PRINT May 2008



PERHAPS THEY WOULD PREFER to forget the past and enjoy the present (whose transience they are so much more aware of than younger colleagues), but circumstances conspire to make successful artists of a certain age dwell on their history: retrospective exhibitions, monographs, compilations of writings and interviews, the queries of art historians for whom each speck of memory might be the one that yields a dissertation chapter—such things make it inevitable that, willy-nilly, the artist finds his own past increasingly occupying his attention. I DON’T WANT NO RETRO SPECTIVE, an Ed Ruscha drawing once complained. But of course the artist has had his share. Making the best of the situation, Ruscha has lately been using his earlier work as source material. For his exhibition at the United States pavilion at the Fifty-first Venice Biennale in 2005, he accordingly presented no retrospective, but rather a group of paintings engaged in a double game of retrospection: “Course of Empire” cited the nineteenth-century American landscape painter Thomas Cole’s pessimistic allegory of decline by way of revisiting Ruscha’s own “Blue Collar Paintings” from 1992—grisaille renderings of trade schools, tool-and-die works, and the like—which he juxtaposed with updated reinterpretations in color; thirteen years later, the workplaces he originally depicted were much transformed and more than a bit deteriorated.

Ruscha’s recent exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in London showed that he continues to meditate on dilapidation and decay. For instance, the 1979 painting Plank—a long horizontal “portrait” of an ordinary piece of lumber—is accompanied by a new pendant, Plank in Decline, 2007, that imagines the same piece of wood as it might be now, having endured nearly three decades of weathering (a group of cast-paper multiples plays with the same idea). The pairing of The Nineties, 1980, and The 2000s, 2007, seems to speak to duration and dissipation: The years in the earlier decade are rising while the present one is depicted as flat. Another duo of paintings, Azteca and Azteca in Decline, both 2007, prove that Ruscha has more on his mind than his own past—in fact, the works look less like “a Ruscha painting” than anything he has shown in years—but as the titles indicate, they pursue the same inquiry into disintegration at large.

Barry Schwabsky

RECONSIDERING IDEAS from some of my old paintings, as I did in the work for the Venice Biennale and in some of the work I’m showing in London, is not about trying to write my own history. But I do go back and think about those old works, and somehow there’s little silver threads that connect up with the present. The connection is not something that I’m in search of, it’s something right in front of me—sometimes it’s in front of me for so long that I don’t recognize it, and then eventually someday I do notice it. So when I do a plank of wood, I suppose I’m painting a horizontal landscape, or I might be painting a picture of wood that I see when I go to the desert, which I like to do. The idea of deterioration and age and all that—I see that particularly in the desert because the weather is so extreme and the aging process is accelerated.

Plank is linked to my notion of abstraction. I’m not attempting to be didactic; there’s something dumb about it (or what do they say? Stump-dumb?), just painting a picture of a flat piece of wood that has very little variation. Whatever I did as an artist when I was first starting out was in reaction to the style of the day, which was Abstract Expressionism; they had a beautiful style of painting and they were going great guns and yet at the same time they weren’t as detached from commercial life as you might expect. Some people would look at Franz Kline’s work or de Kooning’s and think, He’s so far removed from the noise of modern-day life. Except those guys liked Cadillacs and fast life and so on—they just didn’t put it in their art. The reaction to that by waves of artists, and I’m only one of them, was that there’s just one thing to do: Put those Cadillacs in there. So popular imagery started to come into it. But these styles are not as different as they appear. Pure abstraction is great too. I always thought that Donald Judd was a severe answer to things, and Lawrence Weiner’s there as well, with the idea that you throw an object from one country to another.

The plank prints are paper reliefs. I found a piece of wood out in the desert where I spend a lot of time, east of LA near Joshua Tree. We took a wax impression of this old piece of wood, but added colors to the cast to make it look like a new piece of wood—really a simple thing to do. But then I also wanted it to appear old at the same time, so I pried the wax mold apart and twisted and warped and aged it, and that version was colored to make it look old. The knot in the wood ended up looking like an eye, and the whole thing started looking like some kind of nasty crocodile or serpent.

Azteca comes from a wall painting I saw outside of Mexico City. Its radiating lines are almost like the spotlights that I’ve had in my work before. Things grow from a center and radiate. I’m sort of a prisoner of the diagonal. I was surprised that I responded so quickly and so strongly to seeing this wall painting, but I just knew that I had to repaint this thing—to reconstruct it. It was big, maybe four times the size of my painting. There was a lot of rubble and garbage around it, the thing itself was deteriorating, and that kind of triggered a thought—to paint a more deteriorated version of it. It was like a signifier of some unknown civilization. There’s something ancient about that image, like Montezuma’s flying eagle, but then there’s something modern about it too. The corrugation at the edges of the forms suggests some kind of roofing material. It’s as if some folk memory emerged into the twentieth or the twenty-first century through an idea about roofing materials! That took me down an avenue; then seeing how it has aged led me to show it aging even further—it’s like the decline of an empire.

The 2000s comes from a series of paintings of decades. If you go back in your own life, you might say, “What were the ’60s like to me?” Somehow these thoughts become images. Some years seem to be big open spaces, others tightly bunched together. They’re all in sequence, but they have different spacing. For The Nineties, I painted the years equally spaced apart and that’s my take on that decade. My take on the 2000s is pretty much the same. But I painted the ’90s in advance, in 1980. That’s why the years were equally spaced: There was no reason to give more emphasis to one than another. But you see them rising. That was a futuristic painting in a way. With The 2000s, some people looking at the painting have used the term flatline. The trompe l’oeil background emerged from the idea of walls and upright surfaces, supports for pictures, and how those things face the facts of time.

The work I do comes from the simple insides of me, and it’s not about getting to people or trying to communicate. In many respects I don’t know who my audience is and I’m not playing to a crowd, so I have no instructional intention with these things. I have a difficult time trying to understand them myself. But they keep coming around so that I almost feel like a farmer—someone who practices crop rotation. The delicious part of it all is that something else will happen after this, and I never know what that’s going to be. I might continue to reexamine things from my old paintings, but right now I’m working on a new painting called Blazing Orifices. Generally the text is the main character, it’s like a bouquet of flowers the painting is offering, and then there’s some kind of backdrop and that’s often something generically plain, like a landscape or a mountaintop or something that might suggest music or drama—a background of drama for this main subject. I’m not consciously trying to reduce everything to two subjects, background and foreground, but often that’s what happens. Once these words are painted, they might as well be carved in marble: They’re official.