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Ed Ruscha's American Highway

When at last the book was bound, he gave a copy to Andy Warhol. I wish I could have been there at the passing of the torch. The East Coast and the West, glitz and glitz's opposite, New York and L.A. Ruscha, lean and macho, was handsome as a movie star, while Warhol, we know, wasn't. Still, they had a lot in common. They delighted a broad public, they influenced their peers, and they functioned as antennae, or perhaps as mediums. Both somehow reflected the tenor of their times.

Warhol said to Ruscha: "How do you get all these pictures without people in them?"

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

Warhol was a portraitist. Elvis, Jackie and Marilyn. Even his soup can is a kind of portrait. Ruscha seems, in contrast, entirely a landscape guy. There are no faces in his show.

But his city is there deeply. Its palm trees and its freeways and its ever-present traffic and its car-love and the curious flatness of its light -- all these come to mind. So, too, are its voices: "Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today" (1977); or "He Walks Into a Meeting Hall Full of Workers and Yells Out, 'O.K. What Is It You Guys Want, Pontiac Catalinas?' " (1976).

The California swimming pool also is implied in Ruscha's exhibition. His "Pool" of 1968, a drawing done in gunpowder, looks like it was painted with a splash of chlorinated water. The movies are there, too.

An art historian digging for the sources of these drawings might call up Jasper Johns (of the flat flags and flat numbers), and surrealism's strangeness, and advertising's graphics. But I prefer to think instead of such 19th-century travelers as Thomas Moran or Albert Bierstadt, men who also used small brushes, and the dreamings of their viewers, and tiny telling details to activate their pictures with the spirit of the West.

Ruscha's drawing exhibition -- a smaller version of that picked by curator Margit Rowell for the Whitney in Manhattan -- is soaked in Hollywood. It's got the lonely coyote howling on the hill, and the tacky Hollywood sign up there on its hillside, and the tall ship under sail that the viewer half-recalls from the "The Sea Hawk," "Captain Blood," or was it "Mutiny on the Bounty"?

The drawings at the gallery -- the show will stay there through the end of May -- are just as fine as Ruscha's paintings. They may be even better. They always make you recognize how much he loves to draw, his minute calculations and the sureness of his hand.

I also liked the ending of the Ruscha exhibition. It closes just the way all good movies used to, but don't much anymore. The last word-drawing on view is from 2002. It says:

"The End."

It is slightly out of focus. Though new, it looks age-yellowed. White lines scar its surface like scratches on old film. A viewer once told Ruscha that this picture called to mind triple-feature afternoons, and 19-cent admissions, and spilled Coke sticky underfoot, and standing in the sunlight headachy and blinking when the last serial was done.

"What about the popcorn stuck between your teeth?" said Ed Ruscha.

Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, on the ground floor of the National Gallery of Art West Building, on the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW, through May 30. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free; no passes are required. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

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