Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire @ the National Gallery

Room one

Room 1 of the National Gallery is just that, a normal-sized room, not a massive gallery. They use it to host smallish displays of work brought together on a common theme or by a niche artist, and the exhibitions or displays on here are generally FREE. The most recent one was a compact survey of lake paintings by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

This summer, room one is hosting a display of ten big paintings by the American artist Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha

For a start you pronounce his name ROO-SHAY. He was born in 1937.

Since the 1960s Ruscha has been producing paintings and prints depicting the American urban landscape in a highly simplified and stylised way. His subject is the modern American landscape of petrol stations, highways and industrial units, all depicted in a semi-abstract manner which emphasises cool lines, streamlined design, and dispenses with human beings altogether.

Initially associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Ruscha often incorporates commercial art elements into his paintings, prints and photography – from the 1980s onwards they have included typography, graffiti and billboards.

All this can be grasped in a glance at what is probably his most famous work, Standard Station from 1966.

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire

In 1992 Ruscha created a number of black and white urban landscapes of Los Angeles, focusing on highly simplified views of purely architectural structures, reduced to almost cartoon simplicity, taken from below looking up, in order to remove any evidence whatsoever of street life, traffic or people.

The look like simple, box-like, utilitarian structures with no pretension to beauty, although their stark simplicity itself bespeaks a kind of urban economic power.

In 2005, Ruscha was asked to represent the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale. Ruscha had long been a fan of Thomas Cole’s great cycle of five big oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary empire, Course of Empire, on view in a gallery in New York.

Inspired by this idea of a rise and fall, a before and after, Ruscha decided to take five of his 1992 black and white paintings and revisit their locations, painting how they looked after the passage of 13 years.

And so Ruscha presented at the Biennale five of the black and white urban landscapes made in 1992, hung next to five new colour versions of these same sites, and gave the series the same title Cole had used, Course of Empire.

And this is what’s hung here in room one at the National Gallery – five massive black and white paintings of industrial units in urban L.A., each one hung above the colour view of the same location 13 years later.

Top row - Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Top row – Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row – The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

The tool and die shop has been taken over by what looks from the signage to be a Korean business. The trade school has been closed down, its windows filled with plywood, locked behind a barbed wire fence which is itself showing signs of wear. The tyre shop has now become what looks like a storage facility.

You can see how simplistic the depiction of the buildings is. The complete absence of human warmth or emotion. The lack of detail. The looming presence of the sky in the top left picture, in particular.

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Ed and the curators made the fairly obvious decision to hang the paintings in two rows, the older ones directly above their respective partners from the later series, for the simple reason that this is a small room – the paintings are so enormous they simply wouldn’t all have fit if placed in one row.

The most puzzling thing – which wasn’t explained anywhere in the notes – is why the old paintings are black and white and the new in colour. Does it mimic the change from black and white to colour photography which took place in the 1960s? Was the blue collar world which they seem to lament a world of black and white, contrasted with the funky digital colours of our new, smart phone culture?

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

It’s impossible to say that the passage of time has somehow dehumanised the landscape because there were never any humans in the landscape to start with.

And the paradox is that, although the contrast between working buildings and now empty buildings is presumably meant to convey a sense of loss or abandonment, the use of colour in the 2005 pictures actually makes them feel much more warm and welcoming.

In fact, the before and after of the telephone booth is pretty much a ‘sight gag’. Where there used to be phone booths there is now nothing at all because everyone has mobile phones. no need for the expensive-to-maintain old booths. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I was also puzzled the way the old phone booth had been replaced by a tree because trees are good, aren’t they? That sort of suggests a positive change, which goes against the gloomy declinism of most of the others.

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

So is it all a tale of woe, a snapshot of American economic decline? Or a little more complicated than that?

Certainly, all five of the 1992 paintings have the words ‘blue collar’ in the title which are absent from the 2003/4/5 titles. Is the series a lament for the passing of the traditional working class world?

Who knows. The paintings offer no more information than their straightforward content and their blankly factual titles. It’s for us to respond and interpret.

The tie-in with Thomas Cole

Why are they here in the National Gallery, now? To coincide with the big exhibition downstairs covering the career of the American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, which includes the epic five-painting cycle The Course of Empire (1834–6) which Ruscha has acknowledged as a major inspiration for his series.

It is the first time that Cole’s source set of paintings, and Ruscha’s response to them, have ever been exhibited at the same time, in the same institution.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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