Interview: Ed Ruscha
by Charissa N. Terranova
Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha gained notoriety from the early 1960s as one of the most important West Coast Pop artists. His works about the road, travel and automobile culture are the subject of a major survey exhibition at the Fort Worth Modern. Ed Ruscha: Road Tested remains on view through April 17.
For this issue of …mbg, Charissa Terranova interviews Ruscha about how road trips, the West and contemporary urbanism have influenced his art.
Charissa N. Terranova [CT]: Do you think the automobile and the road has a specific effect on a certain kind of art or art in general?
Ed Ruscha [ER]: Well, art has always been into “the machine.” You can go back to the Italian Futurists and how they felt like any kind of machine is more beautiful than a flower, for instance. An outrageous statement when you first think about it, but the point is taken that machinery itself is a glorifying experience. Motion and physics and metals and how they all mesh together…
Artists have always been attached to the “Hollywood glamour” of automobiles, even artists that profess to have no interest in Pop art, like the Abstract Expressionists. I think that people erroneously thought they didn’t have any interest in popular culture, but they really did—I mean, Marilyn Monroe and Cadillacs and stuff like that.
CT: I think it’s the way history’s been written. It’s the importance of Clement Greenberg that has dominated the field, but there are other ways of understanding, for example, Abstract Expressionism.
My next question has to do with a quote from Michael Auping’s essay in the catalogue. He writes: “Ruscha acknowledges that many of his ideas for paintings come while he’s driving, and to the extent that he has taken photographs from his moving car and made cryptic drawings and notes while driving, his car is a kind of second studio.” What are your thoughts on the idea of the car as an extension of the human body?
ER: I’m right there when I’m behind the wheel. I’m kind of serving my mental state. At the risk of my own safety I’ve got to concentrate on the road, but I think about all kinds of things while I’m driving, especially on long trips. I’ve never liked the sound of my voice so I don’t use a tape recorder. Instead I write these things down—
CT: As you’re driving?
ER: As I’m driving, off to the side of the road. I don’t take my eyes off the road, but I’m able to use a pad of paper and a pencil to cryptically annotate what I’m thinking as I’m driving.
CT: I’ve directed students in graduate work and one of them wrote about Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962). In the avant-garde journal October, people wrote about your work, and that piece in particular, as an articulation of the entropic landscape, as if those buildings were some kind of statement on the death of the author and ugliness. But when I look at Twentysix Gasoline Stations, I like them; I think they’re nice buildings. Do you like the parking lots, the gas stations and the buildings? Are they formal? Are they beautiful to you?
ER: A lot of it has to do with the idea of divorcing myself from the idea of a picture of something and getting to the mental state of it. The gas stations in particular… I knew as I was photographing these stations that sometime in the future they would become nostalgic and have another strength or weakness to them. I remember feeling regretful about that, that I couldn’t keep them in the present.
CT: Do you make these works out of some desire, because you like them, or is it arbitrary?
ER: Well I like them, but it’s also sort of a haphazard, lackadaisical, traveling along, I-want-to-photograph-that kind of thing. And then there’s collections of notions: another gas station to add to the pile.
CT: Do you think through them? Because you’re driving to the gas stations.
ER: Each time I did this I would be more or less in my own world. I realized that people seeing me photographing these gas stations were wondering, “What’s this man up to?” Especially people in the gas stations. They would say, “Hey, what are you doing?” And I would say, “Photographing the gas station.” So I had a bit of that. But it’s like…the magic of chemistry.
CT: I’m really empathetic because for my first art history graduate degree, I wrote about WalMart, as an art historian. And really it was because I was interested in the landscape. I used to go interview and take pictures and people said the same things: “What are you doing? What are you doing this for?”
America has a long tradition of car art. Houston has an Art Car Parade every year, and then there are exhibitions like Allure of the Automobile at the High Museum last year, where they brought cars literally into the building. Since MoMA opened, they’ve done seven or eight shows on the car. How does your work relate to that kind of convention of car art?
ER: It’s different than those issues. People who decorate their cars? That’s a side culture that I don’t subscribe to, although at first I liked customized cars. I liked the fact that people would do that, sometimes in subtle ways, and that was a symptom of post-war luxury. But Art Cars, no. Decorating your car with spangles never really interested me, and I see other interests in just pure historical value of cars. I’ll be the first one to line up to see a collection of old automobiles—something that is overwhelming and is such a part of my life and such a part of everyone’s life that it’s hard to escape.
CT: That’s what’s so interesting about your work. I make a distinction in my book between this Art Car mode of production and conceptual car art. I think your work brings something more perceptual to the table. It’s phenomenological, like the body moving through space, and I think it brings a criticality. It is critical to the fact that this has become normative for us. What is your statement about the car, If there is a statement?
ER: That’s an important thing you said: “If there is a statement.” (laughs) I view everything that I do as basically an exploratory venture. It’s so impulsive that I have to go back later and sort of cover my tracks and make a reason for why I’m doing it. I think that’s basically where it comes from—from something so simple and stupid, but powerful at the same time.
CT: There’s the car on the road in your work, then there’s the graphic tradition. When I talk about your work, because you’re so brilliantly talented at rendering things in space, I think of John F. Peto and William Harnett, the 19th-century trompe l’oeil artists. So who were your graphic influences?
ER: Well it comes from so many sources. But I could say Peto and Harnett, and artists like that from that era, like Louis Eilshemius. You could call him a tragic figure, but he’s a painter and had a great influence on Marcel Duchamp. I think Duchamp considered him one of the greatest painters of the age. He painted around the turn of the century. And there are a lot of very obscure people who have influenced me; it’s not just people that are well known, but unknown people and even naïve artists, like Sam Doyle, a painter from South Carolina who is considered a folk artist. He had a strong effect on me. And then I can bring in the subject of music.
CT: You did an interview with someone about the blues, didn’t you?
ER: Oh yeah.
CT: How does L.A. figure? Is it a muse for you?
ER: I love it and hate it, and now I’m back to loving it again. I have mood swings about that city.
CT: Why do you hate it sometimes?
ER: It’s my life in the place that is disturbing or unsettling. I feel like I want to get out of there but now I’m settled back into it. But I also have a place out in the desert, so it’s a place to get away to.
CT: Do you read L.A. writers? Are you into Raymond Chandler or any of those people?
ER: Yeah, James Elroy, and there’s another writer named Mark Z. Danielewski who I’ve read. There’s some good writers.
CT: I remember that in your catalogue from the 2006 show at the Whitney that you were thinking about moving to New York or L.A., but you went L.A. because it’s more modern, or rather more contemporary. Do you still feel that way?
ER: Yeah. But at the same time, all of our ideas of metropolitan America that develop part of the sophisticated art of America come from Gotham.
CT: It’s a myth though, because everybody lives like L.A.
ER: Yes, but I think it’s sold to us through the movies—the movies out in L.A. have told us what the world was like. Before, we had a notion of what New York was like. I didn’t visit New York until I was 21 or 22 years old, and when I got there I thought, “This place is just like I thought it was.” Movies had always shown me this grandiose, George Gershwin sort of tempo with the tall buildings and all. How else would I know what New York was about except through movies and descriptions? So maybe that’s the Hollywood forward motion.
CT: What are your thoughts on European urbanism and the traditions of the walking city?
ER: Here we have real estate galore, and there they farm everything up until the back door to the farm houses. Their cities are sort of organized in the same way. It’s ancient in many ways, and eye opening at the same time just to see European culture. I didn’t go there until I was in my early twenties and I was impressed by the exotic aspect of the cities and the countries. And yet there’s something that made me say, “I’ve got to get back to the Western US.”
CT: Can I ask you a question about Jack Kerouac? In your version of On the Road, you’re really paying a great homage to him. What are your feelings about that book and the history of American literature? Is it important, and why? Clearly you must think it’s important because you’ve created a work of art about it.
ER: He got on the track of stream of consciousness, just blurting things out as they came and attacking the world in an unstructured way. I began to see value and hope in that. His use of language coupled with his ideas of just his friends and the fun that they were all having during this period was maybe a metaphor for something I found myself doing at the same time.
CT: Do you have any specific thoughts about conceptual art, or does it just not interest you as a category? It seems like you work between the text and the machine, the automobile and at certain points the typewriter. Do you care about the designation of being called a conceptual artist?
ER: No, it doesn’t bother me at all—
CT: Are you a conceptual artist?
ER: I probably am, probably not. When I think of conceptual art, I immediately want to define that kind of art as mental art, art without a physical presence. And that was an inevitable thing to happen during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. All these artists came along that were exploring something that didn’t involve a concrete item like a painting on canvas. Now it’s possibly run its course, but it’s influenced millions of artists, even if they won’t admit it.
CT: I feel like it’s almost become grammatical, this term of conceptual art. It’s so foundational that it’s what most engaged artists do often. I call it “the conceptual turn.” It’s an idea I’m working on that I’d like to write more on it. I think it starts in the ‘50s but it comes to the present, because I see this in so many artists’ work.
Charissa N. Terranova is Assistant Professor of Aesthetic Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas. A freelance curator and scholarly critic, she has recently completed a book-length manuscript entitled Automotive Prosthetic: The Car, Technological Mediation, and the Conceptual Turn in Art, 1951-Present.