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“You know, everything is not just red, yellow, blue, and coming from a tube. It can be anything out there in the world. Grab it and use it.”
In 1956, artist Ed Ruscha left his home in Oklahoma and drove with his childhood friend to Los Angeles. Drawn to the city by its palm trees and apparent lack of an established art scene, Ruscha stayed to attend Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), where he aspired to be a sign painter. In the decades since, Ruscha has become a world-renowned artist, but much of his art continues to be informed by LA.
In this episode, Ruscha discusses how he became an artist, his thoughts on his career today, and his decades-long project documenting Sunset Boulevard.
12 Sunsets explore the Sunset Boulevard photographs
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ED RUSCHA: You know, everything is not just red, yellow, blue, and coming from a tube. It can be anything out there in the— in the world. Grab it and use it.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with artist Ed Ruscha about his long career as painter and printmaker.
Ed Ruscha is a Los Angeles-based artist whose prolific career as a painter and printmaker crosses seven decades.
In 1966, Ruscha drove along the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Using a motorized camera mounted on the back of a pickup truck, he methodically photographed all of the buildings on each side of the street. He returned to photograph this stretch of road again and again over the next 55 years, resulting in hundreds of thousands of images.
This collection is at the Getty Research Institute, which has recently digitized more than 60,000 of the photographs, including the complete production archive of the artist’s canonical book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip. This provides a unique record of the gradual evolution of Los Angeles’s built environment.
I recently sat down with Ed in his studio to talk about his fascination with Los Angeles and particularly with the Sunset Strip.
Well, thank you, Ed, for speaking with me on this podcast episode. We’re gathered together here in your studio and we get a chance to see the studio and see what it comprises and we see this room is like a library room, like a reference point room for you. And a room which you invite other people into it. But the studio is somewhat separate of that. Describe the studio for us.
RUSCHA: It’s a studio that’s dirty and messy and unplanned. And it maintains itself. And it’s a cozy place for me. It’s always been for me, no matter how much space I have. And artists usually never have enough space. I visited Sterling Ruby’s studio. It was enormous. My jaw dropped. And then I found out that the next week, he was moving into a place that was three times that size.
So I get inspired by artists who have programs that require aircraft-like spaces, heroic studios. And I’ve always admired an artist that can program up to fill this space, and use space.
So I take a lot less. But you’re sitting in the library here, which is just full’a books that I’ve collected over the years. And it’s just a comfortable place to be. But I don’t actually make my art here. I do it in the back, and I also work outside.
CUNO: If we were to go in the studio now, would we see pictures unfinished, or would you turn them to the wall?
RUSCHA: You’ll probably see some works that are finished, some that are unfinished, and in various stages of development and rejection and acceptance and all of that.
RUSCHA: And denial.
CUNO: So when do you begin your daily work? How early in the morning do you start?
ED RUSCHA: Well, I guess it starts early in the morning. I do what I— I look at it like I take my lunch pail to work. I come to the studio and it’s really my world, and I’m happy for it. Don’t always accomplish something every day. Sometimes days go by that nothing gets done. But at least I’m churning and I’m thinking and— So it moves on like that.
CUNO: How have you worked during COVID?
RUSCHA: You know, it wasn’t a big— didn’t have a great effect on me, except it was almost like a blessing in disguise, in that it was— almost came like a tap on the shoulder that settled me back. And I knew that there were things out in the city that I’d have to curtail on; and that was just fine with me.
CUNO: You mean social obligations or what?
RUSCHA: Social, well, you know, I loved loud Hollywood parties, and I don’t miss them one iota. The incredible quietude that followed the whole thing was what I really appreciated.
RUSCHA: And it just seemed like the gears and the wheels were moving a lot slower. The world was moving slower. And that was fine with me. I could step back and observe.
CUNO: What themes, ironic or otherwise, came to your mind during these difficult times?
RUSCHA: Themes, I— I didn’t seem to be affected by the COVID, as far as it motivating me to any new plateau. And I worked with the same language for many decades. And it was just a development. I think it was occurrence of this corona virus that just made me slow down and thing, and it just made— It crystalized a lotta things for me.
I don’t think COVID has given me any lessons, except that the world can be extremely vulnerable to a silly little thing like a virus. And yet we’ve been through that before, a hundred years ago and many times before—the Dark Ages, et cetera. So I don’t get much message from it. It’s a life message, rather than something that gives me ideas to make art with.
CUNO: Have you had recent exhibitions?
RUSCHA: I had one in Switzerland, and was set to go over for it, and then it got scotched.
CUNO: The whole exhibition did?
RUSCHA: No, the exhibition went on. It was in Gstaad, Switzerland at Gagosian Gallery. And I was meant to go there and go to a few other places, and it just seemed like traversing frontiers and checkpoints an all that. And people said, “That’s the headache of it all. Once you settle back into someplace you like, it’s great. But getting there is hell.” So I didn’t go. And didn’t miss it, at the same time.
CUNO: Now, we’re living through an era of political and racial reckoning. How has that affected your work?
RUSCHA: Politically, it’s a nasty— a nasty world. And I do not like what I’m living amidst. But I don’t push it in my art. I can’t make that work for myself. I’m not happy, you know, conjuring up a message for my response to politics. So I grumble underneath my skin and— But I continue working with the tools I guess I’ve had for a while.
CUNO: Do you have time to see new work by other artists representing this phenomenon, the particular phenomenon of racial reckoning? I mean, people like Kerry James Marshall or Faith Ringgold or Carrie Mae Weems or Betye Saar, Kara Walker or Lorna Simpson, to name just a few.
RUSCHA: I keep pretty much alert to what’s going on. I flip through art magazines and toss ’em right away. But there are an incredible number of artists with an incredible number of platforms and styles and all of that and— I don’t have much time. And sometimes not enough interest to go across town to see other artists’ work. But I do occasionally. And I don’t think it’s that essential for me. I don’t get— The only thing I get from younger artists, especially, is the— when I see the devil-may-care kinda kamikaze art that they make.
You just brought to mind a kid that I grew up with who is a friend of my son’sThey were six years old and— Senon Williams is his name. He was about so tall. And then he kind of disappeared for a few years. The next time I saw him, he was six foot six, and he had— He was a musician. He was in a band called Dengue Fever. And he worked for Sam Francis and was a preparator and was very aware of everything that’s going on in the art world. About five years ago, suddenly he explodes as an artist. And pretty much shocked me and a lot of other people that he was at it for so long before he started working. And it’s really surprising and fulfilling to see somebody like that come on the scene.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, you were born and raised in a Roman Catholic family in Omaha, Nebraska, although your family moved to Oklahoma when you were young. What was your early childhood like?
RUSCHA: Well, as a kid, I was sort of pushed to be a good Catholic by my dad. He was religious, and my mother was not so much. But I found I liked the theatrics of the church. And I liked going and seeing the ceremony and the decorations and the— and incense and— All of these elements really amused me.
The message of the church, on the other hand, didn’t grab me. I— It had no message for me. But I just found the church to be very ancient and— When I grew up there in Oklahoma, I— You know, everything was Protestant. And I snuck into a Protestant church one day. That’s a sin, for a Catholic to do that. But I snuck into this Protestant church. And it was so dull and colorless. And it was like a funeral home, compared to Catholicism.
But I’ve not followed up. It would be blasphemy for me to go to attend a mass. So I’ve been out of the church for a long time, and happy for it. But I always like what— They asked Albert Einstein what he thought about the Bible. And he said, “The Bible’s made up of honorable but primitive legends.” I always liked that one.
CUNO: Now, how did you keep yourself busy as a teenager?
RUSCHA: My dad pushed me for enterprise. You know, be enterprising. Support yourself. Learn how to support yourself early on. So I mowed lawns and shoveled snow off sidewalks, and then I had paper routes for a few years. And I unloaded boxcars at this lumber company. And hand painted hamburger signs.
CUNO: Was that in Omaha or was that in Oklahoma?
RUSCHA: That was in Oklahoma.
CUNO: Yeah. What were your early experiences with art?
RUSCHA: It was a slow entry. And I had a job once where they said, “Go to the library and write down the addresses and phone numbers of every lumber company in the state of Oklahoma.” And so that was really good. I mean, I liked doing that kind of work. And so I would sit there with all these paper phonebooks in the library, and come up with all these long lists.
And it was a little tedious. So I had, you know, a wandering eye in the library and I’ve always loved libraries, so— And then I got into the art section and that was my exposure to art, was through reproductions in books.
CUNO: Now, when did you meet the musician Mason Williams, and how important was he, in your view, as an artist?
RUSCHA: I met Mason probably the third or fourth grade. And he was a neighbor of mine, lived a few blocks away. I seemed to be into art and he was into music. But we clicked and became close friends. And eventually— Well, we actually did a project together in a social studies class. We stretched out some butcher paper on the wall and painted a mural of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.
So we had fun doing that, and consequently collaborated on several things since. And we’ve done, I don’t know, four or five books together and— And then he sort of went his way. After high school, he and I got into my old car and drove out to California. And that was a big deal for us.
CUNO: So what brought you to Los Angeles?
RUSCHA: I had this notion. I had to get out of Oklahoma; I had to go someplace, go to an art school. Could’ve picked Kansas City, Chicago, New York. Los Angeles seemed better suited, and also it had a flavor. I had visited there before. And believe it or not, the vegetation here—palm trees and that sorta thing—you know, creates this mythical position you take in your life. And so I thought, well, that’s a good place to go.
So we got in the car and drove out here. we were like deer in the headlights. And it was such a strange but vital place that we felt like this was the land of Oz or something. There was some real possibility here. So I do recall that.
CUNO: So why did you choose to study at Chouinard?
RUSCHA: I was more or less pushed into my attendance at Chouinard, because I wanted to go to ArtCenter school because they had a industrial design program and they had not much of a painting program, but they had advertising and other things. And their quota was full, so I couldn’t go to that school, so I had to go to Chouinard, which was second choice. And it turned out to be the best one.
Chouinard was where all the bohemians were. ArtCenter school had a dress code. You couldn’t have facial hair. You couldn’t wear a beret to school, with the affectation of being a avant-garde person. You couldn’t bring bongo drums to school. You couldn’t wear sandals. But Chouinard allowed all those things. So it was like black and white. And I ended up going to Chouinard for maybe close to four years.
CUNO: Wow. What did your father think of it?
CUNO: Being an artist.
RUSCHA: I knew I wanted to do something. I thought first of all, maybe I— Wouldn’t be bad to be a sign painter. I— That’s the way I started out. I was thinking about being a sign painter, and that any of these art classes would provide me kinda stepping stones to the knowledge of whatever it is.
And then I got into advertising. And then by accident, began seeing these fine art students and what they were doing, and took a class from Robert Irwin. A watercolor class that was very good. Emerson Woelffer was another teacher of mine. It was just a good atmosphere. And there was no promise of anything. You know, like art schools today promise you a future, promise you success. And back then, nuh-uh, no. This was a very slow, grinding world back in 1960.
CUNO: What does your father think of you becoming an artist? And for that matter, what did your mother think of that?
RUSCHA: Well, at the time, he was dubious. My father was dubious of me attempting to go to an art school that had no— There’s no finish line at the end of an art school, like there is when you go to business school. And so he thought maybe I should go into petroleum or— He was an auditor for Hartford Insurance Company, and so he had a particular kind of mind that didn’t allow for the open thinking of the world of art.
He was a more practical person. He said, “Do something practical that, you know, you— What are you gonna do when you get out of art school? You gonna be in an ivory tower?” He didn’t like it. My mother liked the idea that I went to art school.
Then my dad one day read his favorite magazine, Post magazine. And there was an article about ArtCenter school and about Chouinard, also. And in the article, they mentioned that Walt Disney was a friend of Nellie Chouinard, and he supported her school. And that did it for my dad. He said, “Well, that’s great. Stay on there. Stay in that school, that’s good. Walt Disney’s supporting your school.”
CUNO: Did he live long enough to see you succeed?
RUSCHA: He didn’t live really long enough. He was born in 1891, in Missouri. And he died like 1959. I was barely through art school by that time, so he didn’t get to see what I did as an artist. My mother, on the other hand, did. And she was more supportive. But that’s the way it works, doesn’t it?
CUNO: Now, who were the early artists in Los Angeles that attracted your attention?
RUSCHA: I started going to art shows and art openings and things and I saw the work of John Altoon and Robert Irwin and Emerson Woelffer, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Ken Price. He was a sculptor at that time, and I thought he was— had some great take on life. And all these artists had their own particular— Ed Kienholz was another whose, you know, wild hare in the scene.
And all these artists kinda were friends with each other, and I liked that. That was a vitality that scenes don’t necessarily always have. And they would bounce off one another in such a way that you could— you could say, “Well, these artists are not really— They’re not of the same stripe. They’re all different, but they seem to get along together. And they have a singular message.” Which is I don’t know what.
But that became the art scene. And Monday night openings on La Cienega Boulevard, there were like three galleries at that time, in the early sixties. And then everybody would gravitate to Barney’s Beanery and drink beer and carry on like that.
I always thought about LA as being the Australia of the art world, in that there was just not much going on. Everything seemed to be happening in New York and London and elsewhere. And I liked LA because I felt like it was— It was almost like the central casting of cities, in a weird way. And it didn’t have much history. I mean, the only thing that had history was the movie business.
But there was not much about the art world. Not many painters that came out of history that you could point to. And so it was dry, from that standpoint. Then I met Walter Hopps, luckily, because he had an immense talent for taking it all in and kinda churning it and transposing it into good ideas. And he was quite a thinker.
And I met him through Joe Goode, who I also came out of Oklahoma with. Joe had a studio at Walter’s house, out in Pasadena. And Walter was almost like a Mr. Peepers kind of person. Intellectual. But he had great stamina and great enthusiasm for all kinds of art, and not just he art that is considered famous or good or, you know, pass muster or anything like that. He would have heroes that were lost in the brush of America, and he— But he knew about all these people. So he had a tale to spin. And he really did it.
CUNO: Yeah. Walter Hopps, who was the curator at the Ferus Gallery, together with others, but certainly, he was important at the Ferus Gallery, and then after that, at the Pasadena Art Museum.
RUSCHA: Yeah, Walter was a kind of person that never once attempted to make a work of art. And some— a lotta these people were— that are curators, at one point wanted to make art themselves. And then they saw that this other place was a better place for them.
And so Walter was never that way. He wanted to discover talent, if you look at it that way, and then bring the talent together, put it in some place so you can have an exhibit. So he was like a matchmaker and a presenter of these ideas. And he would do it in his own inimitable style and fashion. And he was great.
CUNO: Was it through Walter that you got introduced to the East Coast artists?
RUSCHA: Well, he was part of the Ferus Gallery at one point. And eventually, I ended up having a show at Ferus Gallery. That was sort of a dream of mine, to begin with. And I didn’t mind being an outsider, either. And then Walter kinda split off. Irving Blum ran the gallery. And it had a very unique kind of thing to offer to the scene.
CUNO: What was that?
RUSCHA: They brought in artists from all over the world, and they would have these very tidy shows of paintings and sculpture and all of this, that were not really seen by other commercial galleries. You know, it was a different mix, a different atmosphere altogether. And it made for something really good.
And then Walter went to Pasadena Art Museum, where he sorta ran things on his own terms. I mean, he would show up when he chose to show up, not when a meeting started at ten o’clock. And people began to love him for it because he would eventually make up for it and end up bringing up something that was profound and amusing. And so he brought a lot to the art scene.
The very fact that he had a Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the— in Pasadena, California, of all places. But he made all those things happen. So it’s just a combination of all those people. And then the artists, throw that into the mix and you’ve got a real MixMaster.
CUNO: Yeah. He was responsible for bringing Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg out.
RUSCHA: Yeah. Yeah. He was. That’s when I originally had seen little photographs of Jasper’s paintings. The one with the target and the American flag and— And I just felt like this guy is— You know, he blew my hair back, this guy did, and so did Bob Rauschenberg, with their approaches to life and opening up your eyes and— You know, everything is not just red, yellow, blue, and coming from a tube. It can be anything out there in the— in the world. Grab it and use it, kind of thing.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, over some fifty years, you’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photographs of buildings along the Sunset Strip. Why were you drawn to the Sunset Strip and to this kind of project?
RUSCHA: I think it’s an outgrowth of my paper route back in Oklahoma. I mean, I had a mesmerizing kind of movement from left to right, when I’d walk along the street. And I’d recognize each house every day and this house gets a newspaper, this one doesn’t; this one does, this one does. It was mesmerizing.
And there was something beyond the simple pictures of capturing Sunset Boulevard. It was more like I was some professor studying what this is all about. And so democratically, I would go along and shoot every little inch of the street, whether there was a building on it or not. And so if there was a vacant lot, we’d have a vacant lot. And a vacant lot has as much power as a building, in the evolution of things. It’s like a study of sorts.
And also, I was taking a lotta photographs at that, black and white photographs. And so I thought, why not just bring the camera to the phenomenon and record this thing? A recording of what the whole thing looks like, with all the warts and everything else. And the changes and curbs and parking strips and things like that, driveways, are just as important as the buildings that are on the street.
Sunset Strip is only a very small part of the full twenty-five, twenty-six miles of Sunset Boulevard. And so the capturing of the entire twenty-six miles times two, north and south, would make up this kind of study or program of the way things were at a particular time.
CUNO: But is there something particular about Sunset Strip or Sunset Boulevard that would be different than some other street in Los Angeles? I mean, why the Strip?
RUSCHA: I always liked the word sunset, and in my traipsing around and trying to find a place to live and everything, Sunset seemed to be the backbone of the city. And so I got to know it by driving up and down the streets. And I could see that there was a particular— I don’t wanna call it majesty, because there’s so much— I mean, there was a lotta squalor and then there was a lot of elitist residences and everything. I mean, Sunset Boulevard has it all. All twenty-six miles of it.
And during the sixties, I guess, people were focusing on the Sunset Strip and the young kids, entertainment, Vietnam War. It had all these percussive kind of things going on that identified Sunset Strip as being hot in the world. And so I don’t know, I just concentrated on that. And I’m watching it change.
And it went beyond that, too, because I’ve photographed some forty to fifty different streets in Central Los Angeles. I haven’t really gone in the Valley too much; I haven’t gone south of Slauson. I stay mostly in Central LA, from Downtown to the beach, and all those streets. I’ve driven ’em so many times that it’s in my blood flow.
And I also like the passage of time that a study like this can be, because there’s quite a difference between what buildings looked like in 1966 and what they look like today. And so it’s a work in progress. I just keep doing it. It’s like the archaeology of a street or of streets.
CUNO: So how did you do it and when did you do it? Like when the city slept?
RUSCHA: It seemed like Sunday morning would be a good time to do anything, because there was less people on the street and no cars to speak of and no interference. Cars always presented an interference between the camera and the storefront plane of the boulevard.
If I could’ve waved my hand and have some magic thing happen, I would eliminate all the cars. And yet I take that also, the cars, as being sort of a blood flow over the street. So why not capture all those things? And so it became just part of it.
And take a truck, mount a camera in the back and have an automatic Nikon camera that would take 350 photos at a swing, on a single piece of film. And that, doing that simplifying it and making the task much easier than if I were to walk the whole thing.
CUNO: Yeah, that’s for sure. Now, I remember when we first started talking about this project and the Getty getting involved in digitizing the project, that there was a recognition that many reels of film had not ever been even processed. So what did you expect from the project, if it wasn’t going to be processed from the very beginning?
RUSCHA: What did I expect?
RUSCHA: Well, the idea that an institution like the Getty would be interested in this is fulfilling, to say the least. And since I was basically sitting on this property, sitting on these reels of film that were not really gonna go anywhere, but I was happy to have them, and that eventually, something could materialize from this decades hence, and someone would have some thoughts about how these images could be compared to one another, and that a real story, a fundamental story could be slowly built.
CUNO: Did you think of it as a archive project or an art project or what kind of project?
RUSCHA: Well, it’s like an art project, yes, and it’s kind of an Egyptian project, in a way. It’s extensive. And it’s like lifting lots of bricks and stones and gathering it all together and recording it and having this all materialize in any way it would is very fulfilling. And like I say, it is a work in progress. So it continues on.
CUNO: You’re in for the long haul.
RUSCHA: In for the long haul, yeah.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, what’s next for you in your studio?
RUSCHA: I don’t know what—
CUNO: What projects do you have working?
RUSCHA: I wonder what’s gonna happen. And the big fat question mark out there is actually welcome in my life, ’cause I don’t know what’s gonna— I don’t know what’s gonna go on. And so I think I just wanna open up some consolidated story, universal, fundamental story behind the whole thing.
CUNO: Well, thanks so much for your time on this podcast, Ed. It’s always a pleasure being with you and talking with you about your work, so thank you.
RUSCHA: Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ED RUSCHA: You know, everything is not just red, yellow, blue, and coming from a tube. It can be ...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824