Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
Many critics of Ed Ruscha's ten-painting series "Course of Empire," now on view at the Whitney Museum in New York, begin by embalming the artist in a sort a critical pickling agent. "Artist Laureate" and "Master" and "The Best" and other such encomiums are invoked, but these are heavy, certain words, words that are orated over bowed heads at the memorial service. Words--unlike the iterative, impermanent names of the buildings in the Course of Empire series--that ring with finality. In the ten pictures that make up the series, Ruscha revisits his own 1992 series of five black-and-white Blue Collar paintings of industrial buildings, making five new color pictures in response to each of the original works. Each new color work changes or effaces certain elements of the original. The paintings in this series are thus about entropy, mortality, and disappearance. In the face of this anxious outlay many reviewers seem doubly anxious to shore something up, to carve Ed's name in eternity, thereby affixing their smaller initials at the base of his marble plinth.
Rather than asking for whom the bell tolls in this Empire, the critics cast about for an Emperor, and while they come to praise Caesar, they wind up burying him. "We should dip him in bronze before he Tires, before, like every artist before him and all who will come after, he Tools his pictures and then Dies." Or so the thinking seems to go. The artist, who will be one year shy of seventy next year, seems on the other hand not to be in the state of laurel-wreathed inertia the critics describe. He is mercurial, even puckish. The decision to rework the old paintings is a vote in favor of flux. Reviewer after reviewer has tried to outfit these canvases with the cement shoes of reputation, but these boots were made for walking. Change and iteration are the only constant in a California shot through with fault lines and shaky foundations, after all. We are surfers here, used to unstable ground and stepping into liquid.
Some has been written about these paintings as capitalist critique, but this is not only boring, it's bullshit. These are Stations of the Cross, and we know how Ruscha loves his stations. Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross, like Ruscha's original five paintings, were painted entirely in black and white. There are many points of comparison, but for me the canvas in which the iconic phone booth disappears is the moment Ruscha becomes a New man. This is reminiscent of the canvas in Stations of the Cross where Christ yields up the ghost: a strip of raw canvas at the left, with the rest entirely white. In Rushca's painting, the phone booth’s place is taken by a patch of empty sky. This emptiness is framed by a metal lamppost and the trunk of a slender tree, two vertical lines that echo Newman's "zips."
Henry James gave the hero of his 1877 novel The American the surname "Newman." He’s a new man, an entrepreneur who made millions making metal bath tubs. This small scale washtub empire is like the ones that built Los Angeles' industrial parks, where many artists now have their studios. Ed Ruscha’s painted language has always been limited, it knows to leave alone the unknown. But giving things more than one name and inventing new alphabets, as the artist does here, seems to amount to a veritable word-gush. Perhaps like the West itself, Ruscha has run out of nothing, and now the only thing left is something.
In Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, Christ's Passion becomes, according to the artist, “the cry of man, of every man”, and perhaps an echo of personal existential pain. “I tried to project something I felt was very real in relation to the Passion,'” Newman said, “and I feel that kind of suffering has gotten almost universal.” In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Ruscha said that his latest pictures "air my doubts about progress in the world, and hopes for the world. . . . They reflect my feelings about how things change -- and that they don't always change for the better." "It's abandoned," Ruscha said of one of his buildings, "or ready for the wrecking ball. And that in itself is a step in the evolutionary process." We are all steps in the evolutionary process, but only some of us advancing steps. While many younger artists spend days between stations, or sputter and run out of gas, Ruscha has created a series that is forward-looking and philosophically mature. Seen from this vantage point, sixty nine is not such a bad position to be in after all.