An Excerpt from Out of Sight

“It’s all façades here,” Ed Ruscha once said. “That’s what intrigues me about . . . Los Angeles — the façade-ness.” He has described himself as a landscape painter, and it’s true. But Ruscha’s is also an art of façades, and the landscape he painted, especially in the 1960s, was that of L.A. and its many façades — its storefronts and apartment buildings, gas stations and restaurants, and, above all, its signs: Los Angeles is a city of signs, and Ruscha is its poet-painter laureate.

Interest in the Southern California landscape was not unique to Ruscha in the 1960s. It fi gured importantly as well in the work of Joe Goode and Vija Celmins, two painters whose initial focus on “common objects” gave way over the course of the decade to images of desert, sea, and sky. It was not an obvious choice. Though the landscape was the defi ning subject of American painting in the nineteenth century, it had, by the middle of the twentieth, largely faded from view. Yet Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins all discovered a way beyond the impasse of mid-century American painting by reclaiming the Western landscape. Such concerns were a long way from the alleged dictates of the L.A. Look, at least insofar as that label implied an art preoccupied with high-tech materials or a synthesis of color and form. Still, Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins had all studied with Robert Irwin, and even if their work didn’t betray any stylistic influence, it is also true that their concerns were in many ways closer to those of Irwin and L.A.’s so-called Light and Space artists than to those of the East Coast Pop artists to whom they were initially compared. Light was a constant theme in Ruscha’s paintings, for instance, as space was in Celmins’s; Goode, meanwhile, tested the limits of sight, of what could be seen and what could not.

However indirect or oblique their aesthetic kinship with other Los Angeles artists, the parallels among Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins are striking. Just as L.A.’s “façade-ness” was at the heart of Ruscha’s work, the Southern California landscape we encounter in the work of Goode and Celmins is one of false fronts and obstructed views. What, if anything, lies beyond the façades? An answer, I think, can be found in the history of landscape painting and the American West — and the relationship between that landscape and the idea of the sublime.

The sublime — the frisson of exhilaration and terror that arises from the sense that one is in the presence of some overwhelming, even godlike power — found its purest artistic expression in Romanticism. In the early nineteenth century, poets such as William Wordsworth and painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner immersed themselves in the natural sublime, mirroring in their art the experience of vertiginous mountain passes, the boundlessness of the sea, or the infinitude of stars in the night sky. Evocations of the sublime were likewise key to the popular success of many crowdpleasing American landscape painters later in the century. The genre’s heavyweight champion was Frederic Edwin Church, whose Niagara was a work of such sublimity that crowds would stand in line for hours for the chance to swoon before its majesty. Works such as Niagara were, for many observers, testament to the greatness not only of the artist but of America, symbols of the young nation’s vaulting ambition and its promise of spiritual renewal. Sentiments of this sort stoked the zeal for westward expansion, the ideal of Manifest Destiny that demanded continental reach, and no one did more to promote that ideal than Albert Bierstadt, whose paintings of the Sierra Nevada rivaled Church’s in their grandeur.

Postwar American painting had a brief flirtation with what the art historian Robert Rosenblum, referring to painters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, dubbed the “abstract sublime.” By the late fi fties, however, Duchampian irony was ripe for revival. And irony is the enemy of the sublime; it is a small, skeptical voice calling us back from the brink. We see it most clearly in Jasper Johns and the artists who followed in his wake, including Ruscha, whose work is thick with irony. But irony alone cannot account for the hold Ruscha’s work has on the viewer’s imagination. Amid the absurdities so abundant in his art, an air of mystery remains.

In a series of paintings begun shortly after the New Painting of Common Objects show, Ruscha hit upon a strategy he would build on in years to come. Emphatically horizontal canvases — what Ruscha himself once called his “Panavision format” — helped him push the conventions of architectural perspective to comic extremes. Ruscha regarded “the horizontal line and the landscape” as “almost one and the same,” and these works illustrate the point. The first, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, depicted the Twentieth-Century Fox movie logo. Twice as long as it is high, the painting captures the absurd monumentality of the emblem. Against a black background, the towering logo occupies the left side of the picture; perspective lines extend from the logo’s lettering to the lower right-hand corner, where they converge. Ruscha applied the same scheme — elongated horizontal format, black sky, perspective lines meeting at the lower right — in Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas. The picture is divided by a diagonal that constitutes the building’s roofl ine and overhead sign, which simply reads “STANDARD.” In both paintings, the overall effect is mock heroic, a ludicrous kind of triumphalist grandeur (looking at Large Trademark, you can almost hear the familiar Fox fanfare).

Ruscha tinkered slightly with the formula in what has become one of his most iconic images, the Hollywood sign, executed first in a series of prints and reprised in two later paintings.* The sign sits proudly on its hilltop, its letters silhouetted against a glowing red-orange sunset. But it also looks a little lost, occupying but a small fraction of the real estate in the center foreground, where it is dwarfed by a sky that seems to go on forever. It is no match for the mythic Western landscape, the legacy of Bierstadt paintings and John Ford Westerns, yet its mere presence deflates the myth, reminds us that it’s just a Hollywood production. As the last light fades, the sign serves as the closing credits for the American sublime.

Ruscha painted the Standard station in 1963, but it had already made an appearance in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the first of his many small books. Ruscha’s books have a very different feel from his paintings and prints; the mock heroic is replaced by the mystifyingly mundane. Each book comprises a series of photographs, artless snapshots, of exactly what its title promises: Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Nine Swimming Pools, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, among others. Some of the books — including, most famously, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, with its twenty-five-foot-long, multi-paneled accordion fold — deal specifically with the city’s façade-ness.

ruscha pic

Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, edition of 1,000 (artists book, 7 x 5 5/8 x 299 1/2 in.)

Even the words in Ruscha’s paintings serve as façades. They are as enigmatic as the photographs of swimming pools or apartment buildings in his books. They seem to have drifted into view, flotsam bobbing along the surface of contemporary culture: advertising slogans, announcements, non sequiturs, snatches of conversation. You can try to decipher them, but as Ruscha warns in the title of one painting, there’s No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk. “A lot of my ideas,” he told one magazine, “come from the radio.” He liked it best, he added, “when it’s music overlapping talk, or talk over talk.” In Ruscha’s paintings, no matter how you try to fine-tune the dial, you keep getting static, the white noise of crossed signals. Is it a clue, with some deeper meaning? Or just another one of the things made out of human talk? 

Ruscha is identified with paintings of words, so much so that the fact that he titled one of his largest and most prominently placed works Picture Without Words is reason in itself to take note. The twenty-three-foot-high canvas (its extreme verticality is another exceptional aspect) was commissioned for the opening of the Getty Center in 1997. But it was the realization of ideas Ruscha first explored in the 1970s in a series of works on paper titled Miracle. In the Getty painting, a shaft of light pours through a high window and illuminates a rectangular section of fl oor. The symbolism is deliberately hokey, like something out of Song of Bernadette or a prison film where the killer finds redemption before his long walk to the gas chamber, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. Ruscha has often pointed to the role of his childhood Catholicism and its continuing influence on him, despite his abandonment of the faith by the time he was an adult. He has described his mental universe as that of “a Catholic kid intersecting with the world of crass consumerism.” Picture Without Words is not so much a declaration of faith as a declaration that, for Ruscha, words are opaque, another façade that obstructs our vision, and their absence here provides an opening of sorts for something unnameable: The light coming through the window, whatever its source, is not among the “things made out of human talk.” This is about as close as Ruscha gets to an unambiguous acknowledgment of the sublime; absent words, only the B-movie cliché of the scene itself suggests the usual ironic counterpoint. It is Ruscha’s genuine fascination with the sublime that prevents his work from being merely clever.

In his small but influential 1960 book, The Image of the City, the urban planner Kevin Lynch investigated the “legibility” of American cities — how the people who lived and worked in a particular city formed a mental image of their urban environment. In Los Angeles, Lynch concluded, they simply couldn’t: The city was too “hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole”; it was, for all intents and purposes, illegible.

The illegibility of Los Angeles was to a great extent a function of its sprawling, de-centered geography. But not of that alone. What was missing from L.A. was not just a real, physical center but, more important, a symbolic center, a touchstone where the city’s past could speak to its present. It has often been noted that L.A.’s greatest architectural treasures are private residences, largely hidden from view, rather than public buildings. It is the latter that imbue a place with collective meaning, that serve as monuments to recall us to our history. Instead of monuments, mid-century Los Angeles was, as Ruscha never ceased to remind us, a city defi ned by signs, a repeating loop of signifi ers that seemed to lead only to one another.

If the city was illegible, the Western landscape blazed with the unnameable; it teamed with signifi cance, at once mythic and historic — of the frontier spirit and a continental empire, of providential favor and self-realization, of an immanent presence beyond the reach of human talk — a surfeit of meaning characteristic of the sublime. In taking that landscape as their subject, Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins each had to reconcile the contradictions between the mythology and the dull sublunary reality of postwar Los Angeles, a task they approached with varying degrees of skepticism. “You can’t just go up and read it,” Celmins said of her own work. “You have to stand back and find your relationship to [it].” That was true of the Southern California landscape as well. For artists such as Ruscha, Goode, and Celmins, the challenge was to fi nd a place to stand — a place situated, however precariously, between suburbia and the sublime.