From the MIT Press website for Alexandra Schwartz's Ed Ruscha's Los Angeles: "Despite Ruscha's fame, this is the first comprehensive critical consideration of his art, and the first to consider it in the context of L.A.'s tumultuous 1960s and 1970s."
I have to say this statement blew me away. I assumed Ruscha's work had been well picked over by now, but then I got to thinking of the number of book length studies of Pop artists outside of Warhol. Not coffee table type books of full of images or popular studies for a mass audience, but converted dissertation type stuff. I am no expert but I am not aware of many. Plus Ruscha is from the West Coast, not New York, which makes it even less surprising that his corpus still has considerable meat on it.
I had high expectations for this book and I think it is a wonderful way to approach Ruscha's work, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed. There was never a really a-ha moment where Schwartz placed Ruscha and his work in a totally new perspective. That is not to say that there was not a tremendous amount of new information for me to chew on. Ruscha is not an artist that I am overly familiar; that said I have read a good amount on LA Pop, the Semina Circle and Ferus Gallery. I remember getting those moments reading Cecile Whiting's Pop LA: Art and the City in the 1960s. Schwartz has interesting historical details but not detailed analysis. Whiting's book had both.
But Whiting's book was on LA Pop generally and Schwartz does a service by focusing on LA and Ruscha. Chapters on Ruscha and Hollywood, Ruscha's artist's books and the then current theories of urbanism, and the Ferus Stud persona left me wanting more. From the concluding paragraph of the Hollywood chapter, "The dynamic between Ruscha and Hopper exemplifies the exchange between [the avant garde art and Hollywood filmmaking] communities; while Ruscha and his artistic cohorts often drew inspiration from Hollywood movies and culture, Hopper and his New Hollywood colleagues owed a profound debt to that era's avant-garde art. Ruscha's Los Angeles did not merely coexist with the Hollywood film industry, but was intimately intertwined with it." This is not earth shattering stuff.
From the concluding paragraph of the Ferus Stud chapter: "[Ruscha's] flamboyant public self-fashioning of this period illustrates this dynamic, for it calls attention to the sophisticated economy of denial by which his work simultaneously addresses highly provocative issues and obscures them, thwarting attempts to determine what his "true" authorial stance may be. The pleasure, but also the frustration, of Ruscha's highly nuanced work is that always keeps us guessing." Schwartz does a great job filling us in on what those guesses have been historically by detailing the various responses, reviews and reactions of others to Ruscha's work but the strong thrust of Schwartz's own guesses fall to shine through.
For readers of Mimeo Mimeo and those who may delve into the architecture magazines of Clip Stamp Fold, the chapter "Learning from Ed Ruscha" with its reading of the democratic multiples through Venturi, Brown, and Baynam is very interesting. Like with Clip Stamp Fold, I would have liked to see more treatment of Ruscha's books not as dealing with postmodern architectures, like swimming pools, gas stations and parking lots, but as forms, objects, structures and architectures that in themselves express the theories of Verturi, Brown, and Byanam. Schwartz captures this idea with the discussion of Every Building on the Sunset Strip, but that is the most obvious example of book as architecture. For example, a discussion of the act of reading Ruscha's multiples as cruising or surfing and how this act relates to the infrastructure of LA would have been interesting.
I am probably being hard on a book that I really enjoyed and got alot out of. Schwartz's book may be a first, but it should be far from the last and falls a bit short of the definitive.