Ed Ruscha’s Endlessly Amusing MoMA Mega-Retrospective Puts His Oddball Humor Front and Center

The best way to approach an Ed Ruscha work like his 2016 painting Really Old is to laugh. It’s an awkward, shaped canvas that starts out as a rectangle and culminates in a pinched triangle. “REALLY OLD,” it says at the top, in its widest part, before narrowing until it reaches its darkened bottom. At its tip, the painting reads “BRAND NEW.”

What’s truly new, Ruscha seems to say, occupies very little of our attention. What’s really old tends to hog the spotlight. And yet, in placing Really Old in the final gallery of Ruscha’s endlessly amusing, 200-work Museum of Modern Art retrospective, curator Christopher Cherix points out an irony in Ruscha’s work: almost everything he’s produced, both recent and not, feels really new. It always has, ever since the ’60s, when he began spreading cryptic text across monochromes.

MoMA retrospectives tend to come with gravitas, some of it due, most of it not. Thankfully, this one is just as direct as Ruscha’s art, which benefits from less curatorial commentary rather than more. His paintings, prints, and photographs speak so well for themselves that they hardly need someone to do it for them. And besides, would you really want someone to elucidate Ruscha’s kinky sense of humor? Everyone knows that a joke is no longer funny once someone has to explain it.

Think of Ruscha’s oeuvre as a bizarre, decades-long bit about failures to communicate. It’s the contemporary-art equivalent to “Who’s on First?”: an extended gag in which meaning slips between words like oil running across water.

Ed Ruscha, OOF, 1962.

©2023 Ed Ruscha/Photo Denis Doorly/Museum of Modern Art

Take the marvelous 1962 painting Actual Size, on loan to MoMA from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where this exhibition heads next. It features an image of a Spam can—not the real thing, notably—soaring through white space like a shooting star. Painted above it, in yellow bubble letters set against a black background, is its brand name: “SPAM.” The painting has the format of an advertisement, but it doesn’t exactly succeed in peddling precooked canned pork.

Words can sometimes seem to come alive in Ruscha’s work. They can hurt, as they do in one 1964 painting in which the O in the word “RADIO” is hitched to an I by a C-clamp and pulled apart. They can even contain Ruscha’s lifeblood, as they do Evil (1973), a menacing work whose title has been stained into a crimson satin sheet using the artist’s vital fluids.

Ed Ruscha, Actual Size, 1962.

©2023 Edward Ruscha/Photo ©Museum Associates/Los Angeles County Museum of Art

For the most part, however, Ruscha’s words are deadened, cold, and unfeeling. “FAITH,” reads one 1972 painting set against Rothko-like shades of red and black; it purposefully inspires no such fervor. “NAME ______,” reads another painting, from 1984, that casts that phrase against the shadows of a window shot through with daylight. The phrase is deliberately incomplete, like a nametag awaiting a wearer who will never come.

Some have felt compelled to apply semiotics to Ruscha’s art—no surprise there. It feels as though it should touch something deep, but with Ruscha, it’s best not to think too hard. Consider the example of the 1983 print Hollywood Is Not a Verb. Its titular subject is a noun, but you knew that already. That’s why it’s funny.

Ruscha could’ve played by the rules of grammar, sense, and art history, if he wanted to. Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, he attended art school at Los Angeles’s Chouinard Art Institute, where he was given a proper education in printmaking and painting. Then an “atomic bomb” dropped, as Ruscha recalled it. He saw a Jasper Johns painting in reproduction and was moved to follow that artist’s lead.

Visitors at “ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN” at the Museum of Modern Art.

Photo Faith Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A work like Annie (1962) is Ruscha at his most Johnsian. It features that titular word, rendered the same way as it would appear in the similarly named kids’ comic books, above a blue color field. Ruscha’s brushwork on that word is intense and physical, much like Johns’s in works like Flag (1954–55). Also like Johns, Ruscha was spoofing Abstract Expressionism’s obsession with the artist’s hand by using the movement’s logic against itself. Here, any illusion of originality once associated with smeary paint has been wiped away, with Ruscha’s strokes neatly dictated by outlines of someone else’s logo.

As if to drive home his point, Ruscha would that same year produce a painting called Five Cents, a price tag cast against a red monochrome. In the hands of Barnett Newman, without any text, this small block of maroon might have inspired transcendence. In the hands of Ruscha, it’s more or less worth a nickel.

Ruscha wore many hats, even as his art found favor in LA. After graduating Chouinard in 1960, he spent a year at an advertising agency. Even after he left that post, an obsession with layouts and typefaces remained.

He would find a new vessel for his passion for graphic design at Artforum, for whom he did paste-ups for four years. His September 1966 cover, with the word “surrealism” set amid psychedelically colored soap suds, remains an all-timer for the design-forward publication. Ruscha, never missing an opportunity to confound expectations, credited the image to an alter ego named Eddie Russia.

Ed Ruscha, Surrealism Soaped and Scrubbed, 1966, as it appeared on the cover of Artforum.

©2023 Ed Ruscha/Photo Robert Gerhardt/Museum of Modern Art

There are many different Ed Ruschas: Ed Ruscha, the prankish painter; Ed Ruscha, the deft printmaker; Ed Ruscha, the sly Conceptualist; and so on. This retrospective places a lot of weight on that first one, less so on the others, and that is a shame.

Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), his photo book documenting exactly what its title suggests, does appear here, presented accordion-style in the center of one gallery. In offering up amateurish shots with minimal compositional skill, Every Building on the Sunset Strip pried photography from the grip of modernist formalists. It helped usher in a paradigm for Conceptualists, many of whom used their cameras to document banality using rigorous rubrics. Above all else, the piece is a masterpiece of dry humor—the dull black-and-white images hardly seem to justify the punishing process used by Ruscha and his collaborators. But, at this show, you wouldn’t know any of that because the piece is dwarfed by paintings.

Ed Ruscha, spread from Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, 1968.

©2023 Ed Ruscha/Photo Susan Haller, Ed Ruscha Studio

Should we consider Ruscha, the installation artist, too? Cherix makes a valiant case for it, reconstructing his famed Chocolate Room (1970/2023), a gallery-filling piece whose walls are covered in papers nearly spread with the stuff, for the first time ever in New York. Having famously appeared in the 1970 Venice Biennale, where some attendees enlisted the piece in anti–Vietnam War protests, The Chocolate Room now occupies a central place in Ruscha lore. Unfortunately, the work isn’t quite as interesting as the mythology surrounding it. It does, however, smell nice.

Since around the time of The Chocolate Room, Ruscha’s art has never been quite the same. It has grown darker, murkier, more focused on the decline of civilization.

It’s useful to compare Ruscha’s contribution to the 1970 Biennale with the US Pavilion he did in 2004, when he revisited a prior series from the ’90s featuring boxy buildings for a new one called “Course of Empire.” He turned these structures decrepit and industrial, and pitted them against smoggy, unsettled skies. One building, formerly denoted as a trade school, has had its lettering yanked from its facade. Before it, now, is fencing topped with concertina wire. This building, once a site for education, now looks more like a place for incarceration.

Ed Ruscha, The Old Trade School Building, 2005.

©2023 Ed Ruscha/Digital image ©Whitney Museum/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, New York/Whitney Museum

The Chocolate Room is playful and somewhat lighthearted; “Course of Empire” aspires toward profundity and never quite reaches it. These paintings’ stone-cold seriousness about late capitalism and globalization—one factory is lent Korean-language signage—weights them down. They already feel dated, nearly 20 years later.

The works of the ’70s and ’80s have aged remarkably well, however—they look a lot like the figurative painting being made today by artists five decades Ruscha’s junior. Five Past Eleven (1989), a long canvas featuring a bamboo pole floating above a clock face, would not be out of place in a Tribeca gallery right now. Nor, even, would many of the works that came after it.

Ed Ruscha, The Music from the Balconies, 1984.

©2023 Ed Ruscha/Photo Tate/ARTIST ROOMS Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland

Ruscha has always seemed aware of his own influence, however, and perhaps in a nod to it, in 1984, he painted Big Inventions That Make a Big Difference, its titular phrase written out in magenta against a grey background. He left his painting’s words smeared, causing them to look like a page ripped from a printer before the ink has dried. The slovenly blur intentionally undermines this triumphant phrase’s grandeur—and possibly his own, too.

Ruscha appears to know his artistic inventions really have made a big difference in recent art history. He just doesn’t seem to care.