Alison Stewart: This is All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart live from the WNYC studios in Soho. Thank you for sharing part of your day with us. Coming up later this week, I'm going to speak to three of the people behind an amazing new show on Broadway, Jaja's African Hair Braiding. I'll speak to the creator of the series Reservation Dogs, Sterlin Harjo, and will give you news you can use like where to find the best French fries in our area. We're doing that with the help of The New York Times' Pete Wells, so you know it's serious. That is in our future. Let's get this hour started with a new exhibit devoted to the groundbreaking artist Ed Ruscha.
Radio, Spread, Adios, Evil, Oof. That is not some kind of strange found word poem that I know of, it's a list of words featured in paintings by American icon Ed Ruscha. You can see those works and many, many more in a new show that takes up the entire sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Ruscha is a pioneer of the Pop Art Movement in the '60s and '70s, and his words jump off the canvas. Sometimes literally. There are layers of paint that make the words appear 3D, sometimes because they are just so big and bright and colorful, and sometimes because they're painted with materials like tobacco, gunpowder, even blood.
Ruscha also has an eye for spotlighting some of the quotidian aspects of American life, an abandoned mattress left on the side of the road, a standard oil gas station, an empty factory. Ed Ruscha himself has said, "I'm interested in glorifying something that we in the world would say doesn't deserve being glorified. Something that's forgotten, focused on as though it were some sort of sacred object." Also key to Ruscha's work, a sense of humor. In fact, hanging in the retrospective is a painting that says, "I don't want no retrospective," but here it is anyway.
ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN features more than 200 pieces of the artist's work, including paintings, drawings, photographs, and a whole room painted in chocolate. We'll discuss that in a moment. It's running at MoMA through January 13th. Joining me now to discuss it is Christophe Cherix, The Robert Lehmann Foundation Chief Curator of drawings and prints at the Museum of Modern Art. Christophe, thanks for coming to the studio.
Christophe Cherix: Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
Alison Stewart: Ed Ruscha will be 86 in December, and he once spoke about his practice like this, "Basically, everything I've done in art I was in possession of when I was 20 years old. I use a waist retrieval method of working." Where do we see that play out in a retrospective like this?
Christophe Cherix: It's a good question, and I think it's something that really help us to shape that exhibition. Retrospective over 65 years seems to be a very long time. What's fascinating, what we found working on that exhibition, is how Ed Ruscha was really using time as almost one of his materials, always creating those echoes, those rhythm between different decades. Sometimes using a technique and just almost planting a seed, and it's only, like you mentioned, some of those pastels in '64, and it's only 10 years later that they come and bloom within his practice. Time is really a part of his work, and I do believe that his experiences in the 1960s, really right out of art school, really shaped his career.
Alison Stewart: When we look at this work together as a whole, what do we learn is important to Ed Ruscha?
Christophe Cherix: I think he looks at the world in a very singular way. I think what's fascinating with artists in general is they don't always look at what's around you the same way. We're confronted with the same thing, the same fact, the same events, and you have someone just looking, let's say, outside views at streets, at cars, at empty shop windows, at words not for the meaning but how they sound and how they look. I think that's one of the things we learn is you have individual around us looking at the world very, very differently than we do. I think that allows us to think about the world in different ways.
Alison Stewart: What are some of the themes that emerge from Ruscha's work?
Christophe Cherix: One of the very early themes is his fascination for words, turning them into subject matter. We ask ourselves, "How did that come about?" How does suddenly someone just instead of, as you say, instead of painting flowers, going to paint words? What amazed us is we realized that just out of Art cool when he started traveling in Europe, with his mom and his brother throughout 16 countries in a little car, and suddenly that young man was confronted with languages that he wouldn't understand, but he found it beautiful.
In fact, what he found beautiful is the power of things which have no meaning for him, and really words come out into his world at that moment. Using words that he just almost collect in his trip like Metropolitano, like [unintelligible 00:05:07] Subway Station or Espania, and they become a subject, but not for what they mean, but how they look and what they carry almost as objects.
Alison Stewart: There's a series of eight works mostly from the '70s. They're lined up in two rows, pastel on paper, all word pieces, except for the last one, which is orange roller, which is this big orange orb. What is powerful about these as a collection, and then what's powerful about them individually?
Christophe Cherix: I think that's something we ask ourselves, "How do you want to display the work?" In that room, we felt-- I think you can show those work either. You can imagine, "I don't want a introspective," it's one of them on its own, but I think mixing it up with other words like, I live in Sunvalley, or--
Alison Stewart: Artists who do books.
Christophe Cherix: Artists who do books, Artists who make "pieces". This idea of language erupting into his work for the shape and the sound they create as much at what they mean, felt was interesting moment for us to just bring them together and critic, almost a cacophony of language that you can't really grasp all those meaning, but you're almost bombarded by them. That was this moment for us in the show.
Alison Stewart: Then as the final orb. I was like, I thought, "Is that a period? Is that a big giant period at the end of all of these words, or is it just to break up all of the language?"
Christophe Cherix: It's a work that-- I think we wanted-- Ruscha often likes to break up the meaning we can construct. He adds flames or fire to a building, or he's going to tweak something, write a word like in maple syrup, let's say, so to create what he called [unintelligible 00:06:56] to the work. Suddenly, the work is not about that word on that building, is something's going to disrupt your relationship to it, but for those two words.
It's really about-- What we did together with Ana Torok and Kiko Aebi, my two great colleague with whom I organized that exhibition, we really asked ourselves to see every working person before we bring it to the Museum of Modern Art, and we looked at the work above. When we saw it in the collector's home, it was together with that orb, and that was just so beautiful. Not something that I completely understand, but something that I felt was fascinating to have that sphere levitating with those words, also in a way outside of gravity, just floating in space. To bring them together, we felt was a nice way to break up the series as you say.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Chrostophe Cherix. He's the Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of drawings and prints. We're talking about ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, currently at MoMA. We've been talking about the words, which I think a lot of people immediately recognize. You see it and you go, "That's Ed Ruscha," but the first image we see, which is also the image on the cover of the catalog is from 2003, Charles Atlas landscape pencil and ink on Canvas, about six-and-a-half feet by six-and-a-half feet, and there's these two intersecting pipes with a blue at the top, feeding into yellow gold back with a little bit of black on the bottom. Why is this the painting at the beginning of the exhibit?
Christophe Cherix: We wanted to start with a surprise. A lot of people think they know Ed Ruscha's work well. We wanted to also think about an image that would be closer to now than then, and we wanted to bring something that felt very intimate to the audience. That painting, Charles Atlas landscape, if you want to see it, you have to go to his studio in Culver City. He painted it and kept it all those years. He showed it a few times, but it's the first time he's shown in New York City. We felt that would be a nice image to carry through the show.
To take the words out a second, and to just tell people just, "Be careful. Be attentive to details." Those polls, they're almost like [unintelligible 00:09:11]. They seem to bend the painting. In fact, the canvas is a shaped canvas. It seems to stretch out even if those poles have nothing to do with the Canvas being stretched, and we wanted also people to pay attention to the backdrops. Backdrop, sometimes is just a backdrop. For Ed Ruscha, it's as powerful and important than the subject matter than the words or the object that are painted in front of that backdrop. Those two things felt important too, for people to just be attentive as they were going into the exhibition.
Alison Stewart: You mentioned that was in his studio in Culver City, and you mentioned a collector before. How many different institutions or entities were involved in putting together this show?
Christophe Cherix: It took really a large number of people. We really wanted the show to represent the best possible guys who worked throughout those six decades. At the end, we're able to do that through the help and the loan of 65 lenders, 25 of them being institution, in and around the world.
Alison Stewart: We talked of the first thing in the exhibit. On the way out of the exhibit, you see one of the more recent in the collection, 2017, when was it made, I should say. It's of an American flag that seems to be sort of deteriorating and disintegrating in the air. Is this a political painting? Was he political during his career?
Christophe Cherix: I think he wasn't, but this is a political painting. That might be the exception. As Ruscha said, this one felt a little bit different, and that painting was commissioned to him by a friend who wanted a flag painting. Ruscha said, ''I'm going to paint a flag painting, but it's not going to be the one you are really expecting or maybe even want to.'' It was just after Trump election, and it's just show a little bit mood of the country and his own mood. What I love about this painting is to be political at that very precise moment, but also to go beyond that. Looking at this painting, it's a flag in Tariff. It's almost 200 years encapsulated in one second, in one still.
What you see that painting, that flag being shredded in front of your eyes, bringing motion into something that usually is completely still. That painting, I think resonated in very different levels. Of course, attest to what happened in this country in 2017, but it also something that brings hope, because when you look at this work very closely, and we are so happy that we can use painting on frame and unglazed, you'll see every detail being painted with the greatest tenderness. Very beautiful little piece of fabric becoming their own thing in a way. It's the idea of after destruction, after something like that happening, hope can prevail. We felt was a nice ending to the show.
Alison Stewart: Even right before it, some of the work right before sets that up a little bit. There's a work that if you look at it quickly, it looks like black dashes on sanvas, and then you realize, Oh, it looks like redacted material. It involves one of Ruscha's favorite athletes, Jackie Robinson. What's the story behind this piece?
Christophe Cherix: In the mid '80s, he started instead of writing words in his canvas to use those blank rectangle, either white or black. Almost as a redacted sentence, he wouldn't hide the words because they would be present on the label in the title of the work. That painting is a little bit special for him for a number of reasons. One of them, Ed Ruscha is a great baseball fan, and a lot of the theme that he brings, as we mentioned, come from his early childhood, his really early moment as an artist. He grew up in Oklahoma City, and he was lucky enough to attend an exhibition game with Jackie Robinson and to get an autograph from Jackie Robinson. That really shaped this admiration for that athlete.
When he came to that painting, he wanted to make works that really was about redacted language that we would hide because maybe it's violent. He's going to use quote from the mafia quote in our everyday language. This one is from a note that Jackie Robinson received as one of the first black baseball player working in Major League. He got death threat just because of the color of his skin. If you read the title that I can quote by memory, you'll see is one of those death threat that he received. That painting for Ruscha goes almost beyond any of those sensor straw paintings as it's made of a recycled canvas that he painted over 10 years before. It's really something that intertwined time, his own childhood and the current moment.
Alison Stewart: My guest is Curator Christophe Cherix. We are talking about ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN running at MoMA through January 13th. After the break, we'll talk about Ruscha's sense of humor, use of color, and use of chocolate. That's coming up.
Alison Stewart: You are listening to All Of It on WNYC, I'm Alison Stewart. My guest is Christophe Cherix, the Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of drawings and prints. We are talking about the new exhibition, ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN running at MoMA through January 13th. On page 88 of the catalog, there's this great quote from Ruscha, ''I have always been dead serious about being non-sensical.'' What is the role of humor in his work?
Christophe Cherix: I think it's one of the thread throughout the exhibition. It's true, the show does tackle very serious subject, but there's always a smile. Humor come within every moment of the work. I think that's what makes the work so accessible today, because you can just be confronted to the work. When you look at a painting like Oof, it has to be funny. Oof is like a punch in the stomach. That's what this painting does. It's just visually so powerful, it stop you in your track. The capacity to just tackle the subject, but also to create a smile. Just to connect with the audience beyond art history, beyond the very moment, is something that's very singular to his work.
Alison Stewart: Later in his career, he moved towards unconventional materials. There's chocolate, tobacco, we'll talk about Chocolate Room in a minute, tobacco gun-powder. What layer, what texture do these unconventional materials bring to the work?
Christophe Cherix: We wanted to draw out that's more experimental side of Ed Ruscha that maybe we have lost sight a little bit. That really allowed him to keep making work in very different ways over six decades. At some point in the late '60s, he said that he got bored with painting. Paintings always all on canvas, always the same process. One thought he had was, ''Let's change the ingredients, let's change the material.'' Instead of using oil or acrylic or anything else, I'm going to use things that are around me. He start with gunpowder instead of graphite powder for those beautiful drawings of the late '60s, and quickly move to bolognese sauce, to syrup, to all kind of thing that are really not meant to make art.
Things are going to be hard to control, are going to create a surprise. Allow him, in fact, to go further within his practice, and quickly is invited as he's thinking those ideas through to the Venice Spaniel, and to show his work in Jamaican pavilion. He is going to have the opportunity to work with a workshop, a printmaking workshop, and it's going to build a room entirely made of chocolate that we have reconstituted in the show.
Alison Stewart: Yes. This entire room of chocolate. You can smell it when you walk in.
Christophe Cherix: From the third floor of the museum.
Alison Stewart: Yes. Oh, for really? Oh. The New York Times described it as an oddity in Ruscha's influential over-- Gosh, first of all, I don't know where to start. Let me start with practical. How is this room constructed within the museum?
Christophe Cherix: Chocolate is a great color. However, it doesn't really adhere, stick to the paper, so you can't transport it. Every time you want to do it, you have to do it again. We hired a wonderful team from Sun Valley in Los Angeles, LA Paloma company. They came and for two weeks bringing their own tools, screen printing within the space, and of course, chocolate that they melted in order to print the value sheet. It's really done-- It's site specific. We loved it because it turned the exhibition in a workshop almost entering the artist studio.
Alison Stewart: It's very funny too. I sat and watched the guards for a little bit. They're very ready for people. I'm curious about what conversation did you have about that room and about how people might behave and misbehave?
Christophe Cherix: The conversation started with the artists. Our goal is to protect it and to keep it as much as what it is for the duration of the show, knowing that we're going to have to dismantle and destroy it at the end of the show. Ruscha has a different take. If he's using organic material, it's because it's going to change. It might not last, it might bloom. People in Venice might write graffiti on it, and we do not want that to happen. It's going to accept what's going to come with that unusual process, not to over fetishize it. We are trying to keep the piece very accessible, not to hide it behind protection, but also tell people that we want to keep that experience to remain throughout the exhibition. I have to say, so far people have been very, very respectful.
Alison Stewart: His painting, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, looks like the title. What was the reception of this piece when it was first unveiled?
Christophe Cherix: It came at a very precise time in Los Angeles, that museum that new building had been erected just at the moment when the painting really started. It took three years for Ruscha to complete that painting. The building was not overall always appreciated. I think it became a very provocative statement. Thinking about the painting being almost like an entire museum statement or anti that architecture, which was, I don't think, never the case. I think Ruscha never talked about that work in those terms. I think there was a fascination for that new building on a pool of water in Los Angeles. Even took a helicopter ride in order to better understand that building from the sky, and spent almost three years for it. At the end of the process, he felt it needed something. The painting couldn't be just about that architecture, couldn't be just about that building. You had those little flames on the left of the painting almost as a [unintelligible 00:20:26] to the painting.
Alison Stewart: It's so interesting going through the exhibit that many of the paintings talk to each other. There's a lot of conversation that goes back and forth. I think it's the course of Empire Room where on one wall there's a painting, and then you realize on the other wall there's the outline of some of the work from the painting on the opposite wall.
Christophe Cherix: Absolutely. We wanted to reconstitute that exhibition which also happened in Venice about 35 years later than the Chocolate Room because here you see Ruscha explicitly trying to bring different moments of his work together. For Venice in 2005, he went back in time and decided to show a painting he had painted 15 years before called the Blue Collar painting. They all capture industrial side around the century. It's almost spooky side, corporate side with those black skies. They're almost scary-looking.
You don't know exactly what those corporations are doing within those big buildings. Imagine to think about each of those sides 20, 30, 50 years later into the future. Here you see his mind shifting from something which should be much more optimistic at the beginning of this care to something I would say maybe it'll be pessimistic. Suddenly, a building is going to become like a boarded house looking like a jail. Another painting will have an apocalyptic sky. You'll see him trying to project his understanding of Los Angeles and where he lives into the future.
Alison Stewart: Is there something distinctly American about Ed Ruscha's work?
Christophe Cherix: Oh, I think so. I think there is something that just because where he lives is [unintelligible 00:22:11], but also the idea of thinking about art as something that would be constantly disruptive. He's been very much associated with a generation of early pop artists and we wanted to take him a bit out of that box, that category but that's really something part of his work because you see those images filter through his work. This American way of life of the early '60s, the presence of the flag, so something that really anchored his work in the United States. At the same time, it's someone who's always been very skeptical of sometimes critical of the role of the United States. We wanted to really draw that out also.
Alison Stewart: How involved was Ed Ruscha in the show?
Christophe Cherix: I think Ruscha wanted it to be our show. He didn't want necessarily to be too involved, but we wanted him to be involved. Five years ago when we started, we said, "We are going to do that together." We made sure that there was not one decision that he hadn't been, not really ask about, but actually informed. As we started working and this show started to shape itself, suddenly-- He knows his work best than anyone else, so he could point us to works maybe we didn't know, to arrangement that we would not have done, to a way of displaying his work that would allow it to be really the right way in relation to the way those pieces were conceived. It's been really a dialogue over those five years.
Alison Stewart: I'm guilty of this, taking a selfie with one of the pictures.
Christophe Cherix: Which one?
Alison Stewart: It says Radio. [laughs]
Christophe Cherix: Radio. Hurting the word radio.
Alison Stewart: I couldn't help it. I'm wondering, how have you and your fellow curators feeling about all the Instagramming that's going on, people taking pictures with the paintings?
Christophe Cherix: I really enjoy it. I think that's what this accessibility of the work, that at the end, there are different ways of thinking about those pictures. You can also think about this picture as just words on canvas. I think Ruscha really wanted us to be very light in terms of explanatory text. We have big catalogs coming with the show, but he wanted the show to let the work be. I think today the capacity of a new generation of visitors taking that work and just sharing with others in their own way is something we really like.
Alison Stewart: Do you have a piece or two you'd like people to spend an extra 5 or 10 seconds in front of?
Christophe Cherix: Maybe if you have a few seconds, just spend a bit of time with a painting called Noise Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western. You'll see four objects-- one sound, and three objects, almost trying to escape the canvas. You face with this beautiful blue. The only painting where he used wax. Very deep blue. That idea of work being both humorous but also very, very serious. What happens when suddenly everything fly out of a painting?
Alison Stewart: Also, make sure you look at the sides of the paintings. That's my tip.
Christophe Cherix: Exactly.
Alison Stewart: ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN is at MoMA through January 13th. My guess has been Christophe Cherix. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Christophe Cherix: It was great being here. Thank you for having me.
Alison Stewart: More art. A new exhibition at The Frick displays stunning portraits made by the late artist Barkley Al Hendricks, a longtime Connecticut college professor who died in 2017. He's the first black artist to have a solo exhibition at the Frick. Curators Antwaun Sargent and Aimee Ng join me to discuss.
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