REVIEW: Looking through the windshield of experience in "Ed Ruscha and the Great American West" at De Young Museum
By Joe Ferguson
Most often SciArt is described as art inspired by science, but sometimes I look to science to explain an inspiration from art.
When I was 10 years old, my parents dragged my sister and me from west to east, along Route 66, to visit relatives in Oklahoma. I was supposed to think of it as the Great American Road Trip. What I mostly remember were seemingly endless days of desert heat, trying to nap in the backseat of a car without air conditioning. There were breaks in the tedious inaction, however—I have a memory of gazing over a handrail into the Grand Canyon and I remember the musty, damp air of Carlsbad Caverns.
Gas was cheap, but hotels and food were expensive, so to save money my parents took turns driving day and night. While vivid memories are few, I do remember a midnight stop in the New Mexico desert. My parents pulled over and woke my sister and me. They pulled us out of the car and pointed skyward. I looked up and got my first view of the Milky Way—a brilliant band of stars that stretched from horizon to horizon, so thick at points it appeared as one object. We got back in the car, and I spent the next half hour with my neck craned over the backseat, my view cut into a broad, horizontal swath by the rear window.
I had forgotten that experience until I visited a new exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco--Ed Ruscha and the Great American West. As I entered the main gallery, I saw on the wall in front of me a wide portrait filled with yellow and orange and red, its edges on either side bordered by low-lying, ochre hills. It was Ruscha’s America’s Future. It looked like a view of paradise.
Ed Ruscha left his home in Oklahoma in 1956, and drove a 1950 Ford sedan to Los Angeles—mostly along Route 66—where he hoped to attend art school. He was enamored with the everyday landscapes he encountered—gas stations, billboards, building facades, parking lots, and long stretches of roadway—which became the primary motifs of his often deadpan and instantly recognizable paintings and works on paper, as well as his influential artist books. Many of his paintings resemble the view from an automobile windshield.
Ruscha moved to Los Angeles later that year and attended the Chouinard Art Institute—now known as the California Institute of the Arts. Like Warhol and Lichtenstein, his artistic training was rooted in commercial art. His interest in text and typography ultimately found its way into his Word Paintings.
I’ve never been fond of Ruscha’s Word Paintings, but this broad landscape affected me differently. It seems odd that I would think of it as a view of paradise, as this perspective strongly contrasts evolutionary aesthetic ideas, particularly those proposed by Denis Dutton. He asserted there is a universal idea of paradise—a path bisecting gentle hills, leading to water, surrounded by trees with easy-to-reach branches—presented in art that is derived from our evolutionary heritage. He made a convincing argument—summed up nicely in this TED video.
There are other paintings in the De Young that better fit Dutton’s description—such as California Spring by Albert Bierstadt—but as often as I visit, I rarely spend much time reflecting on them. So why was this time so different?
Maybe my response was what psychologists refer to as imprinting—a nostalgic memory nudged from my childhood. Perhaps, neurologically, it was one of those transcendent moments of emotional and intellectual curiosity that leaves us with the feeling of being mind-blown. Or just maybe, I was inspired by a more recent, pleasant memory of an early-morning motorcycle ride through Death Valley with my wife.
Whatever the reason, science remains a guiding light in my attempts to understand my responses to art. What happened was not a moment of what artist Robert Morris might have referred to as detached contemplation, but rather an intense effort of intellectual reflection informed by my experiences—what philosopher Derek Melser might call The Act of Thinking. Trained in the sciences, I often start my artistic moments from there—this time it was an emotional beginning. In the end, it came full circle.
Ed Ruscha and the Great American West is on display at the De Young Museum through October 9th.