New York

Ed Ruscha

Castello Gallery uptown

Charles Sheeler, who was a photographer as well as a painter, is often hailed as the father of recent developments in photo-Realism. His true son and heir may be Ed Ruscha, a painter, draftsman, and photographer living in Los Angeles. One can’t help feeling their similarities in front of Ruscha’s 14 recent drawings of stained sheets of paper. Precisely toned in gunpowder, single or stacked, their sharp, clean linearity, lucid light, and distinct shadows recall Sheeler’s watercolors of sunlit factory walls. Their metallic silvery tonalities also conjure up his stark light contrasts.

Whereas Ruscha strives for an artless look in his photographs, his paintings have always been carefully composed and adjusted to the pictorial demands of flat surface and framing edge. Illusionism is indicated only to be contradicted in paintings like Standard Station of 1966 or The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965–68, in a manner similar to that of Sheeler. In contrast, Ruscha’s photographs, as published in his various books —Thirty-four Parking Lots, Nine Swimming Pools, and Twenty-six Gasoline Stations are three of the best—always seem to have been casually snapped. Human presence in a Ruscha photograph or painting (as in a Sheeler) is remarkably rare considering the spontaneity that apparently accompanied the shutter’s click. Both men are object/form oriented. Ruscha’s camera faces its subject head-on, centers it, and collects pertinent information about it. His paintings tend toward dynamic, diagonal compositions and the elimination of unimportant detail. Sheeler doesn’t seem to have made such clear distinctions between the two media. He used them both to produce studied, idealized compositions. Ruscha has a tendency toward slick idealization in his paintings which causes them to border on cartoonlike simplicity. His photographs, on the other hand, share something with the unidealized documentary photography of the Depression years, though he tempers this with L.A. blandness.

I have gone into all these differences because I feel that Ruscha’s recent drawings fall into a special place exactly in between his approaches to photography and painting. They are illusionistic, tonal, and literal like his photographs, but they are as carefully composed and as pristine on a technical level as any of his paintings. He approaches the stained sheets of paper head-on, centering them the same way he does a Los Angeles swimming pool. But the carefully idealized way he draws them is akin to the way he paints. It makes one think of René Magritte’s iconic treatment of mundane objects—a boot, gun, apple, or pipe—centering them in isolation in order to elevate them to the position of holy relics. Ruscha’s sheets of paper, floating without movement, perform feats of prestidigitation no less remarkable than Magritte’s rainstorm of bowler-hatted men in Golconda. These Magritte-like influences link the drawings with Ruscha’s paintings in spite of their photographic characteristics.

The drawings stem from Stains, a boxed portfolio of 76 real stains on paper which Ruscha published in an edition of 70 in 1969. In it each equal-sized sheet of white paper is marked by a separate stain—blood of the artist, castor oil, vaseline, coffee, urine, turpentine, etc.—in its center. We are told in a checklist accompanying the Castelli exhibition that similar human and household materials mark the drawn sheets. Stains, the traces of human activity, seem to have special importance for Ruscha. He said once that his main interest in the photographs of parking lots he published was in the oil stains on the ground which indicated which spots were the most frequently favored for parking on. This obsession with stains seems especially remarkable in the light of Ruscha’s precisionist approach to his work. The ascetic’s nightmare is mess, and perhaps Ruscha has found the stain to be an ideally abstract way to translate fears into evocative subject matter.

April Kingsley