Allen Ruppersberg, Greetings from California, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 65 7⁄8 × 66".

Allen Ruppersberg, Greetings from California, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 65 7⁄8 × 66".

Allen Ruppersberg

Walker Art Center

Self-fiction and play, double entendre and wit, slippery authorship and off-site-ness are the underpinnings of Allen Ruppersberg’s oeuvre. The Conceptual artist’s retrospective at the Walker Art Center, “Intellectual Property 1968–2018,” foregrounded his persistent fascination with the American vernacular—its humor, horror, literature, and pop culture—unfurled through a thematic and chronological sequence of galleries. EACH WORK IS ONE OF A KIND, as Ruppersberg once wrote in “Fifty Helpful Hints on the Art of the Everyday,” 1985. The show strung experiments into a narrative, bracketed by revolution-connoting dates, and was packaged with a quandary: Which works would qualify for the black-tie event of the retrospective, what information would be preserved for posterity, and how would it resist or adapt to new contexts, new politics? Its litigating title contracted the retrospective to conserve ideas more than things, as this condensed experience of the artist’s work patented his thinking.

Ruppersberg is a different kind of Conceptual artist, one whose objects are stringently aesthetic, nostalgic even, and serve his agenda by augmenting the mundane. His Conceptual efforts toward a formal neutrality or impersonality are steeped in the total noise of popular culture; his choices are driven by an equal commitment to concept and material, with an allegiance to the generic. In fact, he has historically distrusted the setting of the institution. He tends to redirect, staging installations off-site in locations—rented storefronts, studio spaces, a two-story house on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles—whose anonymity is an appealing criterion for this passionate collector of the authorless. Some of Ruppersberg’s past works are simulations of life (a smoky café, a bustling hotel, a quiet travel agency) that simultaneously propose “life” as their subject, with its paperwork, its logistics, its surprising twists. PLAN OUTLINED IN MANUSCRIPT: POLICE KILL WRITER ON WAY TO ROB BANK, reads a framed headline in Art, 1982.

In several series of works, assembled by the Walker within the “Reading and Copying: 1974–1984” section of the show, Ruppersberg transcribes existing texts into new forms. Part homage, part translation, part appropriation, these pieces show the artist skillfully drawing upon various techniques he learned while studying commercial illustration, and a range of content, from full novels (Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by Allen Ruppersberg, 1973; The Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1974) to excisions from the news: TARGET OF DEATH PLOT NOW SEEKS A DIVORCE. This latter quote, silk-screened onto a large canvas in a work grandiosely titled The Human Figure, 1982, transposes a news clipping into a portrait-oriented painting, which simulates at once a pulp-paperback cover and a scrapbook with its hand-scrawled annotations. With typography as its vehicle, Ruppersberg’s approach to language establishes parity between literature and the vernacular: He turns writing into an object, “translated” across eras to create linearity between wildly different sources, a mix of fact, fiction, anecdote, and rumor. These works are also biographical, as republishing becomes an act of possession, of self-fashioning through object making.

A retrospective, I imagine, gives one an opportunity to mark time. For an artist whose persistent foci have been self-portraiture and death—memorials of various kinds appear in his work of each era, either in the resuscitation of expiring technologies or more directly in his utilization of obituaries—the project is all the more striking. Ultimately, in this retrospective, what was highlighted was an approach more than a trajectory, a reframing of Americana at a time (much like 1968) when the subject itself is volatile. Ruppersberg’s modular body of work, his smooth showmanship against a largely Hollywoodian backdrop, draws a solid picture of a place and time—indeed, various times—over and over again. “Al,” when he appears in pictures, is lanky and grinning, possessing the laissez-faire attitude of another generation’s revolt: effortlessly cool, brilliant and unrehearsed, never quite in—or out of—character. His works are experiences pulled from archives, and when the experience is over, it is archived again, as now, in the galleries of the Walker. The show was a catalogue in space, committed to the legibility of works whose form may have been responsive to a past moment, but whose restaging and remnants retained humor and mutability. SELF-EXPLANATORY.

Lauren Mackler