The cover of our June/July 2016 issue features a text work by Ed Ruscha. We looked back to our November-December 1973 issue, in which artist Eleanor Antin wrote on the language required for deciphering Ruscha’s work. —Eds.
For many, Ruscha and his work—nonidentical twins, as the author points out—are the epitome of L.A. cool, irony, inspired triviality. His body of work—too elusive to be an oeuvre, too substantial to be consigned to the conceptual shadows—requires that we learn a kind of language to decipher its sequences, scenarios and lapsed times.
All through the sixties when large scale signaled “art,” when painting and sculpture with macho insistence got bigger and bigger and even the domain of the personal was admired for size (Andy Warhol’s retinue), Edward Ruscha continued to produce, mostly at his own expense, a series of deliberately small-scale works. There were many reasons for the large scale of sixties art and they don’t need to be reconsidered here. As it turns out, scale is not the result of measurement; it is a subtler psychological experience than is commonly believed. A Tony Smith may look huge when squeezed into the Corcoran, but take it out onto the urban street and it’s so scaled down by the surrounding buildings it will no longer send out “large scale” as a signal. Scale is a calculation made about relevant discrepancies. When you finally walk away Tony Smith is filed as a spatial theory in your head, even if the nearest buildings are several blocks away.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that most calculations about art scale are not made at the actual site of the works. The entire art world discusses the careers of Michael Heizer, Robert Morris and Tony Smith with no other experience of their work than pictures in art magazines. That is, they have seen small photographs embedded in explanatory text on a rectangular page. Presupposing faith in the honesty of the editors and the accuracy of their measuring devices, the art world has a conceptual idea of the size of sculptures and paintings very few people have ever seen. Unfortunately, photographs are frequently “untruthful,” which is to say, in the interests of one idea another may be so nullified as to give a false impression. On the cover of the November 1972 Artforum, what is apparently a large Di Suvero sculpture if the given dimensions are accurate (24 by 33 by 24 inches) is silhouetted against an immense sky and a distant ground-hugging landscape of trees and buildings. The photographer must have shot the work from a considerable distance away through a wide-angle lens; the resulting photograph must then have been cropped of the foreground, thus compressing the distance between the camera and its subject, signaling an impossible proximity between them. The work now appears simultaneously to be seen up close, to be taken in completely by the eye, and at the same time to have its silhouette thrust up against the uncropped sky so that it sits “high in the saddle” as in some Western movie. This complex of conflicting views, which could be experienced by no human observer situated anywhere in the physical world, has been montaged into a single image reading “large scale.” Paradoxically, what is experienced is not the large scale of the actual work but a propaganda about scale instead.
There is also the possibility of total falsehood as in the November 1972 cover of Arts magazine purporting to depict a sculpture by Richard Tuttle. It appeared to be a large elegant work throwing a sinuous shadow as it hovered over a grey ground. With some degree of pleasure, Gregoire Muller showed me the original hanging from a nail on the wall over his desk. It couldn’t have been more than five inches long. As a conceptual art piece on the nature of photographic veracity the cover is a handsome work, but as a record of the object it’s absurdly misleading. The works of Richard Tuttle and Michael Heizer are marked for opposite scales, but in a magazine exhibition they both belong to the same scale. These examples are symptomatic rather than exceptional. The intervention of the magazines insures that scale will be conceptual.
Earthworks might very well be the first art form specifically created for a magazine public. At first glance this seems Improbable. How can the camera ever hope to convey an idea of the scale implicit in cracking mountains or, for that matter, in building them? But tourists visit the pyramids every day, and it would be interesting to devise a psychological experiment to measure the scale shifts the pyramids go through in the mind of a tourist. They must have loomed large in his mind in the first place or else he wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble and expense to get there. But out in the hot sun, worrying about getting his money’s worth of experience, surrounded by dangerous people swathed in burnooses waiting to rob him, and all the time his camera strap rubbing against his neck, how big, one wonders, can those mounds look? As my mother-in-law once said to me in a conversation about the Medea, “So what! It happened to Debbie Reynolds.” It’s important that Smithson dropped mirrors in the Yucatan alone. The literary imagery implicit in actions made upon the earth (it’s always exotic earth) is best seen in books. Out of the alienation of the event from its context, Smithson gained large scale. It is the scale of the myth and the legend. My friend Hala Pietkiewicz knew Marienbad very well. It was not Resnais’s Marienbad. It seems he rebuilt the whole place. Not unlike the number Ruscha did on Los Angeles in Thirtyfour Parking Lots. He rented a helicopter on what must have been a Sunday and photographed thirty-four empty ones. The result is an elegant series of eighteenth-century concrete and asphalt gardens. The empty parking lots unfold before and behind their buildings with geometric precision. In the Hollywood Bowl, graceful trees articulate the different lanes in a manner not unlike Resnais’s neoclassical fantasy. Positioning the camera eye up there in the sky displaces the event. Ruscha knows very well that down here on earth those asphalt parking lots are never empty (at least not when you need them) and always require skillful and fierce negotiation. Arcadia is always far away.
This alienation from context is what happened to the Pollocks several years ago at the Museum of Modern Art. Many people were disturbed by the small scale of paintings they remembered as being much larger. It is true that in the intervening years a new generation of younger painters, like Stella and Noland, had conditioned them to another idea of scale. But it wasn’t only that. The art world had turned away from Abstract Expressionism, thus stripping the work of its mythical significance. When the museum presented it in a literal context it was like going back to the scenes of one’s past. Everything had shrunk. Scale is a function of attention, and for a long time nobody was looking. Which is bigger, the Collected Works of Robert Southey or the Communist Manifesto? 1 Art is conceptual because its appeal is to the mind. That great bookmaker of the past, William Blake, considered himself a follower of Raphael and Michelangelo, whose works he knew only from engravings. But how large, after all, is a DNA chain? Or for that matter, how large is an idea? A case in point: to most people, the idea of ESP sounds trivial. However, there is a body of respectable data on ESP, but since, as yet, no hypothesis has been suggested which would make it relevant to the scientific community, it remains trivial (small-scale). 2 On the other hand, Newton’s Theory of Gravitation appears monumental, but only because of the mathematical system Newton provided to accompany it. When you think about it, the two ideas are equally scandalous. They both describe “action at a distance.” Newton was able to seduce the scientific community into accepting his “spiritualist” phenomenon by providing it with a mathematical system that made it relevant. Given the natural egotism of the human race, if anyone developed a scientific hypothesis of the order of Newton’s to explain extrasensory phenomena, ESP would certainly dwarf the Theory of Gravitation in importance.
Critics who don’t absolutely insist on large scale as a necessary condition for art usually raise what at first seems like a sophisticated objection to the small scale of most conceptual art. They believe the work is too small for the implications of material which seems to demand a more comprehensive treatment. They apparently possess great sympathy for the subject and wish to defend it from triviality. At first sight, Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations looks like a perfect set-up for criticism of this sort. The book presents a set of photographic images of gas stations with captions placing each one in a specific town and state. The most obvious reading of the work is to see it as “Pop,” in which case its smallness is reasonable, since the appearance, at least, of the trivial and casual was one of Pop’s arguments against high art. Pop always confronted high art with the reality of the trivial and the casual. The critic who reads the work this way will probably like it. Everyone has a soft spot somewhere for Pop. But the work is very systematic. It isn’t really casual at all. Anyone who takes twenty-six photographs of the same subject and packages it as a complete work might be expected to have a point of view about the material. The implications of the work can then be considered to be sociological. Ruscha loses here. As the critic will rightly point out, it is insufficient. We already possess more information about gas stations than Ruscha gives us.
But what if we assume the work is not a sociological tract? The book begins with a gas station in Los Angeles and proceeds east through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and finally Oklahoma City. That’s about 1400 miles along Route 66 as any road map will show. It’s sort of a travel narrative. Most of the shots were taken by day in varying degrees of light except for three night shots, one in Daggett, California, and a number of frames later, two consecutive ones in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Amarillo, Texas. That marks it as an actual trip lasting three days and two nights.
Ruscha was born in Oklahoma City and now lives in Los Angeles. The book proves he went home at least once, which makes it an autobiographical narrative. Because the work doesn’t appear to record psychological experience, it will now be charged with being an insufficient narrative. But are these critics really asking for more experiential material, as they claim? Referring to a well-articulated genre of homecoming novels, they will accuse Ruscha of not being Thomas Wolfe or perhaps Albert Payson Terhune. (I have been accused of not being Henry James, Philip Roth and, most recently, John Cheever.) These critics suffer from an excess of expectation. They expect Ruscha to write a novel because, as they see it, the material is too vast to be covered in any other way.
But what is this “vast” material? Where does it come from? From novels, of course. But novels really don’t present experiential material. They proliferate incidents endlessly only so they can be ordered in a manner we have come to recognize as the novel form. Material becomes totally predictable as the work rushes to fill itself out to its prescribed form. It’s not unlike blowing up a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. Its concern is only with itself or the form of itself. There is no space for human experience to enter into such a monolithic structure. Ruscha could fulfill the expectations of his critics only by violating his own (and our) experience. It is neither more real nor more abundant material they demand. They want literature, which Ruscha doesn’t want. His structure is deliberately sparse and casual and filled with holes, and it is here that actual experience resides. Suggestions are offered by the material he does give and spaces are left for us to enter. There is actually a good deal of information, but it’s there as a kind of invitation if you care to read it.
In order to cover 1400 miles in three days he probably drove about 500 miles daily. That’s a civilized driving pace for an American. We know that road trips of such length are boring and tiring, and he probably made it on several occasions, since it’s unlikely he thought of documenting it the first time. It’s the kind of move artists make when they have a tedious chore to do and, so it shouldn’t be a total loss, decide to make an art work out of it. Probably his legs and back hurt from all that driving, and his lungs from the constant pollution. People go home to visit family, and family visits are always a bore. Sometimes they are worse. And what, after all, if this isn’t the whole story? If one consults a road map or has made a parallel trip, one learns that the stations do not form a continuum. The book tells us that Ruscha passed through Needles before Daggett. Needles is on the border between California and Arizona. Daggett is about 120 miles west, fairly close to Los Angeles. It is hardly a reasonable way to make the trip. If the pictures are sequentially accurate he must have been high as a kite in Arizona. He drove through Flagstaff, then reversed himself twenty miles back to Williams. (It says he drove through Jack Rabbit next, but I couldn’t find it on the map.) From there he drove conventionally through Winslow and Holbrook, when suddenly he turned his car around again and rode back to Kingman which is about sixty miles from Needles (remember Needles?). Then in a burst of energy he drove straight through to Lupton, on the border between New Mexico and Arizona. However, instead of crossing here, he retreated back to Rimmy Jim (between Flagstaff and Winslow). The next recorded station is in New Mexico. All of this erratic driving was done in one day, if the recorded time sequence is correct. He never did his dada number across states. If, as he once said, he doesn’t place his images in any particular order, why didn’t he shuffle the states as well? Probably because he didn’t want to tip his hand.
Ruscha’s books are meant to be read, but since the art world doesn’t know how to read he might as well amuse himself. Only those people who can read will ever know what a surrealist trip it was. “This is not a true tale but who needs truth if it’s dull.” 3 In the end Ruscha has given his critics literature after all. Will they want it? They will probably wonder which version of the trip was “real.” Was it a conventional trip with casually randomized images or was it a painstaking documentation of what one might call “an art trip?” What’s the difference? Once an event is over it’s become history and history is always fiction. The reality of experience is not that “once in a particular place a certain event occurred” but that we recognize it. It is the intention of art “to put ‘meaning’ in the world but not ‘a meaning.'” 4 I remember some students worrying endlessly about “what really happened” in Bunuel’s Belle du Jour. Which of the sexual escapades were “real” (actually took place!) and which were fantasies? I was at a press conference when Resnais was interviewed about La Guerre Est Finie. The reporters wanted to know if the heroine was reunited with her lover after the last frame. “Yes,” said Resnais, “she found him and they slipped back over the border and got married and raised five children.” Ruscha, in the style of European movies (didn’t they call them “art” films when we were kids?), adds a final image at the end, a Fina station from back in Groom, Texas. The movie is over. We can go home now.
What is the scale of Twentysix Gasoline Stations? Over 1500 miles and sixty hours of life. Is it smaller scale than an Olitski or a Stella? The question isn’t relevant. But Crackers is a work, oddly enough, about scale and might better answer a question of this sort. After shopping for produce in a market, a young man carries several gallons of salad oil into a seedy hotel room, spends a lot of time preparing a big salad on the bed and then covers it up as neatly as possible with a blanket. Cut to the young man now dressed in a tuxedo, escorting an equally fancily dressed young woman into a limousine which drives them back to the hotel room. He unsuccessfully attempts to persuade her to do something related to the bed. When he pulls off the blanket revealing the salad, she shrieks, the clash of wills continues until they finally laugh, embrace and she takes off her clothes and lies down in the salad. He pours oil and vinegar over her body and she seems to enjoy it. Suddenly he utters the single word “Crackers!”, kisses her hand, leaves and is seen in the car outside the market. . . . Like all Ruscha’s narratives Crackers is a photographic sequence, but the large number of minimally differentiated images are so leisurely and precise in the manner in which they record the action that the book turns into a movie. 5 It’s sort of a slow-motion flip book. The Chaplinesque hero and his absurd girlfriend mug their way through endless pictures as they play out . . . what?
Up to this point in the story it appears to be an unconventional sexual escapade, a sort of updated Kama Sutra oil and vinegar lay. His painstaking preparations are funny and one assumes the crackers are meant to provide the final gourmet touch. After all, the sexual revolution has already been won and his is a rather cheerful, comical bag anyway. But on the flyleaf in back of the book we discover the text of an anecdote by Mason Williams of the “shaggy dog” variety, on which the movie seems to be based. The archetype of the “shaggy dog” is a large-scale (elaborate) narrative concluding with a small-scale (trivial) punch line which retroactively reduces the narrative to the scale of the punch line. Despite structural similarities, this anecdote differs from the standard “shaggy dog” in that its punch line is violent and consequential, whereas the standard conclusion tends to be inconsequential. The anecdote is in the instructional “How to” mode and outlines a precise set of elaborate instructions on “How to Derive the Maximum Enjoyment from Crackers.” The movie hero seems to be following these instructions as he shops for the produce, rents the room, prepares the salad, convinces his date to lie down in it and be rubbed down with salad oil, and accordingly departs on the word “Crackers!” But if the movie is to follow the anecdote all the way to the punch line, it will send the hero off to another suite of rented rooms, this time in an elegant hotel, to spend the remainder of the night nibbling crackers in his bed, leaving the girl alone in her rented room ignorant of the conclusion of his plans. The anecdote concludes that this is the way to “derive a maximum enjoyment” from crackers. The punch line reduces the scale of the humanly sexual to a saltine. To the degree that the work follows the scenario to the end it does more or less the same thing and as a consequence is entirely redundant as well as sexist.
By a fortunate accident there fell into my hands another version which may very well be a unique one. Certainly it is a rare edition. This one is neither sexist nor trivial and it is intellectually interesting. The two versions are the same except for the ending. In the rare edition the movie narrative is not annihilated by the punch line because there isn’t any. Thus the work cannot be reduced to a set of preparations for a ridiculous sexual humiliation. Instead it retains the absurdly human characteristics of a Chaplin comedy. In this version, after the hero is seen in the car outside the market there is a cutback to the moment the heroine lay down on the bed and the entire scene with the salad dressing is replayed, frame for frame, including the utterance of “Crackers!”, the leave-taking and his subsequent presence in the car outside the market. The movie ends with him sitting alone in the car. The anticipated sexual encounter is not recorded. As far as the visual images have shown, it was all preparation. But without the text it would still be insufficient, because the final replay at the end is neither a formal nor an intellectual conclusion. The long anecdote printed on the back flap ends the book, but it doesn’t end the movie since the differences between the two are so marked. It does, however, cause us to reinspect the movie to find how much of it corresponds to the text. They obviously overlap, but what can one make of the discrepancies? What, in fact, can one make of the similarities? Since we are never presented with the actual fact of the hero’s intentions, how do we know he intended to resolve his actions à la the anecdote? The replay at the movie’s end is standard practice for psychologizing a character’s actions. The flashback is always thrown in to explain some aspect of the present. Is he confronted with a “Lady or the Tiger” dilemma? Or is he merely admiring his own performance? The actual images present their own conceptual possibilities. A movie isn’t a written text. It is acted by people. Would that dumb Chaplinesque hero really do such a mean thing to that poor girl? The ambiguities created by the juxtaposition of the written narrative with the visual one engage more of our attention than either could engage individually. We circle around the movie to find the secret text. A movie is not the sum of its images. All movies have a conceptual text which is not the written scenario. This can be called the movie’s intention and is read from the sequential set of justifiable interpretations of the images. It’s what, in a standard movie, takes an actor from a nighttime room to a daylight field and allows you to assume it’s the next day. Because of the lack of conclusion of the image sequence and its juxtaposition with the remote source (the anecdote) we are forced to read and reread the images hoping to find the intention. In this version, the rejection of the anecdotal punch line magnifies the scale of the movie by vastly magnifying the attention we pay to it.
One can, of course, assume the interesting version was merely a miscollation, but was it? Isn’t it fairer to Ruscha to assume that the collating machine just restored a straying Ruscha back to himself? (“Luck is a fool’s name for chance”—Emmett Williams quoting Fred Astaire.) His entire career would seem to suggest this. As the endings of such books as Several Small Fires and Eight Swimming Pools show, or even the ending of Twentysix Gasoline Stations (the Fina station back in Texas—the image shot in the middle of the trip tacked on at the end of the trip to make a verbal pun), he has always liked the unexpected closure. The punch line of a bad joke is never received as unexpected. Cries of “Oh no!” or “That’s awful!” relate to the punch line’s dumbness, not its capacity to surprise. The ambiguous ending of this rare or accidental edition has more of the genuinely unexpected than does the punch line of the anecdotal version. Ruscha has often spoken of his preference for random arrangements. True, they turn out not to be as random as he says, or rather, the material is such that randomness is irrelevant. The mind makes connections between images related by both proximity and subject, regardless of how randomly the artist may or may not have chosen to place them. Unlike most of Ruscha’s other books, Crackers makes no pretense of randomness. It presents a tight narrative whose action is easily read. It is the intention of the action that is unclear, and it is this intention which the ambiguous ending of the rare edition refuses to clarify. By making unclear what was formerly thought to be clear, it partakes more of the nature of randomness than does the straight linear progression and point-by-point correspondence of the anecdotal version. I like to think that the accidental hand of chance, set in motion by an overworked but wise collating machine, called Ruscha back to his true self. The “defective” edition is more Ruscha than the aberrant one he chose to make.
If all of Ruscha’s books are meant to be read and if they all present reading problems, Record is the most extreme. The book is a photographic documentation of thirty record jackets with their accompanying discs. It doesn’t read like a narrative. It’s obviously a list. But a list of what? It’s certainly not an exhaustive representation of the record industry. It’s hardly a Schwann catalog. Not only is it too small but there are too many categorical omissions. Where are Tom Jones in Las Vegas, The Singing Rambos, Ruth Rubin’s Jewish Love Songs, J.F.K’s Immortal Words, Beethoven’s Late Quartets, The Cat in the Hat or The Barber of Seville? It’s obviously a selected subset, but what are the selectional principles? How were these records drawn from the universe of possibilities?
If Ruscha employed a chance procedure, he may have entered a record store and, moving from rack to rack, pulled a record from each one randomly. It couldn’t have been a classy store because on a statistical basis it is highly improbable he would wind up with such a restricted set of categories and such a small percentage of the prestige ones, like Classical, Jazz, Old Blues or Folk. The documented collection consists of only three major categories–Rock, Rhythm and Blues and Country, with a couple of strays. He could have pulled such a selection by random procedures from a discount store like White Front, though there are some oddballs for a store of this type–Mason Williams, The Velvet Underground, Satie and Sonny Rawlins. But these places can actually be something of a pot luck affair. I picked up John Cage and Charles Lloyd one afternoon in Value Fair at eighty-nine cents apiece. The real clinker in this theory is the several discontinued items. I would love to get my hands on that particular Wilson Pickett disc (Wicked Pickett), but it’s no longer available, except possibly in a classy second-hand record store where it might have accidentally slipped in among the used Donovans.
But the random selection hypothesis is probably not very likely anyway since one can read very definitive taste trends from the collection. Let us suppose another selectional method. Ruscha is a man of many friends. He’s put them into his books from time to time so why not now? What if he took one record from each of thirty friends? There are likely reasons this could be so. This particular set of restricted categories is by and large what one would expect the L.A. art scene to choose. It’s hard to imagine anyone of these artists would choose a Beethoven late quartet or Barbara Streisand. If each record corresponds to a particular friend of Ruscha’s, how would we associate the record with the person? “If you were a record which record would you be?” Billy Al Bengston is ostensibly a friend of Ruscha’s. They collaborated on a book, Business Card Exchange, several years ago. Suppose Bengston gave Ruscha the Trio Los Tajuarines’s Rancheras Mexicanas. Would that mean that Bengston’s soul is a Mexican trio or is it merely his come-on? In either case it partakes of autobiography, but differently. This is all obviously nonsensical, because if Ruscha did pull in records from people, it would be a famous “in” story that everyone would know. On the other hand, what if he did the choosing secretly without telling anyone? Again we have to determine whether he chose the record that would most adequately represent his friend as he sees him or his friend as his friend sees himself. The biographical problem is even more complex than the autobiographical one. Several years ago I did two shows in which I set myself just this problem, assigning objects to characterize people. There are very many subtle considerations. For example: Los Angeles is a very sexist town. Which one of the boys would see himself as Wanda Jackson or Leslie Gore? Or conversely, who was Ruscha putting down by representing him as Linda Ronstadt? Mason Williams? His album is Hand-Made; hers is Hand-Sown. They both sound like Judy Collins. And who would represent himself as Satie, the lone classical record in the collection? Satie would be a good choice to represent Ruscha himself. They have strong relations when one thinks about it. Both artists are committed to what appears to be a casual, slight structure, with apparent idiosyncracy and superficial dopiness. But Ruscha would never choose Satie to represent him, any more than Satie would choose himself. But I don’t think Records is a roman à clef anyway. It’s always been Ruscha’s method to come across with something if you take the trouble to read him, and there really aren’t enough clues here to suggest that we are dealing with another The Sun Also Rises.
Since Ruscha tends, as a rule, to be autobiographical, in the sense that he uses the materials he finds close at hand, these records may belong to his personal collection and might be read as a representation of himself. He’s represented his girlfriends, so why not his records? But since he’s never recorded his own psychological experiences, there is no reason to assume he did so now. Perhaps he is representing “Ed Rsucha,” “the hip Los Angeles Pop artist.” In this case we are no longer dealing with the much simpler problem of one man, one record. There is no way of dealing with thirty records without classifying them. Without a classification system of some sort we wouldn’t know which features to consider relevant. Obviously our ideas of relevance will be dependent upon the categories we choose. This presents a straight genre problem. The standard method would be to divide this collection into three main classes, Rock, Rhythm and Blues and Country, with one each from the classes of Jazz, Spanish, and Classical and two from Folk. Unfortunately for us, the genre boundaries have been breaking down in music just as they have in the other arts and we can’t be too certain we are representing certain artists adequately when we place them in a particular box.
Where does one place Linda Rosenstadt? She comes out of Judy Collins and Joan Baez so I suppose she could be classified as Folk, with a little bit of “hip” electronics thrown in, which may have been what distinguished Collins from Baez in the first place. What goes by the name of Folk in contemporary music is a strange hybrid in itself. Certainly Jean Ritchie or the Carter Family wouldn’t recognize it. Ronstadt also sings some Rock and even a straight Country number on this disc. Where can we place Mason Williams with his mixture of Dada poetry, Hollywood camp, sweet ballads and “Jose’s Piece” written for Jose Feliciano? “Boys, we’re going Country,” Conway Twitty announced to his Rock group after they cut their first Country record. As a matter of fact, there is hardly a white musician in the collection, outside of some of the Country singers and The Rolling Stones, who hasn’t invented a place where several genres come together. This might provide a clue to another classification system. Suppose we divide the records into two groups, Black and White. This is the perfect binary system much in use among musicians and their listeners. It is often used to mean Black is Beautiful and White is derivative. It always means Black is soul and White is nonsoul. The book puns with this system. Steppenwolf 7 (white) with two giant skulls on the jacket is followed on the next page by Screaming Jay Hawkins (black) opening a plush coffin. Is it the resurrection? The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet (white) is followed by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’s King and Queen (black). The Wicked Pickett (black) is followed by Hank Snow (white) singing over a white fence to a little lady of five years. I’ve never heard of a white singer cutting a record for the Motown people in Detroit. I have a Dutch friend with a collection of over 700 Jazz records. He recently played his new Coltrane disc for me and while I listened to the fluencies of that cool elegant sound, my friend touches the “Black experience.” Then he played Ike and Tina Turner and every time Tina let loose with a mechanical scream, my friend saw Black. I called him a racist and he threw me out. Personally, I prefer Lorca’s duende to the word “soul” because Lorca’s is a three-part system in which the duende will cover almost anything that soul does while the two remaining categories will cover everything else. 6 It’s a less prejudicial system because it makes room for other possibilities. There is a lot of interesting and even exciting music which doesn’t have “soul.”
Lorca described three different inspirational sources, the Muse, the Angel and the duende. If we recognize these categories as metaphors and apply them with a light hand we can point up some distinctive features of many of the records. Ike and Tina Turner, for instance, at their best create a rich smooth surface, texturally very like a madrigal, but, their dark skins notwithstanding, they have no duende. They are good professionals and may be said to have a Muse. The Muse is the guiding figure of the classical artist, whose aim at its highest is a noble elegance like that of Chuck Berry, and at its least, the perfect decorum of the professional. The one thing about a professional is he will never embarrass you. Wanda Jackson, Lefty Frizzell and Ike and Tina Turner are the Muse’s true professionals. The Angel is the tutelary spirit for those who artists whose distinguishing mark is overwhelming sweetness. Probably Neil Young is the ideal representative of the Angelic artist. Since he isn’t in this collection, its representatives must be Leon Russell (though he might refuse her), Mason Williams and Wilson Pickett, and as for Baby James Taylor, who was obviously meant by Ruscha for the Angelic category, he has defective wings. Perhaps he is a Fallen Angel. And all this time the duende casts its dark shadow over Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones and even, on occasion, over Conway Twitty. Lorca’s essay represents him as moving freely through the entire domain of European culture. His artists are drawn out of an immense range of artistic experience, but he makes no hierarchical distinctions between members of a class. He encounters the duende equally among gypsy dancers from Cadiz, a street singer singing “Oh, Marie!” in a Madrid tavern, the great bullfighters, Saint Teresa of Avila, Goya and Jorge Manrique. Ruscha’s world, on the other hand, is represented by thirty records drawn from an area of musical possibilities so narrow that, in the end, it is the omissions which most clearly define the range of his sensibility. It is a “Pop” sensibility and the collection delineates its deficiencies very precisely.
But why should I accuse a man of not being Lorca? As Heraclitus says, “Man’s character is his fate,” and Ruscha must choose his records as he chose his girlfriends–for love. He documented a set of “old flames” of the fifties and continued his confessions with Five 1965 Girlfriends. Obviously a photograph of one girlfriend would tell more about her than her lover but five girlfriends with one boyfriend tells more about him. Who is Ed Ruscha, the boyfriend? The fifties girlfriends have already slipped out of reach into the pathos of high school yearbook photography, but the sixties girlfriends are somewhat more accessible. I suppose from the point of view of a man they are all variously pretty, but what looks most striking to me as a woman is that they all have a certain fragility or, perhaps, even vulnerability. None of them looks formidable. They are as vernacular as his records and present as restricted an area of experience. If Records represents Ruscha’s soul, we must consider it something of an artistic triumph to have created a work requiring so many pages to describe what is essentially such small-scale material. But how can we be certain the collector is Ed Ruscha? Is the poet-hero “Lorca,” so dark, so famous, and one might say, so professional a Spaniard, the real Lorca, or is he the graduate student, Federico, living on the top floor of John Jay Hall, studying English (hopelessly) at Columbia and walking out his nights in solitude through the noisy streets of Harlem? Just because he said so? Lorca and Ruscha can confess to anything they please.
As I suggested earlier, perhaps Ruscha is representing a fiction and the hero collector is not Ed Ruscha but “Ed Ruscha,” the Sunset Kid. When he exchanged cards with Billy Al Bengston (Business Card Exchange) they both looked like a couple of dopes. Is this the same kid implicit in the Girlfriends or the modest record collector? Otis Redding may be the one concession Ruscha ever made to the grand style. Ruscha certainly has a foolproof method for being amiable and evasive. In Los Angeles is that the same thing? Los Angeles isn’t a city, it’s a deprivation. Is “Ruscha” Los Angeles, the way “Lorca” is Seville? Any takers? We have no more certainty that the Records represent either Ed Ruscha, the man, or “Ed Ruscha,” the Los Angeles artist, than we have that they represent his friends. Ruscha’s books always, in the end, come back to his phenomenological concerns with the nature of reading an equivocal text.
1. Years ago in New York, one of the Fourth Ave. secondhand bookstores offered the complete works of Robert Southey free to anyone who bought his own truck.
2. Gunther S. Stent, “Prematurity and Uniqueness in Scientific Discovery,” Scientific American (December 1972): 87-88.
3. Mason Williams, “The Exciting Accident,” Hand-Made (Warner Brothers Records, 1970).
4. Roland Barthes, “Criticism as Language,” Modern Literary Criticism (New York, 1972), p. 435.
5. When I say “movie” I am referring specifically to the picture book and not to an actual film version which was, in fact, made.
6. Federico Garcia Lorca, “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement,” Poet in New York (New York, 1955).