Good Bones

What is it that we want from Ruscha? What does New York want from the idea of LA?

Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68. Oil on canvas, 4′ 5 1⁄2″ × 11′ 1 1⁄2″ (135.9 × 339.1 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn. © 2023 Ed Ruscha. Photo Paul Ruscha

  • ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, curated by Christophe Cherix with Ana Torok and Kiko Aebi, ran at the Museum of Modern Art from September 10, 2023 to January, 13, 2024. The exhibition opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in April.

I just follow the hood of my car
In Los Ageless, the waves they never break
They build and build until you don’t have no escape
But how can I leave?

I’m doing two only slightly adjacent things between three visits to the Ed Ruscha show at MoMA. I’m insomnia-watching YouTube recaps of a hideously fascinating early 2000s reality TV show called The Swan, which offered a medically insane number of bodily alterations to contestants to make them into pageant beauties. And I’m listening to St. Vincent’s “Los Ageless” on repeat. LA—and the idea of LA—formed a large part of the marketing and conceit of MoMA’s exhibit, which closed in January, and these are my unfortunate coextractions from that theme. Ruscha is the dingbat apartment and the continuous span of Hollywood Boulevard and all the America that leads up to it, but I can’t help but see the retrospective in light of the East Coast vision of LA that frames it in a New York–based museum setting, a kind of capsule LA. We love it in Midtown, this idea of the guitar girls with model legs, still sucking on the neon teat of eternal surgical youth. To some extent we—and MoMA’s show—can’t also help but map this East Coast–West Coast framing, this LA of our latent distant desires, onto Ruscha. The show was called Now Then because the then is always now, and the now always encompasses the then, too. It keeps running, the now.

In the song’s music video, St. Vincent sings the beginning of “Los Ageless” in surgical bandages wearing a 1960s red lip; she’s now, she’s then. Ruscha’s floating signifiers as midcentury vernaculars. Portraits of quotidian architecture (including unconventional views of well-known structures) resist the nowness of then, but some of his work has still, in a sense, had work done. The word art in particular is always now—Ruscha got his start as a commercial artist and the ostensibly subversive art-as-brand aesthetic of the pieces has come full circle to the current art-as-brand influencer aesthetic, perhaps to the detriment of a deeper reading. Like Los Angeles, Ruscha is never allowed to get old. Sometimes if you follow the hood of your car—or the algorithms that steer your taste, the same ones channeled by curatorial wall labels knowing you came to MoMA through the black mirror of your phone—you start seeing the waves that never break, the always contemporariness of the contemporary forced to remain new and youthful like a ponytail facelift. Sometimes, Ruscha can’t escape himself, because he was being presented as presciently modern in the MoMA show, even with works from midcentury, and the 1970s and ’80s.

Paradoxically, though, if Ruscha had been given a nip and tuck by MoMA in the service of the zeitgeist, he always undercuts it with his own innate sense of historicity. Even his latest contribution to typography, Boy Scout Utility Modern, evokes the older American woodcut typeface references of his earlier typesets, while still maintaining the now-ubiquitous sans serif streamline of the brand logo. Its utility isn’t starting a fire or spanning out like a Swiss Army knife; it is its implicit always-modernity. Like a Boy Scout, Ruscha’s newest font is always prepared—but for the onslaught of the ever-forward, temporally displaced gaze. It’s like giving Klee’s Angelus Novus a browlift. The pop in Pop art only stays pop when it’s culturally in vogue, and Ruscha knows and anticipates this problem. He’s just not ready to leave.

Maybe Ruscha, as the plastic surgeons say, just has the good bones to pull it off. They’re Edward Hopper’s bones and some of Le Corbusier’s, too. Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha’s 1963 book of photographs, captures highway-side American atypical-typicals in all their diverse unity. These are somehow condensed or averaged in painting form, into Standard Station, Amarillo Texas (1963) which was on view at MoMA. The monumental canvas milks the uncanny whites of those too-white celebrity veneers, which can only be placed over whittled-down stubs of teeth. It also evokes the neon-tinged isolation of Hopper’s long vistas, and the implicit modernity of Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-Ino as box house, itself reformed by the evolving postwar American landscape into the commercial replicability that Ruscha plays on. Standard Station is a synthetic work that also feels singular; one building that is multiplied through the camera lens, then reamalgamated through the eye and the hand. Ruscha’s preoccupation with graphic and brand design also plays into his reworking of the building into an at-once-universal-and-instantly- specific thing. It’s a Ruscha branded Ruscha. It could be no one else’s painting of a gas station; it could be no one gas station; it’s all the gas stations ground into a kind of Ur-gas station Geist-paste. It’s the essence of gas station–ness, laminated through Ruscha’s signature style. Perhaps it’s beautiful in a way, all those ski-slope nose jobs that start to look the same, where the surgeon is the artist and the flesh is the paint.

While the artist may be ageless, he also always knows his old self, and the juxtaposition of work across genres and materials drives home the paradox of Los Angeles in New York as Los Ageless, a place whose history and material culture Ruscha mines and makes always new.

In his early career, when Ruscha stopped designing work for companies, he started incorporating familiar trademarks like 20th Century Fox into uncanny, almost Suprematist compositions or rendering those trademarks in literal foodstuffs as medium. Although Ruscha only worked formally in advertising for a brief period, it is something he mentions repeatedly in interviews as a major influence. The MoMA show leaned into this. (The point was stressed at multiple points in wall texts.) Ruscha loves the branded aesthetic; it disgusts him, and he loves it. He doesn’t have any escape but the reflexive act, which becomes, surrounded by images of architecture as the lived experience of the capital these logos and text fragments promote, itself a kind of rebellious looking and reframing of the Real. What are we selling here, in Los Angeles which becomes Los Ageless in the white cube of the gallery? I can purchase the text of several Ruscha works printed on tote bags in the museum shop, and I do. He’s sold out to sell in, and I’m buying. I will be young and relevant and culturally pop forever, I will be the screen-printed photograph of the light descending from a window overlaid with the text “HOLLYWOOD IS A VERB,” even as I age into death and taxes, swinging my new tote by a vista that could be a Rocky Mountain peak, overlaid in white Boy Scout Utility Modern: PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL. When I smile at this despite myself, the little lines around my eyes crinkle. Now, then.

There’s a single-canvas view of the LA street grid photographed in black-and-white at night on the same wall as “HOLLYWOOD IS A VERB,” overlaid with the text: “WEN OUT FOR A CIGRETS N NEVR CAME BACK.” The missing letters are intentional. Later in his career, in the ’80s and ’90s, Ruscha began to experiment with omission and blanks in his text-based work. The Ts, As, Es, and D went out and never came back either. Maybe that’s how it all ends one day; the relevance of youth. You just walk out the door for a cigarette while you’re still pretty enough to die alluringly young. You walk along the streets where all the lines converge and the windows are lit up at night and you can walk by gas pumps sucking up crushed dinosaur petroleum into cars and A-frames and flat expanses of roofline and austere and ridiculous combinations, and then you maybe don’t need to be so young anymore. Ed Ruscha is eighty-six years old. He was born in 1937. He still makes art regularly. He’s lived in LA since 1956, and he can’t leave her. The winter never comes.

In Los Ageless, the winter never comes
In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young
But I can keep running

ONE OF THE CONTESTANTS on The Swan, transformed through an ungodly combination of production pressure, liposuction, and a low-calorie diet into a wispy-banged generic model, says, when she sees her new self in the mirror for the first time, that she doesn’t recognize “that girl.” The strength of MoMA’s Ruscha show, though, was that while the artist may be ageless, he also always knows his old self, and the juxtaposition of work across genres and materials drives home the paradox of Los Angeles in New York as Los Ageless, a place whose history and material culture Ruscha mines and makes always new.

Paintings of buildings almost always appeared near vitrines of the artist’s books that directly informed them. A more daring version of this exhibition might have centered Ruscha’s books as the primary visual object, considering their lasting influence on the production of other artists and the sophisticated critical questions they raise about documentation and objecthood. One such volume, which gave the exhibition its title, is called Then & Now, and is a continuous photo strip of Hollywood Boulevard taken first in 1966, and then twenty-five years later. This is the before/after photo in the surgeon’s office. Do we like the after more—the now more than the then—when the vernacular architecture of the city is more standardized into suburban manses and the isolated remove of glass boxes? After enough plastic surgery, you don’t recognize “that girl” in the mirror anymore; after enough erasure and replacement, cities barely know their own faces. Ruscha is documenting the process, but also leaning into some of its aesthetic impulses. The brutality of the scalpel in the service of beauty manifests in his work, too.

Consider the Blue Collar buildings series, painted in 1992. The buildings depicted in the series have a kind of sinister blankness, an almost-utility so severe that it loops around again to uselessness; it’s not clear how they serve any particular function as structures, and that’s sort of the point, the aporetic dead-endedness. Trade School portrays a generic box with gray lines for windows. The equivalent seen in Tech-Chem doesn’t even get windows. Everything is grayscale. The skies are black. The buildings are abstracted forms of themselves, but this time it doesn’t feel like LA; it’s the Rust Belt, maybe, and trade school doesn’t seem to be getting anyone anywhere. If Ruscha can handle glossy American flourishing, he also attends to its inverse. He later paints the Standard Oil gas station on fire. He paints the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on fire. He reprised the Blue Collar buildings for the American exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 2005. The paintings are also structured as responses to Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire (1833–1836). They are ominous. The Old Tech-Chem Building reuses the same Ruscha structure from the 1992 canvas—you can see the old logo wearing off the side. But in the 2003 version, it says “Fat Boy” on it. The sky is an ominous wildfire-saturated red—or maybe a nuclear holocaust red. “Fat Man” is the name of the nuclear bomb America dropped on Nagasaki. “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima. Ruscha blends them associatively.

Now, then. Standing in the gallery, I recalled Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. What is it about forgetting/remembering? The Japanese architect who is the lover of the French protagonist calls her “Nevers”—the name of the city in central France where she once had a German Vichy officer for a lover. She, in turn, calls him “Hiroshima.” The words “FAT BOY” are written in Boy Scout Utility Modern. They are red like perfect lips, but they aren’t collagen-flushed up against what the surgeons call the vermillion border. If Ruscha is kissing “America,” she doesn’t kiss back plushly. She’s stripped down for the next end of the world, built on the crumbled facade of the last one. I go to the Ed Ruscha exhibit at MoMA for the final and third time between the apocalyptic flooding and the start of the next genocide. Nevers, Hiroshima. You can keep running but you can’t forget.

How can anybody have you and lose you
And not lose their minds, too?

TWO THINGS NEW YORKERS seem to associate with Los Angeles, even though they probably use them in equal if not greater measure than Angelenos, are Ozempic and cocaine. One replaces desire, the other becomes it, heightens it in some capacities. Lots of Ruscha is road, two white implacable lines of energy crisscrossing the country that you could almost cut with a credit card. Ruscha isn’t voluptuous; he’s all straight lines and shows very few if any bodies. There’s a size zero-ness to the architectural renderings and typography when they don’t work, when he doesn’t quite pull it off, like a model that’s all hanger or visible ribs on the runway. The pastels of 1979’s I Dont Want No Retro Spective feel like that. They’re chic now, I know, but the best Ruscha works on show here have a little paunch on them; maybe they’re aging B-listers, and all the better for it.

Maybe it’s this kind of totalizing production where we live in a time when we cannot be sure we’re really seeing Ruscha for Ruscha or ourselves for ourselves, when the commodity is so invested in the production of the artwork and the museum that the distinction is perhaps meaningless, even as it is undercut.

What is it that we want from Ruscha? What does New York want from the idea of LA? The two poles of the Adornian culture industry stare at each other from behind dark sunglasses. When you get a nose job, they have to break your nose. It bruises for weeks. The paparazzi might notice. Maybe we broke each other’s nose, New York and LA, a kind of brutal mutual-destruction love affair in the production of culture and the idea of American contemporary art. The twenty-six gas stations in the photographs are mostly abandoned now. Hardly any of them are gas stations. We show up to MoMA or the Broad or LACMA to look at what we did to ourselves, to remember to forget, or forget to remember, the vast connecting landscapes in between us.

What does it mean for Hollywood to be a verb when you’re not in Hollywood? Maybe it’s this kind of totalizing production where we live in a time when we cannot be sure we’re really seeing Ruscha for Ruscha or ourselves for ourselves, when the commodity is so invested in the production of the artwork and the museum that the distinction is perhaps meaningless, even as it is undercut. We put on a show. We have ring lights and producers for every micro-influencer now. None of us are anonymous. I order a tooth-whitening pen from Amazon to read an essay in public. “THEY CALLED HER STYRENE,” I think as I mouth the words of one of the paintings.

I’m trying to bleach myself clean and failing. Styrene is used to make latex and rubber, the tires of cars at innumerable service stops, the gloves of all the TV surgeons.

How do we love the agelessness of Pop art and not lose our mind too?

I don’t know. The tote bag I bought at the museum gift shop says, “PEOPLE GETTING READY TO DO THINGS.”

I have too many tote bags. I am stuck between memory and presentism, now and then. I’m just getting ready to do things, not doing them yet. I carry them around with me in tastefully branded canvas. That’s the Ruscha bind. You get up in the morning and put the makeup on your face. “OOF,” read the yellow letters on blue ground in the most popular painting in the show. Everyone is taking selfies there; everyone knows their angles these days. I took one, too.

A. V. Marraccini is the author of We The Parasites. She has never had a nose job.