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“WARNING: DO NOT OPEN IN THE WIND,” read the packaging of Bus, an actual size photograph of an actual Greyhound bus, which was silkscreened, folded down, and distributed in a limited edition of 200 copies by artist Mason Williams in 1967. “Bus” was a conceptual art stunt of comic proportions: each self-published print measured 10 x 36 feet, weighed in at 10 pounds, 7 ounces, and took nine man hours to assemble.
“Bus” was first exhibited at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1967, then stationed at The Museum of Modern Art the following year. After these initial popular exhibitions, though, few had a chance to see “Bus” in person. Now, nearly 50 years later, one of the rare original prints is on display at The Bus Is Back: Mason Williams in Los Angeles, a special exhibition curated by Alden Projects
“The piece has taken on a kind of legendary mystery,” Todd Alden, director of Alden Projects, tells Hyperallergic. “Artists often hear about the sheer zany beauty of putting a life-size Greyhound bus into a box, but only very rarely have the chance to see one fully unfurled in all its screenprinted, hand-assembled glory.”
In the 60s, Williams was better known as a comedy writer/composer/performer than as a visual artist (his hit guitar composition “Classical Gas” is the most played instrumental in the history of radio). So it took a while for people to see “Bus” as more than an elaborate joke–though it got a lot of attention after Williams self-published and distributed the prints, folded up like road maps in boxes for $30 each. It made an appearance as the backdrop on the show Smother Brothers’ Comedy Hour, for which Williams was a writer, and showed up in the pages of Life magazine, photographed “driving” down Broadway in front of Radio City Music Hall. Still, it was seen mostly as a wacky stunt.
But in the 50 years since its creation, “Bus” has been recognized as a mammoth contribution to the art of California conceptualism. “The important thing for Mason was the idea of it — the fact that you knew that a life size bus was inside a box, but that you didn’t necessarily have to see it to appreciate the wonder of it,” Alden says. “In this sense, he was ahead of most Conceptual artists of the time — and with a much better sense of humor, too!”
“Bus” is on par with, and owes a lot to, the work of artist Ed Ruscha, a friend, collaborator, and sometimes roommate of Williams’ since the fourth grade. “The peculiar glory of this work stands up to anything Ed Ruscha ever dreamed up,” Alden says. (“Bus” was created in Los Angeles around the same time as Ruscha’s silver-covered “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” a kindred artist’s publication that unfolded to more than 27 feet.) “Ruscha deeply influenced Williams, but the influence unquestionably went both ways.”
It’s Williams’ conceptual depth that’s explored in Printed Matter’s current exhibit. “Bus” offered wry commentary on how photography and other man-made images play with our perceptions of reality. As Lorraine Williams wrote of “Bus” over at Design Observer in 2008:
Reality was a big issue in the Sixties, and while some of it is dead serious and driven by philosophical inquiry, Bus is the literal poster child for the flip side of that inquiry — the uncanny surrealism of everyday life. Standing in front of Bus forty-one years after its making, one can still feel the buzz of ideas swirling around it, enhanced by the humor and energy embodied by the unlikeliness of its production, presentation and scale.
Playing with scale, pushing it to absurd extremes, was at the heart of many of Williams’ projects, including “Sunflower” (1967). Also on view in The Bus is Back, this series of vintage photographs documents Williams’ valiant attempt to make “the world’s largest drawing.” His medium was smoke, and his canvas was the sky.
To make the “drawing,” Williams hired the California aviator who had invented the art of skywriting. The artist describes his process in a statement:
In 1967, I had an idea for a film: to draw the world’s biggest sunflower. The film was to be a slow-motion aerial ballet in which an old bi-wing aeroplane skywriter ‘draws’ the stem and leaves of a flower in the sky beneath the sun, the sun itself thereby becoming the blossom of a ‘Sun’ flower.” The film went unrealized for technical reasons, and the photographs here are all that remain to index the romantic conceptualism of this wonder-making caper.
One photograph from the “Sunflower” series looks like a simple portrait, but a small detail adds another layer to the artist’s play on scale and perception: Williams gazes skywards, the sun as flower blossom bouncing off his dark glasses, creating a tiny reflection of the “world’s largest drawing.”
The Bus Is Back: Mason Williams in Los Angeles is on view at Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles) from February 11 to 14.