Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at MoMA.
Jonathan Dorado Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at MoMA.

Our warehouses and factories are our contemporary monuments, our highways our new boulevards, our parking lots our new public spaces. That they do not pretend to be anything but functional, do nothing to proclaim their grandeur or importance, and do even less to accommodate human beings makes it even more important to understand them. What is their particular logic, what do they stand for, and how should we act in relationship to these larger-than-life objects and spaces? For clues, we can turn to those people who spend all their time looking hard at, interpreting, and representing such structures. We call them artists. Few have done a better job at helping us see and understand the grandeur of drosscape, as some have called our sprawling urban and exurban reality, than Ed Ruscha. An exhibition currently on display through Jan. 13 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York displays most of his best work, and it is indeed a grand, if also somewhat frightening experience.

Called Ed Ruscha/Now Then, the exhibition starts you out with pure a moment of pure beauty: A slightly convex canvas panel, smoothly painted to evoke both the metallic hood of a car and a glazed window, hangs opposite the introductory wall text and outside the main exhibition. It shows what appears to be a polluted sky at sunset, graduating from a dark space at the bottom of the piece, through various shades of orange and yellow shading off toward gray, before ending with the promise of the heavens in a deep blue at the top. Instead of mullions or edges, Ruscha poses a cross of scaffolding elements over this lyrical abstraction: metal tubes screwed together to mark the center of the canvas. You are seeing what might be the artist’s home base, Southern California, through a grid of construction, looking from the inside out. Combining the slickness of our metallic world of automation, a romantic version of landscape painting swiveling to view a scene tinged by the gasses we spew out from those devices, and the sense that we are also framed by change and thus construction, Charles Atlas Landscape (2003) manages to make that environment seem both gorgeous and terrifying.

Ed Ruscha.
Sten Rosenlund Ed Ruscha.

Ruscha moved from his native Oklahoma to Los Angeles as a young man (taking Route 66, his main inspiration outside of LA, which he said was his equivalent of the Seine) and worked as a sign painter, learning how to create images at a large scale that would have immediate impact. Starting in the early 1960s, he turned himself into the six-decade long painter of sprawl. Some of his early work looked at the pieces that make up what critic Reyner Banham called “the Plains of Id:” the endless stretches of human-built blocks spreading out between the mountains and the sea. Ruscha documented the so-called “dingbats” or three-story apartment buildings in drawings and paintings (Normandie, 1965, or Barrington Avenue, 1965), but also photographed Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967), Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, (1966) as the titles of the books he published of his efforts would have it.

Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68.
© 2023 Ed Ruscha. Photo Paul Ruscha Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68.

The artist then turned to the larger structures that anchor this messy vitality: the signs on the road, the warehouses, and a version of the gas stations that transformed these humble objects into three-dimensional images that, in Ruscha’s extreme perspective (Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963), start out as small buildings in one corner of the building before screaming into giant diagonal slashes of canopies and signs. He also painted such traditional monuments as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (now sadly lost to the wrecking ball), but showed it on fire, delighting both in the beauty of the flames and the fact that the then-new, stripped-down Neoclassical buildings were essentially as ephemeral and subject to disasters as the rest of California (Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-1968).

What astonished most people, though, was his forthright use of words on his canvases. Often made to look as if they had been stenciled or taped, but at other times (in his “liquid period,” as MoMA calls it) bubbling and oozing, the letters making up these semiotic elements do not have a one-to-one relationship either to their meaning or the scenes in which they appear. Early examples include the word Oof (1963) painted in yellow on an even blue background, or Various Small Fires (1964) in black on a white canvas. Over time, the words became more evocative, though often in a still vague manner: A Particular Kind Of Heaven (1983) in white on a sky akin to the one of Charles Atlas Landscape or my favorite, WEN OUT FOR CIGRETS N NEVER AME BACK (1985), in red on a grayed-out aerial view of city blocks at night, the streetlights appearing as fuzzy dots carving out space in a world of invisible structures.

Ed Ruscha. OOF. 1962 (reworked 1963).
© Edward Ruscha, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging Services, photo Denis Doorly Ed Ruscha. OOF. 1962 (reworked 1963).

These word paintings’ mixed messages, built up out of their common meanings, the atmosphere or incidents they evoke, and backgrounds that often recall or denote something completely separate from what the letters build up, are to me recordings of snippets of a landscape saturated with media. The signs and messages that bombard you all the time are unstable and fragmented, but also so full of associations (the gas station painting culminates in the establishment’s name, “Standard,” which, on the face of it means rote, or normal, but which stands for both a company and its carefully advertised image and, through that, for automotive mobility). You can stare at and wonder about the canvases as long as you can at either a realistic representation or a dense piece of minimalist art, and keep finding more overtones and meanings.

Ruscha’s work in many ways culminated in a crescendo (and I have to say I kept wishing for a soundtrack of anthemic jazz, rock, or hip-hop to be blasting through the white-walled galleries) in the series of paintings he put together for an exhibition in 2006 (though some dated back to 1992) and called “Course of the Empire.” Referring to artist Thomas Cole’s 19th-century series of the same name, which depicted the rise and fall of a mythical imperial city as a cautionary warning to a then-fast growing United States, Ruscha’s versions turned toward depicting the tilt-up concrete warehouses then taking over vast swathes of California landscape. He showed them as he might have found them then, painted with his usual realistic care that focused on their simple, but large geometric and plain shapes and textures, but then also after they might have been abandoned, seen from behind chain-link fences and covered with graffiti. Even this empire of just-in-time delivery and the continual movement of goods and peoples was destined for fall, abandonment, but perhaps also reuse, in some of the pieces, as a community college or a technical school.

Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at MoMA.
Jonathan Dorado Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at MoMA.

In the last canvases on display in New York, the now 85-year-old Ruscha has turned to what appear to be the new communities, such as they are, appearing in his surroundings: homeless encampments. He has also edited his view back down to show isolated elements such as just the Guardrail (2021) along the side of the road, painted in great detail against a white background, with only smudge of gray and a square of yellow behind one end of it to open up the image to larger stories that viewing the painting might lead you to imagine. The artist is becoming both more literal and more focused, as if he is producing a coda to his grand canvas of the turn of the millennium.

Ruscha does not document our modern world—or one specific corner of it, as his work rarely ventures out beyond Southern California—but rather makes it present in fragments, enigmas, abstractions, and compositions whose power derives from the combination of sweep, craftsmanship, and a mix of realism and abstraction. If we can see our sprawl through Ruscha’s art, maybe we can figure out what to do with it: how to make architecture out of what is there, rather than what we wish to be there.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes looks at the transformation of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Powerhouse Arts, and the Mercer Museum.