Imperious Criteria

John Haber
in New York City

Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire

Monuments for the USA

The other day The New York Times had to apologize again. In his undergraduate thesis, Carl Icahn had written about the "empiricist criterion of meaning," not imperious. I felt a chill, as I thought of calls by Niall Ferguson and other neocons for America to assume responsibility for commanding an empire.

Since the war in Iraq, artists, too, have been struggling to disentangle imperial dreams from the facts. In the winter of 2006, two exhibitions ask whether America can remember the recent past. Each addresses anxieties in an age of globalization. With Course of Empire, Ed Ruscha's anxieties stretch from economic realities to a short history of American painting. It also captures his influence from Pop Art to the present. Finally, "Monuments for the USA" pleads for a nation worth remembering. from Ed Ruscha's Course of Empire (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2005)

What could sound lamer than art in the public interest, especially when the public fails to show up? What could sound more dated, too, like a leftover WPA project still struggling for completion? Yet Course of Empire multiplies the ways in which art can respond to pressing needs. It also looks backward to more than one moment in time, for a portrait in miniature of the American economy and American art. I get a smile at older work by Ruscha, such as "Honey, I weaved through more damn traffic today," but how much more? Judging by his drawings and now Course of Empire, he can hold more that I ever guessed.

The group show has a still more heart-felt despondency and a longer memory. First, however, you had to get there. At the time, conflicting signs directed one away from White Columns, without actually naming it, because a city agency or community group would not allow art to spoil the glorious Meatpacking District with anything so ostentatious. Meanwhile, another agency had refused a post-office box on Horatio and, correspondingly, a more helpful street address. If this sounds like a commentary on politics, art, and the public sphere today, that should put you in the right frame of mind for "Monuments for the USA." You will just have to strain to locate your own memories of America.

But of course!

In his drawings, Ed Ruscha turns into an illusionist unlike anything in his early canvases or artist's books. Letters leap into three dimensions, against a background of light and shadow executed with consummate precision. One sees the same patience with the medium as he shows for subject matter in his encyclopedia photographs—also at the Whitney—of Southern California emptiness. The gray may look like pencil, but Ruscha somehow draws with gunpowder, much as another LA artist, Jack Goldstein, reads in advance of a page on fire. It makes Ruscha's painting of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on fire sound dangerous.

And now, with his five paintings, Ruscha certainly means to engage the present, too, including the personal and the political. Each invokes one of those prefabricated buildings that line American roads. One industrial building lies deserted, like the Southern California of drawings by Ken Price, behind a decrepit but still menacing wire fence. Another has vanished entirely, leaving little more than a bare tree and threatening skies. Others have suffered "repurposing"—as a chain store or as a new acquisition for the Asian economy. The Chinese characters on a building's face can only add to the disturbing anonymity, even if one has not seen Chen Chieh-Jen's videos of factories in Asia.

Still, unlike the more philosophical abstractions of Lawrence Weiner, a past collaborator, Ruscha keeps looking back. The paintings return to the sites of his 1992 Blue Collar series, when each building played its role in a vanishing lower-middle-class suburban economy. Now you know what happened next. They return to the days of Ruscha's large-scale narrative work, such as the 1968 Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, and the block lettering for building logos keeps up his habit of painting words. In the attention to sky, storm clouds, a fiery sunset, and equally eerie morning light, they remind me as well of the pencil and gunpowder shading in his works on paper, which finally convinced me that I was seeing a real artist. They look back, too, to a time in the twentieth century when political art meant art about the working class.

Of course, they also revisit the 1830s, when Thomas Cole's Course of Empire took his beloved landscape from the state of nature to culture and back, thanks to periods of flourishing, decadence, and violent destruction. Even apart from its subject matter and history, however, the new Course of Empire reflects America's global dilemma (what Isa Genzken calls its Vampire/Empire) and art's possibilities for entering the public sphere. Ruscha geared up quickly to fill a gap, as the country's late entry into the Venice Biennale. As usual, the Bush administration has trouble remembering it actually belongs to the international community. Critics have noted that the trademark blankness of Ruscha's lighting actually looks back more to Canaletto's Venice than to Cole's Hudson River.

The Whitney steps in to fulfill art's public role in its own way, by giving the surprisingly unheralded show a domestic stop. (Have I said often enough how the museum has been taking American art seriously recently?) It temporarily reduced the display of its permanent collection, adapted one of its larger floors since Oscar Bluemner already occupied the second floor, and displayed both Ruscha series on long, freestanding facing walls, angled ever so slightly toward one another. I wish it could have borrowed the original Course of Empire, too. The New-York Historical Society has lent the work in the past—most recently to Philadelphia, for a survey of Hudson River School. Here the photographic reproductions in light boxes look deceptively small and out of reach for Cole's American sublime.

Ironically, while Cole invented American painting's meditation on civilization and the wilderness, he could hardly have imagined America as something of an international empire. Even the Mexican war lay ten years away. Ironically, too, the decaying sites of Blue Collar come closest to Cole's final scene, in which nature starts to reclaim an empty land for itself. Ruscha's latest subject, with the destruction of blue-collar hopes, looks more like Cole's penultimate stage. Maybe in another thirteen years Ruscha will wend his way back another stage, only to find a teeming despair.

Monuments for US

"Remember the Alamo!" "Remember Pearl Harbor!" "Remember to brush and floss your teeth." For a nation, a family, or the psyche itself, memory may begin as a recitation of the facts, but it quickly becomes contested grounds. As with the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and now at Ground Zero, so, too, can plans for a memorial. Forget Postmodernism's "unmonumental." With "Monuments for the USA," the contest is on.

Michael Emgreen and Ingar Dragset, Monument to Short Term Memory (CCA Wattis Institute, 2004)The contest began in San Francisco, where Ralph Rugoff, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, invited over sixty artists to submit proposals for their imagined monuments. Certainly art has paid no shortage of tributes to "September 11," Ground Zero, and America after 9/11, whether in the parks, the galleries, or even the borders of Ground Zero. And certainly that date looms over this exhibition as well, as when Tariq Alvi reports his own experiences that day or when Chris Johanson and Kal Spelletich put a surveillance camera at the center of their "negative monument." Yet the few works that I had seen before and the few artists most directly engaging historical specifics, such as Hans Haacke and San Durant, seem heavy-handed and overly literal amid this abundance of voices. The best work steps back from events, more akin to Ruscha's Course of Empire, in order to remember America and to wonder what it may have lost.

Again and again, they see a bitterly divided country, struggling to preserve its past. Gary Simmons imagines a permanent divide, between the red and blue states, like the wall extending past Israel. Artemio imagines a gigantic envelope with an old-fashioned wax seal as a Monument to Truth. Its whiteness against an open lawn, framed by a curve of row houses, makes it seem as if the White House has suddenly vanished, leaving only a permanently sealed farewell. Ken Lum and Tobias Putrih both imagine sites for archives, one as passages between light and darkness, the other as a kind of cardboard bird or dinosaur—its entrance, reasonably enough, through a hinged rear end. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset elevate the message "Short Term Memory" in the style of three different artists—Robert Indiana, Jenny Holzer, and Félix Gonzáles-Torres.

For many, looking back comes with frightening messages for the future. A wall of letters from Andrea Bowers recovers agonized voices from before Roe v. Wade, a brutal intersection between national and personal history Susan Hiller takes the image of the Statue of Liberty from the end of Planet of the Apes. Others turn to economics, as with Michael Ross's Monument to Small Change, or the environment, as with Yutaka Sone's island garden and images of a giant sequoia by Anya Gallaccio. When Martin Creed suggests the neon word People, as in "We the People," he invites one to how the comforting we has vanished from the political arena as well as from his art. After Jeffrey Vallance and his Monument to the Unrecognized Artist—a gallery's spare, white cube, enclosing a skylight, with the marble and pedestal steps of a temple—one may ask, too, who will supply our voices.

I began by quoting three admonitions to remember, all from Olav Westphalen—although, as in a monument to Doris Day's hair, he does run to the cutes. However, I felt relief when I could smile, as with Lilliana Moro's All the Presidents' Dogs, and puns like hers have a way of cutting more deeply than I expected. Group shows this large almost always go astray anyway, inviting far too many off-the-cuff responses, from artist and viewer alike. When Thomas Hirschhorn models a skyscraper as a tall volume of French theory, he is no doubt recycling his own obsessions, and the postmodern hyping on the world as image could almost describe a show too large to absorb. Yet I give Rugoff and White Columns a lot of credit, for the mess ends up provocative without their squeezing it all into a predetermined unity.

Obviously the exhibition has a politically correct slant, as one might expect from artists. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov in fact call their contribution a Monument to Tolerance. I could attribute this to liberal bias or to the marginal position of the arts in society, but, hey, then I would be entering the show's contested ground myself. Besides, in their focus on poignant memories rather than grand memorials, the artists here reflect a deeply felt attachment to America's past—one that, scarily, seems more and more like nostalgia. Gallaccio says it in her title, Because I Still Love You. Jessica Diamond's wall drawing pretty much sums up the show and perhaps Ruscha's and Hirschhorn's as well: The Archive of the American Dream.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Ed Ruscha's "Course of Empire" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through January 29, 2006, and "Monuments for the USA" at White Columns through January 28. Ruscha's drawings and photographs had run at the Whitney through September 26, 2005, with a related display of a collaboration with Lawrence Weiner on a book of photographs at P.S. 1 through September 27 as part of a group show, "Hard Light." Just to be clear, White Columns has since resolved opposition to marking the building.

 

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