New York

Edward Ruscha

Robert Miller Gallery

Edward Ruscha’s latest works have a wonderfully artificial memorableness to them. Like the best of a certain kind of photograph, they make the banal seem significant, evoking just enough to suggest something emotionally profound and vaguely sublime. But they’re not photographs; they’re black-and-white paintings of simple, stark, slightly out-of-focus scenes, with the graininess and melodramatic contrast of early Hollywood films. The effect is simultaneously ironic and expressive. The irony is sometimes conveyed in the title, such as Nothing Landscape, where the “nothing” is the space between two trees. In most of the works, irony and expressivity are both compounded by blank, rectangular bars of white that interrupt the atmospheric surface and block or “censor” parts of it, as in The Joshua, Shut This Gate, and Drugs, Hardware, Barber, Video, or by words spelled out in large white letters against an image, such as the title phrase of Chain and Cable superimposed against the looming form of a galleon. The main effect of these white elements is to announce the emptiness of the work in which they appear and to emphasize its artificiality. However, they do not simply negate the work’s atmospheric suggestiveness but force us into an uncertainty about the medium that makes the image seem to float free of its material base, as if in a memory. The image thus becomes even more absurdly and fortuitously suggestive, a contradiction that calls into question the very act of picturing. That Ruscha resorts to text as the canceling element in one of the works confirms the impossibility of picturing that is his ultimate epistemological point in all of them.

The pictures, then, are a tease, a mockery of our expectations of a picture, even though they appear to satisfy all the demands of a picture. At the same time, they have a certain mock-romantic elegance, as if to compensate for the eventual collapse of their apparent eloquence. Ruscha has been regarded as a California artist, but his works have hardly ever been about sunshine. These 11 new works (all 1987) have the same glistening smooth surface as his previous pictures, and the same shadowy, surreal dimension. What they make more evident than ever before is Ruscha’s odd, nihilistic humor, which is not so much parodic as completely destabilizing. This is more than antiart dressed up in the finery of art (although it is that, too); it is an attack on our very sense of being-in-the-world. For Ruscha shows us that there is no world to be in, only a series of numb, ghostly flickers that can be read as “representative” or “abstract” but that are finally unintelligible. It is this slow-motion, almost mystical disclosure of the void—the sense of emptiness that lurks within the world—that is Ruscha’s great achievement. These works are all-American pictures that articulate all-American inner emptiness. They resonate with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that “the strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing, because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.”

Donald Kuspit