LOS ANGELES — At the Hammer Museum’s career-spanning retrospective, Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968–2018, there is a painting that serves as a good introduction to the pioneering conceptual artist. “Greetings from California” (1972) depicts the silhouette of a mountain ridge at dusk (or is it dawn?), over which a rectangular, blue cloud descends like a color field blanket. Floating above it is a bright orange book which bears a classic postcard slogan as its title, Greetings from California, a Novel by Allen Ruppersberg. Operating in the gray areas between image and text, idea and object, the specific and commonplace, this canvas lays out the terrain Allen Ruppersberg playfully but rigorously explores throughout the rest of the exhibition.
Born in Cleveland, Ruppersberg moved out to California in the late ’60s to attend the Chouinard Institute (now CalArts), and since the early ’70s has split his time between studios in Los Angeles and New York (and, until recently, Cleveland). Although he got his start here — and much of his work is characterized by a breezy, West Coast irreverence — he is a quintessentially peripatetic artist, who doesn’t seem anchored to any one place.
Place, however, does play a large role in his oeuvre. Two early site-specific works, “Al’s Cafe” (1969) and “Al’s Grand Hotel” (1971), operate in the space between art and life that Ruppersberg, along with many of his contemporaries, were exploring. Located near downtown Los Angeles, the Cafe looked like any classic American restaurant. “[T]he decor was familiar to the point of strangeness: hyperfamiliar, you might say today,” the artist Allan McCollum noted in 1999, a quotation reproduced in the catalogue. Despite this familiarity, the “food” on offer was anything but. For $1.25, diners could get a plate of Toast and Leaves, while Al’s Burger — composed of Sky, Land, and Water — cost $1.75. Two dollars bought you a Patti Melt, or rather a photo of country music singer Patti Page Photo (or Reasonable Facsimile) covered with toasted marshmallows. The Hammer’s installation has an original set of these surrealist meals, alongside receipts, menus, and bowling shirts embroidered with the the Cafe’s address on 6th street near MacArthur Park.
Two years later, Ruppersberg opened “Al’s Grand Hotel” in a private residence on Sunset Boulevard just West of La Brea Ave. He again pushed the ordinary towards the extraordinary, disrupting the mundane boarding house with absurdly themed rooms: a breakfast room designed like a diner; Al’s Room with seven cardboard cutouts of the artist; an Ultra Violet Room dedicated to the Warhol superstar. The Hammer documents the work through an evocative slideshow.
For all of the ephemera, the objects, the books, the stuff that his work is made of, Ruppersberg is at heart a conceptual artist, albeit one in love with the physical world. “It all comes from the same place,” he said at last month’s press preview. “The idea is the important thing. The work evolves out of the idea.”
However, unlike fellow conceptual artists like Sol Lewitt or Lawrence Weiner, whose works you can spot a mile away, Ruppersberg has no signature works, no easily recognizable “style” to speak of. His ideas end up in wildly divergent places.
Take, for instance, his “Picture of Dorian Gray” (1974), which begins with a simple idea — transcribing the Oscar Wilde novel — and following it to its logical, but ludicrous conclusion. On 20 canvases stacked against the walls, Ruppersberg has rewritten the story of the portrait that ages instead of its owner. The results are part an invitation to perform, part painting, and part sculptural installation. It’s a text piece, but lends itself more to walking around it than reading it. It intimately traces the process from reading to writing to reading again, from Wilde’s mind to Ruppersberg’s hand to the viewer’s eye. Like much of his work on view, a humorously absurd conceit is layered beneath a bone-dry shell.
Along similar lines, the show’s most recent work “Over and Over, Again and Again part I” (2019) is a 13-hour video work based on almost 12,000 typed index cards documenting the record collection of Barrie H. Thorpe. Each card exists on the screen for a few seconds before a pair of hands whisks it away and replaces it with another. Sit there long enough, and you gain special insight into the passions of an anonymous and unremarkable individual, as the serial progression washes over you like a visual mantra. It’s hard to think of a work so inherently boring and surprisingly enthralling at the same time.
Beginning with that early canvas, “Greetings from California,” Ruppersberg returns again and again to books, poems, and the written word. Remixed and recontextualized, he gives them new meanings that, in a way, prefigures the shifting sands of contemporary online culture. “Good Dreams, Bad Dreams (What Was Sub-Literature?)” (1996) features panels painted by professional sign painters (by the hands of an artist but not the artist), that reproduce the titles of pulp novels, mixing two kinds of signifiers to create sign posts of mass market American culture.
The show’s arguable centerpiece is “The Singing Posters: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl by Allen Ruppersberg (Parts I-III)” (2003/05), a wall-sized installation which phonetically transcribes the classic beat poem onto brightly colored posters printed by the now-defunct Colby Poster Printing Company. For decades, Colby Posters defined the urban streetscapes of Los Angeles, as their eye-catching broadsides advertised everything from concerts to conventions to hair salons from power poles and offramps all over the city. In this riotous mosaic, Ruppersberg layers myriad forms of language, from words printed in chapbooks, to those uttered aloud in coffee houses, and glimpsed from passing cars.
Although so much of Ruppersberg’s work captures an obsolete, analog world, he insists he isn’t interested in nostalgia. The entire last section of the show in fact is dedicated to memorials, which can be thought of as purposeful markers of passing, as opposed to the emotional longing of nostalgia. Memorials are like the period at the end of a sentence.
Still, there is something about Ruppersberg’s bygone visions of Los Angeles that seem elegiac, though that may have more to do with projection than intent. “No way, you couldn’t do it anymore for any number of reasons,” he said when asked whether he could create his Angeleno-centric works of the late ’60s today. “First of all, I was 27 years old. In those golden years, everything was cheap, and you could drive from Santa Monica to the Palomino Club in 20 minutes. There was no idea of selling anything anyway. There was no market to think of, very few galleries.” Then without a hint of sentimentality, “That world is long gone.”
Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968–2018 continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through May 12. The exhibition is organized by the Walker Art Center, and curated by senior curator Siri Engberg, with assistance from curatorial fellows Jordan Carter and Fabián Leyva-Barragán. The Hammer’s presentation is organized by curator Aram Moshayedi, with curatorial assistant Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi.