New York

Ed Ruscha

Leo Castelli Gallery

Among all of the mannered but “impersonal” imagery with a capital “I” prevalent in contemporary painting, ED RUSCHA’s “Grand Horizontals” elicit more than detached amusement. He has taken his culturally locked signs and phrases to a larger format (some of the canvases are 13 feet wide). They still hover, isolated and ironic, but they become surprisingly personal, even intrusive, once past the humor. In the paintings without the “familiar” phrases, there are allusions to time or place, their wistfulness maximized by the emotive use he makes of the expansive canvas space. If his earlier isolated, posterlike idioms wryly mocked Pop Americana, these humorously and poignantly bespeak broader Americanisms.

In some of the “Horizontals,” Ruscha’s focus is less on the peculiarities of cultural idioms than on what might be loosely interpreted as cultural ethnocentrism. The painted canvas fields minimally suggest landscape (the plain, the desert), the curve of the earth, and outer space; the human figure is conspicuously absent, for its presence is strongly felt. Canada, USA, Mexico shows a long, dark blue curve of the planet Earth with the tiny painted letters “Mexico” demarcating one end, “Canada” the other, and, of course, “USA” dead center. The center of things, yes, but not quite as we (or Steinberg) might conceive of it. Time and “progress” are portrayed in a similarly skewed manner, and apparently time in The Fifties was not what it will be in The Nineties, according to the way Ruscha paints respective progressions of tiny dates in the two pictures. “1950, 1951, 1952,” and so on advance out toward the viewer from the upper left-hand corner of the canvas to the lower right, but their “progress” is hampered: the painted space behind them hardly changes, a mild ozonelike layer of green, yellow and aqua. But The Nineties aren’t to be so mild—their yearly dates progress from a glowing orange background to a black void. An ominous prediction of the future perhaps, but not without a snag—the color scheme is that of a Sunset-Over-Miami-postcard.

Ruscha’s imagery might warrant such interpretations, but if in truth he is commenting on serious matters, he would rather, of course, remain oblique. Here, he is even more abstruse than usual, assuming more the guise of the romantic than the semiologist. In those paintings where he isolates and modulates, with a keen eye to painterly detail, phrases such as Mean As Hell and Never Be Sad, he goes beyond what he has often zeroed in on: American idioms that reflect specific material values. The phrases and their treatments are downright sentimental, as is the tenor of the painting in which the world is seen as a little round ball, suspended in the middle of an empty blue space, World Without Countries. They invite sentimental interpretation, but those interpretations, Ruscha knows, ironically reveal our sentimentality, not his. Ruscha provides a skeleton—then asks us to fill in the rest.

In the hands of a more cynical sociological interpreter, the Americanisms Ruscha evokes would be harder-edged; and certainly more transparent. Ruscha is too curious to be so cynical—these details are worth investigation. Like the wistful tune and lyrics of some popular song on the radio that one hears in an off moment and remembers, the poignancy Ruscha captures might at another moment seem trivial, comical; though its power to advertise our vulnerability is significant. Like that tune, Ruscha the sociologist registers something important in his work that more impersonal imagist art, more profound art, and more directly political art might miss.

Joan Casademont