PRINT Summer 2000


In anticipation of the dual surveys being mounted this summer—“EDWARD RUSCHA” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and “WAYNE THIEBAUD: a paintings retrospective” at the palace of the legion of honor in San Francisco—we asked PETER PLAGENS to reexamine the careers of these California Pops.

IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, SHOULDN’T POSTWAR California—which sprouted hamburger stands, supermarkets, and vapid celebrities like kudzu and was largely unencumbered by a history of serious modern art—have produced all the big-time Pop artists, just as easily and unthinkingly as it gouged freeways into the landscape and placed beach blankets under the derrieres of Frankie and Annette? Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. California put forward only two real contenders—Wayne Thiebaud and Edward Ruscha—against New York’s phalanx of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist, et al. Both Thiebaud and Ruscha are the subjects of retrospectives opening this month: Thiebaud at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco, June 10–Sept. 3; Ruscha at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, DC, June 29—Sept. 17. The exhibitions will most likely reveal not that Thiebaud and Ruscha were merely interesting artists whose oeuvres rank half a notch below the New York Pop artists, but rather that each, in his own way, wasn’t ever really—or at any rate only—Pop.

Thiebaud, who was born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920, is one of the last living artists from California whose sensibility still derives something from the experience of World War II. That Thiebaud was in the military during the Big One (he drew cartoons for Stars & Stripes) is less to the point than his G.I. Bill, older-student-who’s-been-through-something temperament, which steered him toward good, solid draftsmanship, simple, serviceable pictorial ideas, and an America-triumphant straightforwardness.

When Thiebaud began painting his signature still lifes in 1960–61, a booming decade and a half of Abstract Expressionism had left the art public so hungry for the return of recognizable imagery that it rushed to iconographic judgment: Thiebaud painted pies and cakes and candy and gumballs; those things are five-and-dime sweets from baseline American popular culture; thus, he must be a Pop artist. But, for Thiebaud, the attraction to the sugar-coated subjects of his still lifes was revealed to be painterly, which became more and more apparent over the years as the artist turned to figures and landscapes as well. He liked these confected subjects for the way they allowed him to wrap creamy white backgrounds around knots of color and let him play with the halation of edges in the bargain. Their use as ammo in a parody of American consumerism figured secondarily, if at all. In other words, Thiebaud was and is a realist, carrying on the no-nonsense American realist tradition of William Harnett, Grant Wood, and Edward Hopper.

Thiebaud celebrates the honest-mechanic vibe. In lectures, he pointedly calls himself a “painter” rather than an “artist.” In his classes (I’ve been told), he often worked right alongside the students on the same setup, offering his own picture as an ongoing demo. (Odd thought: Do other kinds of artists do that today when they teach? Does Jason Rhoades demonstrate how to select just the right kind of Styrofoam coffee cup? Does E.V. Day, of “Greater New York” notoriety, say to the kids, “OK, first, you blow up the party doll . . .”?) But it wasn’t mere manual dexterity at the easel that carried Thiebaud over the long haul. He’s also deceptively intellectual, erudite in that practical, unpretentious way that, well, an older student who’s been through something and who’s taken to reading widely and deeply often is. I was on a panel discussion with the painter and a few art-historical and art-critical luminaries a few years ago—at the Met, about de Kooning—and Thiebaud was easily the most sensitive, sensible, and evidentiarily rigorous of anybody on the dais, moi most certainly included.

Thiebaud emerges as more of a cheerful realist than a Pop artist essentially because he’s free of the tabloid historicism that permeates (or perhaps plagues) Pop art. Sure, his paintings look like they were painted in the ’60s and beyond, but they don’t look like they could have been painted only since the advent of a Wesselmann or a Rosenquist. The lack of irony and the plainspokenness of Thiebaud’s canvases lift them out of the temporality of satire. He never sniggers and sneers at pastry the way Warhol patronizes the superficially famous—albeit in mock admiration—or the way Lichtenstein lampoons the hieroglyphic mannerisms of comic-book drawing, although in faux homage.

In the late ’60s, Thiebaud veered into landscape, with woozily slanted exaggerations of northern California hillsides. Given their construction from built-up layers of color-field paint skeins and high-formal fussing, a few critics detected a bit of insider parody of Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Helen Frankenthaler. But, as in Diagonal Ridge, 1968, with its row of cute little shadowed trees planted along a color divide, it’s just as likely that Thiebaud is marveling in all sincerity at the evergreen dichotomy of paint-as-paint and paint-as-picture. There’s a better case to be made for the subsequent San Francisco cityscapes, with their impossible perspectives and killer inclines, as sendups of certain physical quirks of that Baghdad-by-the-Bay where he still makes his home. Whatever, when seen in the full retrospective, I doubt they’ll live up to Thiebaud’s more overtly Pop paintings; he’s an iconist at heart, not a concocter of tableaux (i.e., he paints one big thing better than he paints a lot of little things).

The sixty-two-year-old Ruscha is another kettle of kitsch. He’s every bit the craftsman Thiebaud is and perhaps comes by it a little more genetically. In the early ’60s, when Ruscha was starting out, he used to carry in his wallet a piece of porcelained metal the size of a business card on which he’d painted, in oils, a few bubbles of glisteny caviar exquisitely rendered. One thing this morsel of trompe l’oeil showed, besides registering a characteristic touch of absurdist wit, was that, skillwise, he wasn’t just another self-important no-talent. Ruscha had an elegant facility in his fingertips; Thiebaud’s more workmanlike ability came coated in grease, from his elbows.

In Southern California (where, legend has it, young Ed drove immediately after high-school graduation in 1956 with fellow Oklahoman Mason Williams—anybody remember “Classical Gas”?), Ruscha donned a sly faux ennui to mask his intense industriousness. His pose may have been that of the first slacker artist avant le 7-Eleven, but his real talent lay in his eye for everyday oddness. In the ’60s, he meticulously painted stupid things thought unfit to be the subject of fine art: simple words writ large, Standard Oil stations, pills (yielding works with wonderful titles like Painkillers, Tranquilizers, Olive, 1969), and more words (configured in “spilled” liquids). Ruscha became the poster boy for California Pop partly because the competition—with the exception of his good friend Joe Goode—wasn’t all that formidable. Such painters as G. Ray Kerciu (emblems), Jack Stuck (bathrooms), Robert O’Dowd (postage stamps), and Phillip Hefferton (money), while decent artists all, weren’t in Ruscha’s irony league or facility class. In fact, Ruscha was so manually deft he was perceived within the local art world as being part of the “LA Look,” along with the likes of DeWain Valentine (who cast the abstract sublime in resin), Billy Al Bengston (who spray-painted motorcycle iconography on crinkled metal panels), and Larry Bell (who levitated mirrored boxes onto Plexiglas plinths).

Concurrently, Ruscha issued his memorable little photo books, mock-documentaries of blasé Los Angeleno subjects that gave him his matter-of-fact titles: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963; Some Los Angeles Apartments, 1965; Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, 1967. Between 1963 and 1978, he produced seventeen books. Their photographic style is what Ruscha himself termed “real estate dumb”—driver’s license IDs for tacky works of architecture—and their narrative mode is what might be called “taxonomic inert.” The first-level joke is, of course, the very idea of documenting and memorializing such numbingly bland artifacts. The second-level humor leaps from the realization that, architecturally inane though they may be, LA’s typical gas stations, apartment houses, and parking lots sure do work well: They’re essential to life in Southern California and life in Southern California is pretty damn good, ain’t it? So why not pay this stuff homage? Third-level drollery arises from the books’ nose-thumbing at conventional art books. Finally, their historical resonance is borne out in the way that artists from Rhoades to Robbert Flick are still going to school on them.

In LA (when I was still there), Ruscha was thought to be “our Andy”— as good as Warhol, but with a lighter touch and a defter hand. (I’m guilty of making a lot of such comparisons.) History, as is its wont, has separated the two a little further. Although they both started out as commercial artists and came to specialize in deadpan banalities, Ruscha—seemingly snide at the outset—is revealed to have some genuine affection for his subjects (with the pointed exception, perhaps, of The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965—68). Ruscha clearly likes, for instance, the Twentieth Century—Fox logo and the Cooper Black font in which “Annie” (as in “Little Orphan . . .”) is printed red. Warhol, to the contrary, evidences either a fey exploitation (those debs, dying on drugs, while the movie cameras turned) or an icy loathing (Andy’s philosophy wasn’t about the satori of total acceptance; it was about giving rich people enough rope to hang themselves). A practicing Catholic until his death, Warhol saw the world through the eyes of a brilliant peasant—with an uncanny ability to charm monied sinners—risen to the position of a conservative cardinal. Ruscha, raised Catholic, has said simply, “I’ve been warned it’s impossible to leave that behind,” but the maker of perhaps the most guiltless art of the twentieth century (think of Sand in the Vaseline, 1974, for example) has almost succeeded in doing so.

What really separates Ruscha and Warhol, however, is their use of language. For Andy words were merely visual—brand names, soup flavors, clipped phrases from cheap signage—and were of no particular import; they functioned solely as icons exuding low-culture ambience. Ruscha, on the other hand, weighed blue-collar phrases (She Sure Knew Her Devotionals, 1976) in his hand, indulged in hilarious ambiguities (Brave Men Run in My Family, 1983), and reveled in the way a hypersimple pictorial device, such as a diagonal shaft of light, could rise to almost laughable metaphysical significance via a title like Miracle. Moreover, painted phrases like “Slobberin Drunk at the Palomino” or “He walks into a meeting hall full of workers and yells out, ‘O.K. What is it you guys want, Pontiac Catalinas?’” have a playwright’s (we’d say Arthur Miller’s) poetic economy about them: Put them in the mouth of a serious character at the close of the second act, and the drama would only gain profundity. If that isn’t enough, a quarter-century ago Ruscha nailed the whole postmodern art world with the pastel word drawing Artists Who Make “Pieces,” 1976. That is, without the shift from “painting,” “drawing,” “sculpture,” or even “work” to “piece”—and its not-so-accidental associations with slang for “gun” or the French word for “stage play”—the conflation of intellectual pretentiousness and pseudo–hip-hop street style so typical of today’s art world would hardly be possible. Gimlet-eyed Ed saw it all coming.

Although the handsome Ruscha (he has the sleepy good looks of a French movie star—say, Gérard Depardieu minus the loutishness) enjoyed a succession of Hollywood girlfriends (Samantha Eggar, Lauren Hutton, Candy Clark), he never went to Tinseltown. Perhaps because he was so close to it for so long, he never developed a fatal fascination with directing a feature film as Julian Schnabel and David Salle did. And perhaps, on the other hand, because he was blessed with real wit and a sure hand, he never let himself be satisfied with the likes of Mel Ramos’s one-joke, groaner girlie images. (Those were left for John Currin to come along and glaze with old-master sauce, later.)

In the end, it isn’t so much that postwar California produced no major Pop artists (an assessment of lack); rather, its two best figurative-with-an-idea-behind-it artists used the Pop impulse to enrich other modes. The best up north, Thiebaud, is at bottom a realist painter whose heartfelt dialogue is with Hals and Hopper, not Disney and donuts. The paradox is that Thiebaud’s best works—probably by a long shot—are his Pop-connected pictures, in which he’s not quite so deliberately displaying his allegiance to the Great Western Tradition of Painting. Thiebaud is better off when he lets his average-Joe background shine through (i.e., when he paints goodies we all like) and lets the Art (with a capital “A”) take care of itself. Ruscha, the star in the south, turns out to be a gadfly conceptualist (read: one with a welcome lack of intellectual pretension—that’s the Pop part) who gives you something intriguing to look at in the bargain. He’s one of those rare artists who catch on quick and then manage to keep their signature fresh without desperately straining to update original premises. Despite Ruscha’s official metamorphosis over the years from “Ed” to “Edward,” he’s still essentially that kid in the Ford convertible, speeding out of Oklahoma into the California sun.

Peter Plagens is the art critic for Newsweek and a contributing editor of Artforum.