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Course of Empire: Paintings by Ed Ruscha

November 17, 2005 - January 29, 2006


Course of Empire: Paintings by Ed Ruscha, the United States' contribution to the current 51st Venice Biennale, will have its only US presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where it will be on view from November 17, 2005 through January 29, 2006. Other Venice Biennale projects that have been brought to the United States have included those of Jasper Johns (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Louise Bourgeois (Brooklyn Museum of Art). (right: Ed Ruscha, The Old Trade School Building, 2005, synthetic polymer on canvas, 54 x 120 inches (137.2 x 305.1 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. © 2005 Ed Ruscha. Photograph courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph © Paul Ruscha)

A contemporary master and one of the most influential artists at work today, Ed Ruscha has redefined our vision of the American landscape. In her foreword to the catalog that accompanies the Biennale installation, author Joan Didion writes of Ruscha's art, "His works are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence."[1]

The exhibition of Ruscha's Course of Empire was organized for the 51st Venice Biennale by Commissioner of the United States Pavilion Linda Norden, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Harvard University Art Museums, in collaboration with Consulting Curator Donna De Salvo, Associate Director for Programs and Curator of the Permanent Collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Project administration for the 2005 Biennale was provided by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. For its Whitney presentation, the Biennale project -- which was conceived in response to the symmetrical plan of the US Pavilion in Venice -- will be reconfigured by co-curators De Salvo and Norden, working with the artist.

Dealing with the theme of "progress, or the course of progress," Ruscha's Biennale installation was inspired by 19th-century American artist Thomas Cole's painting cycle, The Course of Empire, from which Ruscha's title derives.[2] The Cole paintings will be on view at the New York Historical Society through February 6 as part of an exhibition, The Hudson River School at the New York Historical Society: Nature and the American Vision.[3]

In his Course of Empire, Ruscha revisits his own 1992 Blue Collar series of five black-and-white paintings and paints five new color pictures in response to each of the original five. As described in the curators' brochure, written for the Venice exhibition: (right: Ed Ruscha, Blue Collar Trade School, 1992, synthetic polymer on canvas, 54 x 120 inches (137.2 x 304.8 cm). Collection of Neda Young. © 2005 Ed Ruscha. Photograph courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Photograph © Paul Ruscha)

"Much about the new works is in keeping with Ruscha's previous portrayals of Standard stations, Hollywood signs, or mountains. The paintings are photographic in feel, depict urban landscapes at once familiar and remote, and manage to make mundane structures monumental. Like Cole, Ruscha makes progress his subject. The new series pictures his old buildings and former sites retooled, repossessed, abandoned, enlarged, and made obsolete, not necessarily in that order. But whereas Cole chronicles the ravages of an overcivilized culture on an untrammeled American landscape, Ruscha's images quietly remark on how 'change comes over things.' Unlike Ruscha's earlier depictions of American gas stations or Sunset Strip facades, these buildings speak to obsolescence, loss of industry, and anxiety. What they foretell probably depends on which highway you happen to be viewing them from."

Reporting from Venice in The Washington Post, art critic Blake Gopnik noted that "Cole's series of paintings documents the birth, rise, flourishing and death of an imaginary realm, so just by borrowing its title Ruscha evokes a falling away from grace. But what makes that evocation take effect in the paintings themselves is the light that Ruscha -- and Cole, for that matter -- owes to the Venetian painters who worked after their empire had begun its slide." And writing in The New York Times about Ruscha's installation in Venice, art critic Michael Kimmelman commented, "Mature, laconic and strangely grave, the work conveys an acute attention to place and light, and an almost wistful sense of time past."


Artist's Background

Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, Ed Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to complete his education at the Chouinard Art Institute. In 1963, he began showing at the progressive Ferus Gallery in L.A. Ruscha's first international show took place in Cologne, Germany, in 1968; he began showing with the legendary Leo Castelli in New York only a few years afterwards. Ruscha is currently represented by the Gagosian Gallery in New York and Beverly Hills.

Throughout his career, Ruscha has drawn equally on language and landscape to communicate a particular urban experience. While he is considered both a pop and conceptual artist, and though his art encompasses photography, drawing, and painting, Ruscha's early career as a graphic artist continues to influence his aesthetic and thematic approach, as does his deadpan humor. Ruscha's first retrospective, for example, which many consider one of the most successful American retrospectives ever, was titled I Don't Want No Retrospective -- the Works of Edward Ruscha. Organized in 1982 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the retrospective also traveled to the Whitney.

The Whitney first exhibited Ed Ruscha's work, however, in the 1967 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, and it has since featured Ruscha in several group exhibitions and collected his art extensively. In 2004, the Whitney presented a Ruscha drawing retrospective, Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and then to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through mid-2005. The Whitney also premiered Ed Ruscha and Photography, an exhibition of more than seventy original photographs, many of which had never been published or exhibited before.

In 1999-2000, The Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM) inaugurated their Sert Gallery in the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, a new gallery designed for the exhibition of contemporary art, with Landmark Pictures, an exhibition curated by Linda Norden that featured Ruscha and the German photographers Andreas Gursky and Berndt and Hilla Becher. HUAM's commitment to Ruscha also extends to collecting: Over the past twenty years, they have acquired all of Ruscha's artist books; numerous prints and portfolios; several exceptional drawings; a series of recent photographs and a major painting.



A fully illustrated catalogue, with forewords by Joan Didion and Frances Stark and an essay by Linda Norden and Donna De Salvo, was published on the occasion of the exhibition at the 51st Venice Biennale, and will be available at the Whitney and Harvard University Art Museums.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

1. concerning Ed Ruscha:

this online video

The Hirshhorn Museum Library, founded in 1969, is administered by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL). It is a research collection devoted to modern and contemporary painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, photography, video, and emerging art forms. Ed Ruscha is the taping of a June 29, 2000 lecture by the artist at the Hirshhorn Museum. The Hirshhorn Museum Library's web page contains a video clip from the lecture.

this online audio:

The Walker Art Center's Art On Call provides phone, podcast and browsing options for its audience to hear to artists and curators discuss works from the Walker Art Center's collection. Cell phone users call a phone number to hear an audio segment. Listeners can also access an index of MP3 streams on the Art On Call home page. Titles include Edward Ruscha, Steel

2. concerning Thomas Cole:

3. concerning the Hudson River School:

and this video:

Hudson River and its Painters, The is a 57 minute 1988 video from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Series released by Home Vision Entertainment. The mid-nineteenth century saw the growth of America's first native school of landscape painters, artists inspired by the compelling beauty of the Hudson River Valley, who portrayed this and other romantic wilderness areas with an almost mystical reverence. This 57 minute video explores the life and work of the major artists of what came to be known as the Hudson River School -- Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, John Kensett, Jasper Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Gifford, and George Inness. Although its members traveled widely, the growth and development of the school were centered around New York City, and its success reflected the ambitions of the youthful American nation. It presents more than 200 paintings, prints and photographs of the period and juxtaposes them with dramatic location photography of the Hudson River area. The Hudson Company in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.



Also see the Hudson River School Painters article from AskArt.com accompanied by a list of notable Hudson Rive School artists.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Whitney Museum of American Art in Resource Library.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Art/World: Ed Ruscha is a 20 minute look at some of this modern artist's finest work, from the early '60s to the present day. Also included in this 1992 video is a look at the Los Angeles Metro Public art projects. Produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Suggested by the Art of Edward Ruscha, 28-minute video by Mystic Fire Video, 1981 (information courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art Teacher Resource Center Catalogue)

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

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