ed ruscha website, an interesting effort towards archiving and tracing the whereabouts of the artist’s paintings, and coinciding with two recent publications, alexandra schwartz’s ed ruscha’s los angeles and ed ruscha: fifty years of painting by ellroy, rugoff, and schartz. what follows are some notes from a paper i wrote long ago on ruscha’s links to architecture. but first, some chronological information.

although ruscha’s most obvious links to architecture have been made through his books series, done in a short lapse of time during the 1960s and early 70s, his more continuous production of ‘word’ paintings and often paintings of buildings with words attached have been just as important both in their dialogue with, and influence to influential architects and architectural historians. this chart positions the book production along some of the architectural texts that reacted to them at the time, and ruscha’s other paintings. keep in mind then that the books represent a relatively short lapse of time within ruscha’s larger production (i have a chart for this also, but it’s not as pretty).

so that said, let’s go after the architects. part of ruscha’s story actually begins with an architectural influence. in 1955, he traveled to mexico, met luis barragan, and saw his house [official site here] and the architecture of mexico city: “that was the first cosmopolitan thing that i’d ever done in my life” [ruscha]. barragan’s bright colors would soon become part of ruscha’s palette, and although the general consensus is that his work is tied to california, it’s hard not to see barragan’s work as an important influence once you see the images of the house. more importantly, barragan’s work might have been influential in connecting art and architecture [those stairs btw look a lot like the accordion-like structure of the sunset strip book, but that may be a stretch].

two years later colin rowe and john hejduk published an essay on lockhart, texas, making an argument for the recovery of the banal:

Seen dispassionately, these buildings are utilitarian structures casually enlivened by an elementary eclectic symbolism, deriving something of their effect from concentration and material uniformity. But it is now impossible and meaningless to dismiss them as this alone: in terms of a not unduly sentimental taste they have intrinsic virtues of a high order, while only too obviously their extrinsic attributes are even more telling.

Colin Rowe and John Hejduk[1] 

although their text is prior to ruscha’s work, rowe and hejduk’s essay shows a more complete understanding of the generic as a series than some of the architectural misreadings that would come later and focus on isolated moments of his work. it reminds us that at the time, the return to the vernacular or the idea of the generic in architecture already had some roots in architectural academia, related to similar developments in pop art. coincidentally, according to ruscha, 1957 was the year he decided to become an artist after seeing reproductions of jasper jones’s flags and targets in print magazine.

ruscha would go on to fabricate his legendary book series, and would soon be noticed by denise scott brown, who along with venturi and izenour would draw heavily on the sunset strip, parking lots, and gasoline station books for learning from las vegas. a few years after the book, an interesting debate on misunderstanding ruscha took place between kenneth frampton and denise scott brown in the pages of casabella (1971). while scott brown seemed both fascinated and repelled by the “deadpan, scholarly” photographs of parking lots, frampton interpreted ruscha’s photography as “clinical observation” highlighting the alienation of the environment and generally suggesting ruscha’s attitude as closer to a perverse delight in the desolate than to a promise of the productive possibilities of the generic. but after defending an architecture of the ugly and ordinary, v&sb’s work would come closer to ruscha’s word paintings than to his generic photographs. by focusing on architecture as sign, venturi and scott brown’s buildings are coded into a language of signs that reach out for attention from the viewer (“read me!”), putting the generic aside in favor of the symbolic.

also in 1971, reyner banham’s los angeles: the architecture of four ecologies used several of ruscha’s parking lot pictures, but did not mention him in the book except in the illustration credits. the last image in the book, ruscha’s hollywood sign, highlights the other side of ruscha’s work, the symbolic, which takes on new relevance by its juxtaposition with the generic. they are both sides of the same picture. shortly afterwards, banham wrote an essay for one of ruscha’s catalogs (see “under the hollywood sign,” in ruscha’s prints and publications 1962-74 London: Art Council of Great Britain 1975) and effectively connected the language of the generic with the nature of the sign:

The clear, non-verbal instruction that comes with, say, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations is ‘These twenty-six gasoline stations are worth looking at.’

Reyner Banham[2]

for banham, ruscha’s generic images become signs through ruscha’s printing operation: the generic as series is as much as sign as the direct word paintings. it is through repetition that these objects are able to get our attention. 

highlighted in banham’s four ecologies book is a young frank gehry, who was part of the circle of artists that included ruscha, ron davis, and billie bengston. ruscha’s influence in gehry can be seen particularly in the santa monica place garage, which looks much like a ruscha painting in its dependence on text as graphic and its glorification of a generic material (chain link fence) as texture.

finally, writings by rem koolhaas on the generic give us a more ambivalent take on the formless city. see for example “junkspace: modernization’s fall-out” in arquitectura viva sept-oct 2000. among the photographs in the article, koolhaas included an aerial view of a parking lot that recalls ruscha’s images, only the parking lot is filled with cars and the image is cropped so that there is no visible limit: the parking lot now extends forever.

looking at these notes after several years, it seems to me three aspects of ruscha’s work have been often overlooked in their architectural translations. the first one is that of the series or the collection. ruscha is, after all, a collector, who liberates “things from the bondage of utility” if we follow benjamin. this is more closely approximated in rowe and hejduk’s musings over lockhart. the second one is the idea of the generic and the iconic as reciprocal concepts, perhaps best understood by banham. finally, the third aspect is the mobilization of these operations as critique, something koolhaas did in a somewhat incomplete (or at least to me, unsatisfactory) manner. these three operations work best simultaneously.

finally, a note on medium. although ruscha’s books have become sought after works of art, he always emphasized their primary nature as, well, books. he even donated some to the library of congress (they rejected them—ruscha published the rejection on artforum, and hilarity ensued). the idea that art should be disseminated through mass media brings us of course to our contemporary blogging paradigm, where ruscha’s operations and their subsequent misreadings might take on new relevancy.

ps. reyner banham loves los angeles. the 1972 bbc documentary, look out for the interview with ed ruscha towards the end.

pps. tyler green on alexandra schwartz’s “ed ruscha’s los angeles” considers she dwells too much on architectural influences in the 1970s. i haven’t looked at this book, curious to read her take.

ppps. the architect’s newspaper review of same thinks schwartz does not take a critical stance on ruscha’s ambiguity.

[1] Colin Rowe and John Hejduk, “Lockhart, Texas,” In Architectural Record [March 1957]: 205

[2] Reyner Banham, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” in Edward Ruscha. Prints and Publications 1962-74 (London: Art Council of Great Britain 1975)

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