If Ed Ruscha's Pop Paintings Seem Strange, Blame It on Their Inspiration—L.A.

updated 05/23/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He has painted trails of catsup on canvas to announce "Listen, I'd Like to Help Out But," brushed red shellac onto red taffeta to spell out "Screaming in Spanish," and applied blood to satin to tell us "She Didn't Have to Do That." These strange word paintings that seem to come from a surreal nowhere are the work of Edward Ruscha, 45, whose increasingly celebrated art is actually about a surreal somewhere—Los Angeles.

Ruscha (pronounced Roo-shay to rhyme with L.A., where he lives) has milked his highly developed, ultracool California style for all it's worth. Already famous for his 1960s pop classics in oil Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas and The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, he is still producing mostly word images in oils and dry pigment with titles such as Hollywood Is a Verb and Honey, I twisted through more damn traffic today, images that recall the eerie emptiness of America's billboard culture. Such enigmatic efforts to decode L.A. seem to be paying off. Ruscha's works, which fetch from $12,000 to $30,000 for an oil and $3,500 to $6,000 for a drawing, have been bought by biggies in the business and art worlds as well as by such celebrities as Woody Allen and Norman Lear. This year America's "cowboy Magritte" is having his first retrospective.

Labeled "I Don't Want No Retrospective"—an evident oxymoron since Ruscha happily participated in all aspects of the event—the show opened last spring at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, then played at the Whitney Museum in New York and is currently drawing curious crowds at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the very edifice Ruscha had torched on canvas 15 years earlier. The exhibit tracks 22 years of Ruscha's work, including not only his word messages but many of his top pop oils. These idiosyncratic paintings have been treated to increasing recognition by the art world. "Ruscha is a significant figure in contemporary art," says Maurice Tuchman, senior curator of 20th-century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "He is the most interesting interpreter of the new L.A. that came to maturity, if you can call it that, in the '60s." (Ruscha doesn't call it that at all. Asked once why he chose L.A., he responded: "It's got the right kind of decadence and lack of charm it takes to make an artist.")

Still, Ruscha the artist is a slippery fish to net. Henry Geldzahler, New York's ex-Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, put it this way: "Conceptual, pop, surrealist, dada, neo-dada, earth art—all these are arguable elements of his style. Ruscha can be pinned down partially by any of these labels and yet he escapes all of them."

Ruscha is the first to admit he has come a long way from Oklahoma City, where he grew up the son of an insurance auditor and an artistically inclined housewife. He split for the West Coast when he was 18, driving to L.A. with his hometown pal, songwriter Mason (Classical Gas) Williams, in a 1950 lowered Ford.

After studying commercial art for four years, Ruscha entered a feverishly prolific period. Between 1962 and 1972 he churned out more than 1,000 word paintings and 15 picture books, including his perennially popular Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, published by his own company, Heavy Industries Publications. He also found time to produce two zany short films, one of which, Premium (1970), is about a young man living in a flophouse who makes salad in his bed and tries to seduce a girl on leaves of lettuce.

Over the years Ruscha has become a local hero, just the sort of Bohemian bad boy who has always proved irresistible to a succession of leading L.A. ladies. Ruscha's list includes Samantha Eggar, Michele Phillips, Candy Clark and Lauren Hutton. (Phillips, Eggar and Clark contributed their own Ruscha works to the retrospective.)

Ruscha is currently living with ex-wife Danna, from whom he was divorced in 1976. They have a son, Edward Joseph Ruscha V, 14, known as Frenchy. A seedy pseudo-Mission-style building on Western Avenue, in the middle of an adult movie strip, serves as Ruscha's L.A. studio. To get away from all that reality, Ruscha and Danna tool off to his desert retreat near Yucca Valley or to her San Fernando Valley ranch house.

His business card still reads "Ed Ruscha, young artist," and it's still, retrospective or no, impossible to tell just how serious he is at any given moment. Sample: "I didn't set out in 1961 to make masterpieces." Hey, Ed, who asked you anyway?

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