New York

Allen Ruppersberg

Christine Burgin Gallery

Allen Ruppersberg’s installation here included some framed examples of what appear to be autograph letters written by notable authors. He retrieved these unpublished letters from obscurity in 1976 by hand copying them and then exhibiting the copies. Displayed in a new context, juxtaposed with some of his more recent work, these letters were in effect re-rediscovered, re-recycled, or more aptly, re-reinvented. While there is a fundamental difference between Ruppersberg’s first purloining of these letters and his recent use of them as already produced art objects in an entirely new show, the nature of the creative process remains essentially the same. The continuity and divergence between these two installations over a decade apart reveal something essential about Ruppersberg’s idiosyncratic terms of art-making. Employing devices such as selection, reproduction, and juxtaposition to convey the conceptual and emotional aspects of his art, he has consistently resisted the prevailing esthetic armature of artistic gestures. The words and texts in his work are ingredients in a confection, the recipe for which calls for literary exercise and imagemaking in equal parts, for they are as much about looking as about reading. If the artist’s hand seems absent in such a hybrid, it is not. It is everywhere.

Like writing itself, Ruppersberg’s pictures are manufactured in the editing and arrangement of ideas and images. Accordingly, the medium is remarkably two-dimensional. Space is not a pictorial perspective but a sense of depth created by the piling up of oddly juxtaposed elements—in this case, the conjunction of the redrawn letters, a series of posters done carnival-ad style, and a 1980 newspaper ad for the movie Heaven’s Gate. Brought together in one room, they produced a thick soup of correspondence and mystery. So simple are the ingredients of this recipe that the rich brew of layered meanings compels one to reconsider the ordinary with a more reverent, semiotically loaded regard. Ruppersberg’s fiction is more than a practice, it is a faith—an entire way of seeing. Instead of converting the banality of everyday artifacts into an alternate mythic landscape, he plays with their inherent harmonic correspondences by colliding their artless tones in a shared space. To those who believe that the greatness of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is not only that it could shock but that it let us see beauty where we had not seen it before, Ruppersberg is a profoundly moving poet of the commonplace.

Ruppersberg does not so much invent beauty as he brings it out for us. The letters, for example, which are really no more than transactions of prosaic details of their author’s literary careers sent matter-of-factly to publishers and the like, were chosen by Ruppersberg as examples of ordinary texts by his favorite writers (Raymond Chandler, Virginia Woolf, etc.). In their “new” context as art, they are a private reflection of one artist upon the meaning and intrinsic value of the artist’s labors, a humble bow to the potency of language. The subversive commentary these copied letters make upon the concept of “originality” is an aspect of the work that is easy to overlook, for it has by now become the easy grist of the post-Modernist agenda. But a decade ago, as a conceptually central point in Ruppersberg’s art of the ’70s, it was rather startling. The posters, ordered from a basic commercial poster printing firm and looking just like their generic models, boldly exclaim habitually overheard phrases in perverted forms that slip confrontational issues into the bland pablum of cliché, such as “WHAT SHOULD I DO?,” “NOSTALGIA 24 HOURS A DAY,” and “IT’S NOT ART (THAT COUNTS NOW).” Printed in black on those bright Day-Glo colors that have been used so often to get our attention that we now instinctively ignore their primitive sales pitch, the phrases were repeated over and over, covering three walls of the gallery like a mass-media wallpaper whose frenetic cheerfulness becomes more and more unsettling. The irony of the full-page Heaven’s Gate ad is multiple as well. In light of this movie’s colossal failure—one of the most disastrously expensive Hollywood flops ever—we are amused by the prescience of its slogan: “What one loves about life are the things that fade.” The shrill hard sell of a carnival barker; an ad for a film destined to obscurity, fading in yellowing newsprint, recovered like a mundane headline that in retrospect becomes a footnote to history. These are the passing impressions that Ruppersberg traces, outlining their perfectly simple forms and the complex chain of their interconnectedness. The neutral and the personal, the kitsch and the authentic, the fact and the fiction, all entwined like a mutant DNA spiral of some cultural gene splice. Some may think it is all so very ugly and stupid. Ruppersberg says, “I’m interested in the translation of life into art because it seems to me that the world is just fine as it is.”

Carlo McCormick