Photography: A Particular Kind of Heaven. Courtesy: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
A Particular Kind of Heaven. Photography: Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Fresh out of high school, Ed Ruscha headed west and made art history in the process.

There are road trips, and then there are Road Trips. Ed Ruscha embarked on one of the monumental variety in 1956 when he left Oklahoma at age 18 for Los Angeles. Fresh out of Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, he hoped to attend art school in California and headed west toward his future in a 1950 Ford sedan.

More or less following the storied Route 66, Ruscha’s cross-country quest took him through the Southwest. Driving west, he drank in sights that would figure into his art for decades. Inspired by auto repair shops, gas stations, mile markers, billboards, telephone poles, oil rigs, and the highway itself, Ruscha saw in what might otherwise seem like kitschy Americana the roadside soul of the West.

By 1962, he had left art school and was supporting himself with graphic design and odd jobs when he became one of eight artists whose work was included in the seminal exhibition New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum, the first museum survey of pop art. The exhibition also featured works by East Coast innovators Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and Ruscha’s high school buddy Joe Goode.

Ruscha would find his visual voice and eventual international acclaim with graphic representations of, among other now-iconic images, a Standard Oil gas station glimpsed near Amarillo en route along Route 66 and the Hollywood sign, the terminus beneath which he would eventually have a studio. Equally pioneering in his use of words, phrases, and sentences — by turns enigmatic, ironic, deadpan — he would develop an iconography that pushed language far beyond mere typography.

In 1963, he published his first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, considered by many to be the first modern artist’s book. Ruscha knew the book, like the rest of his work, would be a boundary pusher: “When I first did the book on gasoline stations, people would look at it and say, ‘Are you kidding or what? Why are you doing this?’ In a sense, that’s what I was after: I was after the head-scratching.”

The head-scratching launched what has become a legendary career in pop and conceptual art, and a reputation as one of the world’s most influential artists. “While Ruscha is internationally appreciated and collected and isn’t thought of as a regional figure as so many California artists are, I thought, Let’s turn the idea on its head and look at him from a regionalist perspective,” says Karin Breuer, curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And that’s what the exhibition Ruscha and the Great American West at the de Young Museum accomplishes. More than 80 works — prints, paintings, photographs, and drawings — show the artist exploring the literal and cultural landscape and the curator “looking at how the West influenced his life and art at the same time.”

Breuer arranged the exhibition in nine sections, with titles like The West You’ve Read About (“nothing but images that contain words or phrases like Tex, Texas, Rodeo, Adios, Western, West, ‘slobberin’ drunk at the Palomino,’ which is a lyric from a Frank Zappa song but could easily evoke saloon culture in the Old West”) and Psycho Spaghetti Western. And there’s “a Hollywood cinema section, which focuses on art that was influenced by his viewing cowboy westerns as a young man in Oklahoma and later living just below the Hollywood sign in his studio on [no kidding] Western Avenue for 20 years or so.”

The span of time and geography tells a story not just of Ruscha’s artistic journey but also of the transformation of the West. The gas station that once beckoned the traveler ends up a ghostly symbol of environmental degradation. TheHollywood sign that once symbolized glamour comes to indicate pollution. The road itself, once the passage to a dream, is now lined with litter. It’s the promise and the paradox of the West — the kind of narrative that in 1983 – 84 could produce both A Particular Kind of Heaven and Honey ... I Twisted Through More Damned Traffic To Get Here.

The now 78-year-old Ruscha continues to explore the road for inspiration. He never fails to engage with the ever-changing muse of the great American West, where even debris and congestion have an oddly Edenic quality worthy of art.

Ed Ruscha and the Great American West is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco from July 16 to October 9.

From the July 2016 issue.