New York

Ed Ruscha

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Several gallery shows during the past year have testified to the late foundering of many of the original Pop artists, but Ed Ruscha's most recent appearance in New York proved a significant exception.The artist's show included work that was smart and pertinent, a vintage distilled over forty years. Rather than recycle the ideas or motifs of '60s Pop art, Ruscha has pressed forward, experimenting with methods for making Pop a cognitive or perceptual game.

Ten large canvases hanging in the main gallery adhered to a generally consistent model: The image of a mountain was doubled, like a Rorschach blot, mirroring itself on opposite sides of the canvas. Stretching across each work, over the “two” mountains, was a stenciled phrase that was also, in most cases, “mirrored”—because it was a palindrome.

Mountain imagery has always served as a visual shorthand for the sublime, from the pantheist canvases of Caspar David Friedrich and the Catskills of the Hudson River School to Ansel Adams's photographs of the Rockies. Mountains, in their everyday untouchability, still seem like residences for the gods. But Ruscha resists knee-jerk spiritualism (and, one might argue, his own often mentioned dormant catholicism) by emblazoning slogans that render the scenes absurd. Paintings like Porch Crop, 2001, Never Odd or Even, 2001, and Lion in Oil, 2002 , read like cryptic messages coined and coded by military intelligence units. Others, like Tulsa Slut, 2002, Solo Gigolos, 2002, Sex at Noon Taxes, 2002 , were consciously racier, conjuring adult film titles—but still disjointedly absurd, working against the majesty of their backgrounds in the same way porn makes a mockery out of narrative. A third set of paintings ditched the palindrome for ad slogan, as in Leroy's Welding, 2002, or for Old West epitaph, as in one canvas with a text reading CLARENCE JONES, 1906-1987, REALLY KNEW HOW TO SHARPEN KNIVES.

The commercial and folksy sound of “Leroy's welding” and "Tulsa slut pointed to the lingering vestiges of Pop art in Ruscha's work. In a second room were more cognition ticklers that nodded to Red Magritte. Palindromes were paired with images of open, blank-paged books in the paintings Tulsa Slut Book and A Sun on USA Book (both 2002); other canvases, like Atlas, Manual, and Annual Report (all 2002), toyed with the functional-iconic nature of specific words and texts. In many ways, Ruscha headed here into the heavy-duty art-and-language territory of Americans like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner—or, with the paintings' natural backdrops, the Scottish artist Hamish Fulton. Focusing not just on words or images, he contrasted divergent visual modes: textual versus imagistic signs, iconography versus semiology, looking versus reading. And his actual artist's books, in which he bleached the titles off found books (like The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius), signaled a different type of intervention—appropriation, absence, erasure—while still showing the artist's giddy irreverence toward the ironclad authority of words, objects, and images.

Martha Schwendener