Edward Ruscha’s (Omaha, United States, 1937) work is an obligatory reference when addressing the art scene of the Sixties on the United States West Coast. Influenced by the aesthetics and intentions of Pop Art, Ruscha follows the path woven by artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. It was specifically the intention that was exhibited in their works -that they knew what they were going to paint before painting it- that made Ruscha interested in the work of these other artists.
This exhibition at the Palacio de Velázquez focuses on the city Los Angeles as a recurring subject and, almost obsessively, in the universe of the American artist. Although he extensively reviews his career through different periods, styles, materials and themes present in his work, it is not a retrospective exhibition but a thematic one. The pieces, among which are paintings, photographs, drawings, books and graphic art, are divided into six sections focusing on different aspects of L.A. that Ruscha has transformed into icons throughout his career.
The first of these sections is devoted to gas stations; the raison d’être which leads to the first of many books of photographs, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1963). Artists such as Walker Evans and Edward Hopper had previously incorporated gas stations in their work. For Ruscha, they were a symbol of the vast highway territory of the United States, specifically the route between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City frequented by the artist. From that book emerges the series of drawings and paintings from the Standard Oil Company gas station, some of which can be seen in this exhibition.
This is followed by another section dedicated to apartments and Los Angeles’ architecture. The peculiar structural features of the buildings give way to another book and more drawings based on photographs that are accompanied by the addresses in which they are located. This theme started in the late sixties and would remain for decades in Ruscha’s imagination.
"Hollywood and Sunset" is the name of the third section. The logo of the film studio and the nine letters of its name placed on the top of Mount Lee result in accented diagonal pictorial compositions, prints and paintings with phrases where Hollywood gives rise to a new semiotic. Sunset Boulevard is equally honoured in Ruscha’s most ambitious book, who toured the wide avenue photographing both sides of the street and taking references from each of its buildings. From this comes the book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966).
The fourth section is dedicated to the Los Angeles landscape: parks, pools, palm trees. Here a peculiar inventory through photography books is exhibited, such as in Thirty-four Parking-lots (1967), Nine Swimming Pools (1968) and Real Estate Opportunities (1970). Which are later joined by A Few Palm Trees (1971) and Colored People (1972) where fifteen cactus-coloured photographs are published in a seventy-four page book. Exhibited in this section is Stains (1969), a book where each page is occupied by a central spot produced by mixed media such as tap water, petrol or grass among seventy-five others. Also exhibited are conceptual landscapes such as The Canyons (1979) and LAX-Sunset-Malibu (1981) where Ruscha applies his trademark widescreen format imported from film.
"The words of Los Angeles" is the fifth section. In it the canvases are occupied by words or phrases written on the surface of the fabric. Ruscha wants to transform the visual and graphic into audible, as proof that the pictorial image of something remains attached to the words that represent it, as said by the artist.
The last section of the exhibition is called "The Streets of Los Angeles" because it is a collection of visual and conceptual maps initiated by Ruscha in 1968 when he painted a series of aerial paintings depicting city lights that are shown in this exhibition along with those other pieces that overlap the names of Los Angeles streets on large, snowy mountains as can be seen in Artesia Blvd (1998), La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre (1999) and Hope, Olive, Spring (1999).