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Ed Ruscha: the original master of California cool has never been hotter

Interview, July, 2005 by Richard Prince

For over 40 years Ed Ruscha's paintings, photographs, artists' books, and films have examined and challenged the limitless possibilities and endless contradictions inherent in contemporary American culture. Since the early '60s Ruscha's playful and cryptic combination of language and landscape, as well as his unparalleled ability to "look at" what most of us "look through," has cemented his legacy as not just an art superstar but as a leading icon in American art. This month Ruscha will be representing America in the United States Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale with his newest work, a series of 10 interrelated paintings entitled "Course of Empire." In an unusual departure for Interview--with an e-mail exchange replacing Andy Warhol's best friend, the tape recorder--acclaimed art-world original Richard Prince checked in with Ruscha in the days leading up to the exhibition.

RICHARD PRINCE: What would you consider your first significant work? ED RUSCHA: Boss, a 1961 oil painting that is the artistic equivalent of Bigfoot. Ploddy black feet walking across a muddy brown highway.

RP: What artists first influenced you?

ER: In the beginning, it was Basil Wolverton, the cartoonist. Then came James Ensor, Giorgio Marandi, Schwitters, the Futurists, Dada, Kandinsky, and Louis Eilshemius.

RP: It seems to me that your subject matter comes first, and the medium you choose to represent the subject is secondary.

ER: I've always liked that issue. It seems there are two ways: "It's what you say not how you say it." Or there's "It's not what you say but how you say it." Either strategy can work. As an example, Tom Waits does both. Gertrude Stein does both. I envy them both for what they say and also how they say it.

RP: The idea of sameness, similarity, things that are alike, documenting or showing us something familiar, ordinary things that are extraordinary: parking lots, gas stations, every building on the Sunset Strip, part of your record collection.... When do you say, "Yeah, I'm going to do something with that"?

ER: You used the word "familiar," which is probably key to everything I do. I also see the familiar in your work. We don't have to go extraterrestrial to get what we want. No?

RP: I hear you're doing every building on the Sunset Strip again. What's there right now?

ER: I photograph it every year or so. Anytime I get up to the Strip I'm confronted by two things: How many buildings still do exist, and how much things have changed. But they will soon be doing plenty of Rambo-Vegas-style projects that will span Sunset Boulevard with skywalk bridges and mirrored escalator malls that will be cruel to the eyes. It's cancerous and ultimately fatal. I wish time would stand still.

RP: I've never thought there was such a thing as pop art, but if I did I would boil it down to two artists--you and Warhol. Warhol, East coast; Ruscha, West coast.

ER: I believe that cultural curators will forever be unearthing significant unknown American artists, writers, musicians, architects, and composers. These people will be in every state of the Union, not just New York, Chicago, or L.A. Am I dreaming?

RP: I collect your books. I have almost all of them. I even have a great copy of Dutch Details. Pools and parking lots are so much about where you live. Only in Los Angeles. I really love the photos of the empty parking lots. Anybody doing abstract art should take a long look. Do you ever wonder what else is out there that you've seen but never really see? I guess what I'm trying to say is, When does something like parking lots kick in?

ER: I love to look "at" things that I would normally look through or beyond, but I guess I can't always be at attention. I want to be up to speed when an idea kicks in, but often I'm half asleep or half awake.

RP: Is it newspapers, novels, comic books, fiction, biographies, or histories for you?

ER: I read newspapers, nature, geology, and science books, some sci-fi, J.G. Ballard, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and John Fante. I just finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

RP: What about music?

ER: I listen to jazz on the radio, but it just dawned on me yesterday that within a year or two they will no longer be manufacturing or selling the common radio as we know it. Jazz will only be heard on our DDLS (Digital Domestic Listening Sticks) ... or something like that.

RP: Did you ever get caught up in the hippie thing in the '60s?

ER: Never touched it. But I did equate long hair and beads with the creative life, and I could have been wrong about that. No, I never rode down the boulevard tapping on a tambourine.

RP: Do you have friends in the movie industry?.

ER: Yes, a few. I think I'm more into their world of film than they are into my world of painting.

RP: You went the opposite way of New York, motoring West. I've always pictured you hanging around the Whiskey A-Go-Go. I've always thought your work should be on a Doors album cover. You don't have a secret body of work where you followed a rock band around on tour?


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