Ed Ruscha at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Ed Ruscha, Parking Lots (21) (1967/1999); courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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In dedicating an entire floor to the drawings of Ed Ruscha, the Whitney Museum of American Art demonstrates its ongoing cluelessness about artistic worth. Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is a retrospective of a progenitor of West Coast Pop. Mr. Ruscha (b. 1937) is best known for brusque, sign-like paintings of service stations and the famed Hollywood sign, images that fall somewhere between Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, between the open road and Campbell’s soup.

A brainy absurdism pervades the oeuvre; Mr. Ruscha mines Dadaism for its humor, placing its nihilism gently on the back burner. His text paintings, cryptic phrases rendered as illusionistic ribbons of letters or situated against cinematic backdrops, play an agile game of cat-and-mouse between differing modes of comprehension: reading and looking. How absorbing you find these conundrums will depend on your tolerance for one small idea writ large–and then writ over and over again. At 200 pieces and counting, The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is at least 190 drawings too many.

Downstairs in the lobby gallery, the Whitney is exhibiting over 300 of Mr. Ruscha’s photographs–which, on the other hand, is nowhere near enough. Don’t be put off by the six photos of commercial products, stuff like Spam and Oxydol, that serve as the introduction to Ed Ruscha and Photography; their wry insouciance isn’t indicative of what’s to follow. Mr. Ruscha’s black-and-white pictures of gas stations, apartment buildings, 34 parking lots and various locales in Europe aren’t Pop at all, though one can discern in them the artist’s attraction to the mundane. Primarily they look to the disabused aesthetic of photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank for inspiration.

Washed in a neutral, unblemished light, Mr. Ruscha’s photos pit decisive areas of geometric form against zooming angles and sharp juxtapositions of space. A rigorous graphic emphasis–a constant in Mr. Ruscha’s work–doesn’t preclude a surprising current of sentimentality from entering the work. It’s impossible to look at a photo of a trio of fashionable young women in 1960′s Venice without feeling a pang of loss for the good old days. The same goes for photos of the Fountain Blu apartments, Bob’s Service Station and, oddly, the parking lot at Dodgers Stadium.

Mr. Ruscha is hip to the illusory nature of nostalgia; he’s big enough to recognize its pull and human enough not to resist its comforts. Would that the rest of the oeuvre were as open to nuance, contradiction and emotion. If only the Whitney had recognized a good thing when they saw it and given Mr. Ruscha’s photographs the breathing room they deserve. Notwithstanding the curatorial gaffe, Ed Ruscha and Photography is an unassuming delight.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 30, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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