Jill Krementz Photo Journal: Ed Ruscha/Now Then at MoMA

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“Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head.” — Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha/Now Then
September 10-January 13, 2024

Ed Ruscha is widely regarded as one of the world’s most important artists with a career spanning six decades from the early 1960s until the present day.

On view now at MoMA, until January 13, 2024, Ruscha’s major retrospective of over 200 works, produced from 1958 to the present, in various media — including painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, artist’s books, and installation — is displayed throughout the Museum’s sixth-floor galleries.

The exhibition was organized by MoMA’s Christophe Cherix, chief curator of Drawings and Prints, and co-organized by Michael Govan, Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Art where the exhibit will open in April.

The New York festivities kicked off with a Wednesday morning Press Conference followed by an invitational opening on Thursday night. The 85-year-old artist was on hand for both events. His wife, Danna, couldn’t make it as she is back in California struggling with Lyme disease. But Ed’s younger brother, Paul Ruscha, joined the festivities with countless close friends and longtime associates.

The artist at Wednesday’s Press Conference with OOF, his six-foot-square canvas painted in 1963 when he was 26.

LACMA’S Michael Govan and MoMA’s Christophe Cherix in the Chocolate Room.
Ruscha’s multisensory Chocolate Room (1970) — the artist’s only single-room installation — is being presented in New York for the first time. Created for the United States pavilion during the 35th Venice Biennale in 1970, it represents a major moment in his use of unexpected materials due to its immersive scale and ephemeral nature. To create the work, the artist screenprinted chocolate paste onto hundreds of sheets of paper, lining the walls from floor to ceiling.

Ana Torok and Kiko Aebi, assistant curators who helped with the installation and contributed essays to the 336-page catalogue accompanying the show.

Really Old, 2016

“Rancho” is the colloquial Southwestern term for both ranch — style houses and ranch salad dressing. Many single words offer clear signals — stop — but Ruscha has made a career of painting and drawing words with more ambiguous associations. These unusual words are made even more cryptic by its representation in trompe l’oeil letters that simulate liquid. The work belongs to a group of canvases Ruscha made during what he described as his “romance with liquids.”

Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963

In 1976 Ruscha received a commission for a billboard project on Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles. Intrigued by the idea that drivers in passing cars would see the billboard in their rearview mirrors, he depicted the Hollywood sign in reverse. Ruscha returned to the same motif months later to make this painting, separating the familiar landmark from its usual context. Pictured from behind and silhouetted by a fiery orange sunset, the letters are positioned on a vacant, mountainous landscape.

Installation view — in the forefront and exhibited in a vitrine:
Unfolding to nearly 25 feet, this accordion-format book comprises a photocollage that captures both sides of a mile-and-a-half stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. To achieve this continuous image, Ruscha and his team mounted a motorized camera on the bed of his pickup truck. “All I was after was that store-front plane …  It’s like a Western town in a way,” he later reflected.
“A store-front plane of a Western town is just paper, and everything behind it is just nothing.” After producing this book, Ruscha was inspired to document other streets in LA, a practice he continued for more than 50 years.

Wen Out For Cigrets N Never Came Back, 2017; Cast bronze with hand applied patina.

Although straightforward in appearance, these uniformly sized pastel drawings required much planning on the artist’s part. After affixing low-tack tape over penciled words, Ruscha used an X-Acto knife to cut out each letter form, producing a “reverse stencil” over which he worked his ground medium into the backdrop using rags, cotton puffs, and sponges, before finally peeling off the adhesive. Organized in even rows, the resulting phrases speak to the artist’s idiosyncratic and often humorous use of language.

Amanda Quinn and Susan Morris chatting in front of Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68.

Installation view. The painting in the center is titled Mother’s Boys.
The painting’s composition was based on a color photograph from which the artist had cut a rectangular notch. For Ruscha, the empty space “represented an aspect of canceling out people’s voice,” prefiguring the blank rectangles that occur in other works throughout this gallery.
His choice to represent the flag of the United States, on the other hand, came from “respect for the design.” “If I looked at the world’s flags, I would say the American flag is a dynamic winner in terms of design, not what it represents,” he explained.

Left: Irving Blum was among the first to greet Ed Ruscha on Thursday night in the museum’s lobby where the artist stood welcoming his friends and fans. Mr. Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles displayed the artist’s work in the late ’60s.
Right: Paul Ruscha, Zandra Rhodes, and Joan Quinn.

Donna Marshall and Ed went to high school together. They are very close friends.

Director of the New Museum Lisa Phillips, with Paul and Ed Ruscha.

Finally it was time for the evening’s honoree to leave the lobby and visit the throngs on the sixth floor.
On the ride up Ed chatted with 12-year-old Paul Cherix, son of MoMA curator Christophe Cherix.

The sixth floor is reached by a final escalator ride. Sharing a moving stair, Ed is with Mary Dean — the long time Director of the Ed Ruscha Studio.

Lauren Hutton owns numerous paintings by the artist.

Left: Christophe Cherix and Michael Govan enjoy a victory lap.
Right: Richie Jackson and Jordan Roth, who have been married since 2012.

Left: Jeff Koons.
Right: Robert Storr, artist, critic and former Senior Curator of Painting & Sculpture at MoMA.
“Ed Ruscha, by virtue of his consistently sly visual and verbal wit and his unshakeable cool, is our most Duchampian artist!”

William Griffith, Candy Coleman, and Mary Dean.

Left: Scott Rothkopf will soon take over as the Whitney’s director when Adam Weinberg leaves his position this fall.
Right: Elaine Grove and Ed Ruscha.

Jason Mason whose boss in real life is the artist of the painting.

Actual Size, 1962; features an image of a Spam can — not the real thing, notably — soaring through white space like a shooting star. Painted above it, in yellow bubble letters set against a black background, is its brand name: “SPAM.” The painting has the format of an advertisement, but it doesn’t exactly succeed in peddling precooked canned pork.

Maria Larsson and her husband Fred Eversley with Michael Govan. Mr. Eversley’s 12-foot tall magenta tinted sculpture, Parabolic Light, can now be seen at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Ed Ruscha, at the end of a long night, stands in front of my favorite painting: Angry Because It’s Plaster, Not Milk, 1965
I initially saw and photographed this painting in 1967, when I visited Los Angeles. The canvas had not yet been framed.

Dennis Hopper, artist-actor-photographer, with Irving Blum, director of the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. They are transporting the stretched canvas from Ed’s studio to Irving’s Gallery.
The oil painting, Angry Because It’s Not Plaster, Not Milk, by Ed Ruscha is now owned by The Broad Collection.

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