Conversation: Ed Ruscha

BY Jeffrey Brown  January 28, 2011 at 3:56 PM EDT

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Now on show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Ed Ruscha: Road Tested is a collection of photographs, paintings and prints inspired by the artist’s love of driving across America.

I talked to Ruscha today about his artistic fascination with the open road, which began in the 1950s while he was traveling with his family.

[Read a transcript after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: This attraction of yours to the road, to what’s along the roadside — it began in your youth, I guess? Tell me, where did it come from?

ED RUSCHA: I traveled around a bit with my family on driving trips of the western U.S., and maybe that — these long drives, mostly on US 66 and other roads, too — maybe inspired me to see the country. And some of them were long, even boring journeys that opened me to– I don’t know, new vistas or something that I didn’t have while I was growing up in Oklahoma City.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did it become a theme of your art? Was it an overt thing that you decided to pursue as a kind of content for you as an artist or just developed naturally? How did that happen?

ED RUSCHA: Well I never sat down, planned anything out. There was no strategy, no agenda or anything. They seemed to be individual attractions I had for things like gasoline stations and, oh, like telephone poles and almost things that are overlooked or forgotten. And these things impress me in their own simple ways, I guess. The architecture of America, and especially the west, had an effect, and I began to focus, sort of piece by piece, of these individual things in my art, and somehow they began to add up.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did they add up to?

ED RUSCHA: Well, they added up to really nothing more than what this whole venture is, which is an unfinished journey. You know, it’s like I’m trying to follow perspective and maybe I’m searching for the vanishing point — that I hope I never reach!

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m looking at the catalog now, so I have it open to one of the very iconic paintings of yours, the Standard Oil Station in Amarillo Texas, 1963. So just to use that as an example: describe it for me.

ED RUSCHA: It’s like a box with words on it. And that, to me, is what most of this architecture that attracted me. On the highway and in these little towns, I would see boxes with words on them, and it began to creep into my aesthetic. And also there are, like, other elements to it that I was always impressed with. Those old movies that had passenger trains, where they would start in on one little tiny point in the very right hand corner of the screen and they would zoom into place to the upper left hand corner, and the passenger train seemed to– it was a like a bridge picture that would show the characters in the movie, you know, traveling. And that zoom factor, to me, had a place in making a picture. And I guess I was putting two and two together, that maybe it’s that element of a passenger train zooming into focus. And I began to see these gas stations as maybe doing the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: This exhibition also has some series of photographs that I myself was less familiar with from your work. The twenty six gas stations, the series Every Building on Sunset Boulevard, that have, you know, a kind of, like, documentarian quality to it of just showing us what’s there.

ED RUSCHA: Yeah, I think that’s accurate because my attention was to be documentary about it and sort of bring the news back to civilization, where sometimes you’re living in it and other times these gas stations and things are out on the highway nobody has seen them before, or very few people have, and so I’m just sort of like collecting all these curious things and bringing them back and making something out of them. And I guess I– eventually that adds up to being an artist, sort of like reaching out and grabbing things that exist there and making a story out of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about bringing the news, as you say, to the art world? I mean these are not–well, artists use a lot of things and make pictures of a lot of things, but not usually gas stations. You were just talking about, sort of, brinhing the news of what’s out there to the rest of us. What about fitting this into the world of art that was around you at the time?

ED RUSCHA: I think I’m influenced by just about everything that I’ve everything seen, even things I hate. And they go into the mixmaster. It’s like, a little bit like the sound of bolts in a blender, if you can imagine what that sounds like. I’m a combination of the bolts in the blender. Everything I see in my life that’s good and bad, and evil and wonderful, they go into this blender and out comes something. And when it comes out, it’s in the form of something that’s official in my mind, and then that’s my voice. I don’t have any kind of instructional attitude about it, where I’m trying to communicate with people necessarily all these things I pick and explore, all things that I do intuitively, and things that I have a sense of blind faith with. I think that’s where it finally rests.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you look at an exhibition like this one in Fort Worth now, which as I see goes through work over several decades — it spans a great deal of time — does it look to you, I don’t know, coherent, or organic? You know, does it look like, ‘oh yes, I see how I got from one place to the next,’ or are you surprised yourself when you go back and look?

ED RUSCHA: Well, I am surprised and sometimes insignificant aspects of it, like there is a map that I kept in 1954 of a hitchhiking trip I took from Oklahoma to Miami — that was a learning experience for me and I realize that. And I hitchhiked all over the country, from New York to LA and back several times, and the act of hitchhiking gave me some sharper vision of what I was seeing than if I had been on a train or bus or an airplane. I mean, there’s a lot of the things in the exhibit that, yeah, sure, I mean, I begin to see my own train of thought here that was never planned to begin with. You know, when you set out where there’s a blind sky in front of you, you don’t really what you are doing except working on these tiny little ideas, and finally it begins to add up to something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and the last thing I wanted to ask you is, it looks like this fascination with the car, with America and the car, certainly continues, because the last things in this catalog from 2010–they’re ink jet prints of, I guess, it looks like a stick shift of a Ford or Chevy car?

ED RUSCHA: Yeah, to me that’s a metaphor for something very basic in the human spirit, and that is, in my case, there were two gear shift knobs. One was from a Ford, one was from a Chevy, and the Ford was more or less globe shaped, the Chevy was not. It was a different shape and I just identified strongly with that Ford over the Chevy, so in my mind that made me a Ford person. And it possibly is a key to other things I see in the world, and it’s important — it’s kind of like insignificant, but it’s important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, the exhibition is called Road Tested, its opening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Ed Ruscha, thanks for talking with us.

ED RUSCHA: Alright, Jeffrey.