Los Angeles

Allen Ruppersberg, Untitled (The Book as Object), 1976, pencil on paper, 23 × 29".

Allen Ruppersberg, Untitled (The Book as Object), 1976, pencil on paper, 23 × 29".

Allen Ruppersberg

Allen Ruppersberg, Untitled (The Book as Object), 1976, pencil on paper, 23 × 29".

Marc Selwyn has long been known as a dealer with historical depth, particularly in regard to Los Angeles art, so it is only fitting that the first solo show at his new Beverly Hills gallery should be a mini-survey of Allen Ruppersberg’s drawings, all made between the early 1970s and late ’80s. Although the artist may not be identified with Southern California as immediately as some of his colleagues—Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Bas Jan Ader among them—Ruppersberg’s brand of Pop Conceptualism is no less emblematic of local practices in its insistent referential specificity. Whereas in New York both Pop and Conceptual art have always tended toward a kind of baseline universalism, as in Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Joseph Kosuth’s dictionary definitions, here instead we are given vernaculars and dialects. Ruppersberg’s cultural references vacillate between the high and low but do not typically reflect the tastes of the public considered in its broadest sense, and his means of citation are likewise nongeneric and hands-on. While his work takes in many aspects of the so-called culture industry, touching on cinema, music, and literature via the various forms of printed matter or ephemera that come with the territory—movie posters, album covers, and books—when considered together, all of it may be seen as one man’s collection. The figure of the collector has, over time, become central to Ruppersberg as a way of contextualizing his practice. He doesn’t merely appropriate objects “found” with Duchampian disinterest, but deliberately chooses, assimilates, and reprocesses them, all the while highlighting questions of material origin and social history.

“Allen Ruppersberg Drawing and Writing: 1972–1989” revisited the artist’s recycling process in its formative stages, through the foundational creative act of taking pencil to paper. Drawings of books observed as objects (their covers, spines, and open pages depicted) made up the bulk of the twenty-five works on view. These raised familiar ontological questions pertaining to authorship and remediation, but what stood out most here was the formal vocabulary used to approach these concerns, and the way it is modulated from one work to the next.

Ruppersberg moved to Los Angeles in 1962 to study illustration and graphic design at the Chouinard Art Institute and later turned his technical skills to artmaking. His, then, is by no means a straightforward act of contextual transposition, as he passes the ready-made object through the toolkit via which it was made, each time differently. Accordingly, a viewer’s attention was drawn to minute stylistic shifts, as between the sketchy rendering of the book The Elements of Style in Reading Time (The Elements of Style), 1973–74, and the hyperrealistic treatment of Albert Camus’s The Fall in Lost and Found, 1991. The distinction between lines spontaneously drawn by the artist and those painstakingly traced can be exceedingly slight, but Ruppersberg derives considerable aesthetic mileage from it. Expertly exploiting the resistance of a paper’s tooth to a 4B pencil applied with varying degrees of pressure, Ruppersberg made images that appear, alternately, as etchings, photographs, or halftone prints. On the one hand, this variety speaks to the way that creative work is passed between different media registers in the course of commercial manufacture, but perhaps more significantly, it amounts to an excavation of the increasingly complex relationship between the fine and commercial arts in the postwar years.

At least as far back as Impressionism, artists have sought inspiration from commercial graphics. Then, of course, the Cubists turned to actual printed matter as material for collage. By the 1950s, that attention was reciprocated, as design firms began actively encouraging their employees to remain abreast of and adapt avant-garde trends. This history, latent in the mass-produced object, is here made manifest in its handmade reproduction. Highly informed and invested in his selection and treatment of popular culture, Ruppersberg sets a crucial precedent for the work of Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Frances Stark, Dave Muller, Sam Durant, Andrea Bowers, and many others who have likewise applied their personal touch to a range of mass-market items. As this show implicitly reminded us, several successive generations of quintessentially West Coast artists have emerged from this source.

Jan Tumlir