A committee of American museum curators has selected Ed Ruscha, a leading painter, to represent the United States in June at the Venice Biennale, putting an end to a year of questions about whether the country would participate in the prestigious art festival.
Only 10 months ago, two longtime supporters of the U.S. presence at the Biennale, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockefeller Foundation, withdrew their support as part of an effort to reorganize their funding priorities. In response, the National Endowment for the Arts, which traditionally organized a selection committee, waited on the sidelines for the process to be sorted out.
A federal law, the Fulbright-Hays Act, mandates that the State Department oversee American participation in certain international artistic and cultural festivals. So State stepped in, offered some funding to get things moving and asked representatives from four major American museums to choose the American entry.
Ned Rifkin, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution, was a member of the committee. Ruscha, he said yesterday, "is one of those people who survived the pop art movement, and his work was never like the rest." Ruscha's art often revolves around words and phrases "and the way topography influences the language," Rifkin said.
Another factor in the selection of Ruscha, who was born in 1937, was his influence on young artists. "He has graduated into a very senior position" in the art world, Rifkin said. In some cases, inclusion in the Biennale has been a breakthrough for a younger artist. But Rifkin said older artists, such as Jasper Johns in 1988, had also participated. "Often it's a younger or mid-career artist," he said, "but there is no rule to that."
William Christenberry, one of the deans of Washington artists, said he was pleased with Ruscha's selection: "I have great respect for him as an artist. He has always been his own person, with a wonderful idiosyncratic nature. He has a reputation with the vestiges of pop art, photography and painting."
Alan Simensky, an up-and-coming visual artist, agreed that Ruscha was a good choice: "He is one of the first to use language as imagery. He is the father of it and the one who did it best." Though selecting a master artist instead of a younger one means a "missed opportunity" for the next generation, Simensky said, "If they are going to pick someone at his level, Ruscha is a good choice."
Besides Rifkin, the other members of the selection committee were representatives from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Ruscha, a native of Omaha who was raised in Oklahoma, developed his approaches as a printer's assistant and by studying the groundbreaking work of Jasper Johns. With Ruscha's use of commercial symbols in his own work, such as Standard Oil gas stations, in the 1960s he became a mainstay of the pop art school on the West Coast. His work stood with that of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and joined theirs in the collections of international contemporary museums. The Hirshhorn has 21 Ruschas in its permanent collection.
In 1970 Ruscha represented the United States at the Biennale, constructing "Chocolate Room," a visual and sensory experience where the visitor saw 360 pieces of paper permeated with chocolate and hung like shingles. The pavilion in Venice smelled like a chocolate factory.
The State Department is contributing $170,000 to the costs, which Rifkin estimated could range from $400,000 to $800,000. An official at the State Department said this year's hasty process would be a one-time occurrence. The government, said the official, intends "to come up with a solution that will sustain this from now on. It is a top priority."