Opinion

Cruising Through Ed Ruscha’s Career in Seven Minutes

Work by Ed Ruscha (GIF by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
Work by Ed Ruscha (GIF by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic, via YouTube)

Despite his resistance to the characterization, Ed Ruscha has a reputation as a quintessential Los Angeles artist. So it’s not surprising that a new documentary short about his career is narrated by a Hollywood star. In “Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words,” actor Owen Wilson chronicles the artist’s six decades of making bold Pop paintings, photographs, books, and prints influenced by the sun-drenched architecture and signage of the American West. Written and directed by Felipe Lima and commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the just-over-seven-minute video juxtaposes archival footage from Ruscha’s life with a mini retrospective of his work, from his painting of the word “jelly” spelled out in jelly to photographs of flaming gas stations.

For those who dismiss Ruscha’s work as shticky or don’t get what the onomatopoeic “OOF” in big yellow letters on a blue background is doing at MoMA, the documentary makes a strong case for the artist’s irreverent style and conceptual depth. “I think he came from a different place,” says artist Ed Moses in the film. “He had a different source — a direct source of a reality. Like a person from another planet would come in here and see this stuff directly.”

It also touches on Ruscha’s “coolness.” “When [people] talk about Ed they describe him as cool,” says Wilson, who started collecting Ruscha’s work in 1996, after coming across one of his paintings while filming scenes for Wes Anderson’s debut feature, Bottle Rocket. “And yes, he’s cool.” To prove it, the documentary’s commentators include not just art world figures like gallerist Irving Blum and artist Larry Bell, but also actor Ed Begley Jr. and Sonic Youth bassist–cum–artist Kim Gordon, whose drippy word paintings might be seen as punk-inflected derivatives of Ruscha’s experiments in oversize type.

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