Most of the dozens of art spaces now showing off Southern California art history weren't even around when Ed Ruscha set up his easel and his style in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Ruscha's classic, defining works are keystones in Pacific Standard Time, a series of exhibitions whose 1945-to-1980 range takes a stab at framing two of the biggest and most elusive concepts around: "art" and "Los Angeles." Ruscha's vision has had a defining hand in both.
With his rescue dog Woody padding around his new Culver City studio, Ruscha uses one of his favorite mediums, words, to paint the vast and ambitious canvas of Pacific Standard Time -- and his place in it.
What does this exhibition mean to you?
It's a look backward, and that happens a lot in the art world, actually. They're always saying, "Let's observe Picasso from 1920 to 1926,'' and here we are looking at Los Angeles. I hope they delve into the art that was less popular at that time but still part of the vocabulary. I hope they don't just put in artists who were prominent.
Did you even know it was "a period" while you were in it?
The history of art made in California from 1900 on -- it's sketchy but it is a history. But it's nothing like Paris, New York, you know. I came out here in the late '50s and there was very little in the way of museums. But there was an art world: There was Chouinard [Art] Institute, the Art Center School -- which I couldn't go to because their quota was filled. I came to find out they had dress codes and you couldn't have facial hair, couldn't bring bongos to school -- this is an art school! And you couldn't dress like an artist!
Anyhow, looking back on it, I feel like I lived in a kind of a scratchy black-and-white movie. There was no artist I knew of who actually made a living at art. Art schools today almost promise you a career. It was an idealistic time where artists felt [they] could do it for sport instead of money.
So everyone wasn't hanging out in the same cafes?
There was Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood, but finally all the artists just simply squirreled away back in their studios and made widgets. I think a lot of artists were quite happy to be out of the scene, but at the same time they wanted to show their work and try to make a living at it and still stay on principle. Each one was kind of off on their own thing, so they didn't paint the same picture, which can happen when you have a lot of artists who come together and socialize.
What arts movements were specific to L.A.?
There was a movement here called the Finish Fetish. It involved artists working in plastics and automotive lacquers and more or less high-tech techniques instead of just canvas painting on an easel. Artists like Billy Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Bob Irwin came along, who chose unconventional approaches, and they were caught up in the swirl of the Finish Fetish.
Oh, "finish," not "Finnish." My mind went into the gutter there. That sounded like a catalog I didn't want to get.
Oh no! The patina, the Finish Fetish.
What was the big bang that tipped L.A. art into the big time?
In the '60s and '70s there were younger people coming along and doing conceptual art and those challenging things. I take my hat off to all those people, like Chris Burden. At the same time a few more galleries began to open, and other museums. Now it's moved far beyond that with MOCA and the Hammer and all that. This town has grown. It's a lively, jumpy art world today by comparison. It was the dark ages back then. Now I don't even know who all the artists are; any artist over 20 is like over the hill!
Early on, no one was saying, "You can't do that." Was that an advantage?
There were no manifestoes from many of us, but everyone was quietly making their own manifestoes. The artist Harry Gamboa said it best when he said L.A. is a desert with mirages and something happens and, poof, it's gone. I always liked that. That's Los Angeles.
What about the curators, the patrons, the art historians then?
I might be making it sound like the artists themselves were the entire picture, but there are a lot of people in the art world and some of those people are curators and directors of museums and they help shape it. [Ferus Gallery's] Walter Hopps, a phenomenal person, seemed to know everything and was truly a friend of the artist. You had Marcia Weisman and her brother Norton Simon; Norton Simon collected impressionist art and Marcia collected contemporary art.
I see movement and restlessness in your work, in your interest in Sunset Boulevard, for example.
Maybe I see the city as kind of a platform to map it out, and I like maps. I thought [L.A.] was just one big long Sunset Boulevard, and it became so ingrained and empowered in me that I kept reflecting on Sunset Boulevard. Somebody else would pick a vase of flowers; I have to look at a street. I like to look at it almost as a geologist or an anthropologist would, so I'm not just reflecting on things like the Marlboro Man [billboard] but the concrete curb in front of the Marlboro Man. I like the democratic mapping of the entire thing.
You made words into visuals.
I started making these word paintings as though I was making that word official to myself, almost like a caveman carving something in stone. Makes me part caveman, doesn't it? Sometimes I forget whether I'm painting a picture with words or of words. They also seem to be elemental structures of the world, these abstract, funny-looking shapes of letters that line up like soldiers and have some definition in our dictionary. Then there's the meaning behind the word, which has its own potency, and sometimes it's so simple and so stupid that it deserves being painted.
L.A. art bloomed just as the art world stopped regarding commercial art as beneath it.
It was very snobbish to feel like the higher arts have nothing whatsoever to do with other visual stuff, like advertising. I don't believe that. Any kind of visual stuff has got to influence you, even if it's bad stuff.
After centuries of paint on walls, paint on canvas, there's art on phones, on computers. John Baldessari has an iPhone art app. Do you use those media?
I don't do that. I'm a conflicted person: I don't like to see things change and yet I welcome change at the same time. So I'm living within my own misery! I find it rather exciting that artists are not limiting themselves to paint[ing] genuine oil paint on genuine canvas. That there are other ways to make art.
Who are the new or local people you like?
I don't get around to too many galleries here; I spend a lot of my time in my studio. I saw one [show] just recently, Jonathan Pylypchuk at China Art Objects Galleries. It was just very interesting. There's a lot of artists I don't know anything about and yet they're really signing on with their own voice. They've got a point of view, and I like any artist who does that.
Can there be too much art?
Now if you try to look at the art world, what it's doing, it's almost like too much. It's really hard to grasp.
Do you have any time for old masters?
I like looking at old art. I'm going to curate an exhibit at the historical art museum in Vienna where they don't collect anything past 1800. They've invited me to go look at their entire collection, [even] carved pure rock crystal vases, things that are out of my sphere of understanding, but boy they're sure great. I think it's going to be fun to do.
When almost anyone can do it, are there any standards? Who's to say what's art?
That's the $64,000 question. I like that it is wide open for interpretation, whereas it wasn't that long ago you didn't stray from these principles. I like tradition and I like traditional artists, and yet at the same time the future's got to be open for just about anything. There's more outrage to be seen in the near future.
What's different about L.A.'s art sensibility?
It's a new horizon when you look west. I like being here, but I've got a love-hate place in my heart for this place.
What's the hate part?
Too many damn people here, and I don't like the traffic. I go out to the desert. But the raw nerve endings of the city are also important to me.
How important is art to this culture?
I was thinking that when the world of finance goes into a tailspin, there's panic. But if that same thing happens in the art world, you get apathy. In finance and economics, if there's real trouble everyone is shivering and concerned. But in the world of art, people's eyes begin to shutter closed. I don't know why that is. There was a tailspin in the art world about 1990; people didn't seem to think much about it. I don't know where that puts art.
You did a painting with the words "I don't want no retrospective." Do you get tired of having your work and your observations referred back to you a lot?
I don't like to feel like I [am] writing my own history, so if I did intensive thinking about every step that I was taking toward making a picture or making a work of art, I would be a prisoner. I've managed to escape that by not thinking too much about what I do. I do things more or less spontaneously, and I have these little dialogues with myself, and I feel that that's the honest route to a final answer, which I'll never know what it is anyway.
What's on your walls at home?
I got sort of fanatical about collecting these 12 prints of Kandinsky's called "Small Worlds." I managed to get all 12 of them [over] about 10 years. When I got the last one, it was: Well, what do I do now?
This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of past interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.