Los Angeles

Allen Ruppersberg

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

Allen Ruppersberg’s show at PAM is the worst exhibition I’ve seen since assuming this Letter. Since my opinion is so extreme, and since criticism of specific artists is a different human proposition from passing judgments on best-selling novels or boffo movies, I will try extra hard to make my reasons clear, and to reach some conclusions about the mechanism which produced the show. The exhibition is one of “sculptural-environmental situations” and some of the most salient are these: 1) a 260-sheet wall piece consisting of, in a top horizontal row, the whole English alphabet a letter to a page and, in twenty-six vertical rows of nine sheets, a row under each letter, some casually handwritten Los Angeles area addresses; 2) two stacked rows of cardboard produce boxes, each box carrying a thumbtacked sheet of black paper, with the top-left sheet sporting a white, aerosoled “A,” and the bottom right a similar “Z”; 3) some folding chairs grouped around a “campfire” (a dimestore pink oval bathroom rug), each chair holding in its lap some incongruous or near-incongruous object, e.g., a pelvic saddle; 4) some altered chairs, e.g., one leg replaced by stacked alphabet blocks; 5) three sets of glass-mounted photos, each displaying the artist, in whole or part, in banal surroundings, e.g., standing in the same pose at the same spot at different times of day without changing the exposure setting, or holding up Pop magazines before selected city limits signs. The pieces I’d seen previous to Pasadena were clever visual puns (Hay at the Ambassador at Seattle’s “557, 087” and a mock-menu at a friend’s studio) and the present work is not without a mild, deadpan humor: only eighteen boxes from A to Z, the pink rug and pelvis in the “campfire” set, and a tease at the cities whose posted boundaries were photographed. There is even a genuine riddle in the address wall: how were they got? who lives there? will tracking them down provide some key experience? But all in all, the show is as dead as the things it pretends to transform, and the qualities which the viewer wrings from it are almost entirely on his own hook. (And if that is an art “lesson,” we are lunching on the last shriveled scrap of Dada). Moreover, it is the most expedient kind of equivocation: the cheapest methods around involve pre-fab enigma and “forcing the viewer to . . .” and like drivel. Conversely, the most difficult thing around is to (attempt to) be clear and beautiful, because that is going against the grain (of Going Against the Grain), and runs the risk of being corny and/or naive, two of the surest kisses of death in the art world.

Even if the exhibition fails on what seem to be its own terms—the ever-so-slight alterations of very common objects for ever-so-slight highly “poetic” disassociations (admittedly a matter of taste; I simply wasn’t moved)—there are other possibilities. Perhaps Ruppersberg, considered something of a concept artist, found the reverse glamor of no-object too slick in its own way and tried to preserve an essential homeliness by ducking back a little closer to sculpture. But keeping a step ahead of the art public’s esthetic tolerances is as unadmirable as purposely remaining a step behind, the other side of the coin with the big-eyed waifs. Perhaps the exhibition is a comment on that, or a comment on the comment, or . . . and down one goes, sucked into a vortex of incestuous head-fakes about art about art about art. The thing is, the possibilities always come up heads or tails, and it’s nothing less than sad to see all the flips rendered so lovingly (or non-lovingly, or . . . here we go again). Perhaps Ruppersberg is a genuine urban primitive, a guy who simply likes boxes and folding chairs and addresses. Fine, but giving such tedious infra-normality public museum space is generosity unchained; and with this, we come to the crucial point: the show is more the Museum’s fault than Ruppersberg’s.

As with movies (to pick up the opening), nine of ten exhibitions are bad, which seems to me as natural as feathers on birds. But when MGM and Columbia and Stanley Kramer bombard the public with over-advertised hypes of “revolution” and “youth” no amount of acid vitriol is enough to stem the tide. Artists, however, are (usually) gentle doers-of-their-thing, operating on a few hundred a month and needing nothing less than an avenging sword of connoisseurship. The critic, as flawed with boils of pettiness and stupidity as anyone, still must call it as he sees it. The Museum, meaning sincerely to help “young artists” (Ruppersberg’s show is the first of a series), has put one in over his head and he has sunk. But how? First, it (the Museum) pre-institutionalized a frisky young free-wheeler who might have come out all right in a commercial gallery or a warehouse, rented and refurbished by PAM for this sort of thing. But the charge-account artiness of the Museum interior will overwhelm almost anything. Second, it’s de rigueur to offer carte blanche on space, to have an artist come in and “do” a show and accept whatever, within funds and schedule, he happens to “do”; Matisse would have been taking a chance on that contract. Of course, Ruppersberg could have turned it down, the Museum could have withdrawn . . . but he didn’t and they didn’t.

Peter Plagens