interview: curator Karin Breuer─“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” at the de Young through October 9, 2016
Sixty years ago, Ed Ruscha, moved across country from Oklahoma to Los Angeles to study art at what would become Cal Arts. Ever since, the celebrated artist, now 78, has been exploring the West’s expansive cultural and physical landscape. “Ed Rusha and the Great American West,” at the de Young Museum through October 9, 2016, examines Ruscha’s fascination with the Western United States, shifting emblems of American life, and the effects of time on this restless landscape. Ninety-nine of the artist’s prints, photos, paintings, and drawings fill the de Young’s Herbst exhibition galleries on the bottom floor, giving us an opportunity to see the originals of artworks we all know from prints and posters, including his mythic Hollywood signs and Standard gasoline stations.
“Ed Ruscha defies easy categorization,” says Karin Breuer, who curated the show and is curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, where she has worked for over 25 years, succeeding Robert Flynn Johnson. “He’s known as a pop artist, conceptual artist, surrealist and, early on, was identified with the West Coast pop movement, the so-called “cool school” of art. He’s adept at painting, photography, printmaking and has created wonderful artist’s books. He’s well known for using words as subjects in his imagery and letter forms.”
At the show’s press conference, I spoke with Breuer about Ed Ruscha and her framing of this expansive exhibit and our interview is below. I also spoke with Max Hollein, FAMSF’s new director, who headed Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (2006-16) and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2001-16). After 15 years in Deutschland, this German headed West to helm FAMSF, the largest public arts institution in Northern California, and officially began work on June 1. His impressive skill packet includes overseeing the Städel Museum’s expansion and its digital initiatives platform which entailed collaborating with the tech industry to make the museum’s collections fully and pleasantly accessible online. Naturally, he’s quite interested in working with the Bay Area’s tech industry as well. I asked him what attracted him to the Bay Area─
San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, right now, it’s filled with so much energy. There’s a real transformation occurring as it moves to an even higher level and our two museums will be a part of this rising tide. Basically, museums are not places that you visit; they are gathering places. I want to make our museums even more welcoming and relevant and part of that is making our education efforts even stronger and more connected to the contemporary culture.
There’s no better welcome to the Bay Area for Hollein, who says he has loved Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood signs “for ages”, than a huge show exploring Ruscha’s wry and poetic take American contemporary culture.
Here is my conversation with the savvy Karin Breur whose long-standing dialogue with Ruscha and hard work have produced a show with depth that is a delight to behold─
Why frame this show around the “Great American West”?
Karin Breuer: It was an easy and purposeful decision. I wanted to reverse a trend I’ve observed in exhibits with artists of Ed’s caliber─staying away from their ‘regionalism’ for fear that leads to a provincial look at an artist’s work. Instead, I thought, why not examine this. He’s been an artist who by choice went to school in Los Angeles and has lived there for 60 years and has depicted aspects of the West often in his work. As I kept looking more and more at the work, I realized there’s a story there from the very beginning, when he came out to art school at the age of 18 and traveled West from Oklahoma, all the way up to today where he’s looking at his Western environment and observing change. The show contains works from 1961 to 2014, a huge expanse of time, but it’s not a catch-all retrospective.
Has he drawn on the Bay Area at all?
Karin Breuer: No, not at all; it’s mostly the Southwest that has been his focus and stomping ground. Last night, however, I heard him say that it’s only recently that he’s come to appreciate San Francisco and the Bay Area. He’s decided that it’s the most beautiful city in the world but, he said, it may be ‘too beautiful’ for him to handle as subject in his art. There was kind a stay-tuned aspect to that though. He’s created a very interesting portfolio of prints called “Los Francisco San Angeles” where he combines street grids from both cities into one image and I think that’s the one effort that he’s made so far to connect the two cities. These are not in the exhibit.
Do you have a personal favorite?
Karin Breuer: I always thought I did but, every time I walk into the galleries, I seem to change my choice. I’m still very much in love with “Pyscho Spaghetti Western” and it’s because it depicts a roadway with a lot of garbage, trash, and debris that he has treated as beautifully as a still life. I find that so evocative of not only his quirky subject matter but also of the West and how it’s changed since he first took to the open roads in 1956.
What is the FAMSF’s collecting relationship with Ruscha? When did you really start building the collection?
Karin Breuer: Our relationship goes back to 2000, when we acquired Ruscha’s print archive and we came into a collection of over 350 prints at that time. He continues to contribute to this: each time he makes a print and it’s published, we get an impression of that print. He’s very prolific and we love that. We now have about 450 prints, one drawing, and one beautiful painting. For the new de Young building, we commissioned Ed to create a tripych─two panels that would be added to his 1983 painting “A Particular Kind of Heaven,” which we already had in our possession. You will see a lot of these works in the galleries.
What was his reaction to the show’s concept?
Karin Breuer: I pitched it to him early on and he liked it and he lent us works from his personal collection and helped facilitate loans from private collectors. Now that the show is up, he’s been very positive. This is a very appropriate time for this show as its Ed’s 60th anniversary in California.
Do you know if he has a favorite word?
Karin Breuer: No, and I think if you ask him, you won’t get a straight answer either. There are some words that appear in different forms. The word “adiós,” for example, also “rancho” and “rodeo”…those are three words that appear in different forms in my show, that he took on the in the 1960’s. I wouldn’t say that he continues to use them but they percolate in his vocabulary.
When did his fascination with words begin?
Karin Breuer: I know that in college, he had a job in a topography workshop and later he worked as a graphic designer, so words have been a part of his thinking for a very long time. He keeps lists of words that have captured his attention in notebooks and has said that words have temperatures and when those words become really hot that’s when he uses them in his art.
Now that you’ve spent a lot of time with his work, what makes it so powerful for you?
Karin Breuer: I think it’s the sense of humor that is in almost every single image; it’s wonderful─very dry, very laconic. He’s that kind of a personality too. I never cease to be amazed when I see something new coming from him─he’s got such a fertile mind, always thinking, always looking and discovering, and then reacting. Some of his latest paintings feature exploded tire treads that are called ‘gators’ by truckers. He treats these as beautiful objects and they almost look like angels’ wings. I just think to myself, that’s really unexpected, brilliant.
What sparked your interest in becoming a curator?
Karin Breuer: I’m the curator of prints and drawings and the inspiration came in college. I was a college as an art history student during the Vietnam War and there was a lot of social protest on campus. I was scratching my head thinking what does art history have to do with this? The world is changing, am I doing the right thing? A beloved professor of mine showed slides of Goya’s “Los Caprichos” and “The Disasters of War” and the light bulb went off. I said to myself ‘prints!’…they can have a political impact and everyone can afford prints…this is a very democratic medium. So, I went to graduate school to focus on prints and drawings, a realm of socially relevant art history.
What about your career at the de Young?
Karin Breuer: I’ve been here 31 years. When I joined in 1985 as an assistant curator, it was a pretty sleepy institution, as many museums were back in the day. I stayed on and worked my way up, which is kind of unheard of in the younger generations now days, but the Achenbach has only had three professional curators (E. Gunter Troche (1956-71); Robert Flynn Johnson (1975-2007), including myself. We’ve changed dramatically and dynamically and I have to say that I am absolutely thrilled about Max Hollein’s arrival here. Already, his energy and enthusiasm are having an impact on us.
Details: “Ed Rusha and the Great American West” closes October 9, 2016. Hours: The de Young is open Tues-Sun 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. and on Fridays (through November 25) until 8:45 p.m. Admission $22; with discounts for seniors, college students. Audio guides: $8. The de Young Museum is located in Golden Gate Park at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Street parking is available for 4 hours and there is a paid parking lot with direct access to the museum.