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Ed Ruscha's American Highway

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page C01

He's tried celery and axle grease, caviar and blood, but mostly Ed Ruscha constructs his precise drawings with varicolored powders and many cotton swabs. This painter doesn't wing it; all his pictures are calculated. But your thoughts go into motion when you're looking at his art.

It's like a sunny drive, experiencing his pictures. You're cruising down the highway, half-hearing the radio, with unimportant glimpses of inessential landscape, while easy and unbidden flickerings of memory keep moving through your mind.

Ed Ruscha's 1968 "Pool," a drawing made from gunpowder, conjures images of California swimming pools. (Philadelphia Museum Of Art -- Copyright Ed Ruscha)

Ed Ruscha paints words. Some people find this baffling, and because of that unsettling. But he's been doing it so steadily, so pleasingly and teasingly, that by now he's taught us that, hey, bafflement is cool. The huh? response is useful. In a state of mental drifting with the subject always changing is precisely where you ought to be when taking in his art.

Lately, Ed Ruscha (pronounced Ru-SHAY) has been showing us a lot of it. The man is on a roll. His photographs were placed on view last summer at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. A retrospective exhibition of his cool and polished paintings opened in 2000 at the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall. Ruscha, 67, has been an art star in Los Angeles since the early 1960s, but now he's a big art star. This summer he alone will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. And now "Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha" is here on exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

There are more than 90 drawings in this laconic show. This is as it should be: one Ruscha is fine, but three Ruschas are better. The more Ruschas the merrier. It's once you've got a lot of them twinkling together that you see how well he's painted the land in which he lives.

Ed Ruscha's America comes to you in bits, in a stream of hints and guesses.

For instance: Go and take a look at " 1/2 Starved, 1/2 Crocked, 1/2 Insane" (lettuce stain on paper, 1981) in the gallery's West Building -- a work of his that keeps changing the subject -- and watch the varied thoughts it pulls into your mind. Just text upon a field, it's as simple as a poster. It's okay to think of salad. And disembodied voices. And the jukebox in the honky-tonk, and the sad drunk in the corner, and the way that once-green lettuce has faded like the waitress with the hairnet on her hair. (Where did she come from? Oh, I think I know. Her dress is lettuce-green.)

That's what happens with his drawings. Somehow they assemble pictures in your mind. They give you much more than they show.

The trick is in the balancing. While there is looseness in this art, it's in your mental drifting. Ruscha's careful drawing isn't loose at all. There's a photograph in the catalogue that shows him at his easel with a magnifying glass. Ruscha's careful drawing is tight as tight can be.

Ruscha's exhibition is filled with words and phrases. But these aren't bits of poetry. They're much more like found objects. Words, of course, have meanings, but the viewer is advised not to ponder these too heavily. Ruscha doesn't.

The words in Ruscha's drawings come to him unbidden, like little visitations. Lisp. So. Ace. Annie. He says these come "in flashes," or in half-heard conversations, or sometimes in his dreams. "I just happen to paint words," he says, "like someone else paints flowers." Certain words appeal to him. Picking one and not another is "like choosing a daffodil over a rose."

"Twentysix" is one he likes. "Gasoline" is another. This has no explanation. None at all. None.

Ruscha says: "I've always had a deep respect for things that cannot be explained. Explanations seem to me to sort of finish things off."

In 1962, "twentysix" and "gasoline" turned up nicely twinned in Ruscha's first art book. "Twentysix Gasoline Stations," a small volume of photographs, was exactly what it claimed to be. Ruscha had its title before he took its photographs. I remember when I saw it first. It wasn't a document precisely, or a work of art exactly, or like anything I'd seen before, but I couldn't help but grin.

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