Ed Ruscha’s American Dream

This iconic exhibition by pop artist Ed Ruscha imparts an unfamiliar feeling of nostalgia and does not fail to impress. Edinburgh’s Modern One has recently acquired a collection of photographs and paintings focused mainly on Ruscha’s time in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The collection’s broad range of mediums capture the allure of the American dream, the end of the golden age of Hollywood, and the seemingly lost aesthetic of early to mid-20th century America. The exhibition documents Ruscha’s stray from the pop art that made him famous, and explores his attempts to reconnect with his roots.

His work ‘The Final End’ – a large-scale painting of tall hay stacks hiding the faded words “The End” in the classical romantic font of early cinema – sets the tone for the entire exhibition. Lacking the poignant nostalgia present in many of the other pieces, this ominous painting represents Ruscha’s acceptance of the end of an era, one he was specifically immersed in as a young artist in Hollywood. The title of the piece and faded letters signify Ruscha’s belief that there is truly no return to this glory, and possibly that we are the worse for it.

Alternatively, Ruscha’s ‘Sunset Strip Portfolio’, a collection of six black and white photos taken in the 1960s, depict exactly what was lost. The glamorous restaurants and storefronts are speckled with classic fluorescent signs and huge lettering that shine through the black and white to give a clear image of the decadence of Hollywood life. His ‘Rooftop Series’ also highlights the aesthetic that was ever-present in Los Angeles. The stylized cars, Mexican-style terracotta rooftops, and store signs reflect an appreciation for beauty in day-to-day life that has been lost in the age of consumerism. A highlight of the exhibition is the ‘Pool Series’, a collection of nine square, colour film photographs of luxurious Beverly Hills hot tubs and public pools. The bright aqua blue water and pink-orange light that streams through all of the pictures reflect what was the continuity of the sublime Californian way of life, the true allure of America in the 1960s, and the origin of the American dream.

The rest of the exhibition features many quintessential Ruscha paintings: large-scale images of brightly colored mountains or fields with large white phrases overlaid on top.  Within all of his pop art pieces undertones of movie industry culture come through. This is  indicative of how growing and living in the unique Mecca of 1960s Hollywood has consistently informed his art for over fifty years. His piece ‘Daily Planet’ is an explicit reference to the franchising of Superman that occurred in the 60s as well as potentially a nod to the James Bond franchise with the backdrop of mountains. The subtle references to American pop culture provoke the viewer to look for more purposeful meaning within Ruscha’s famous paintings, and then look even further for their personal meaning to Ruscha.

The simple yet pleasing nature of Ruscha’s photos from the 60s leads to question: does he just have the ability to find beauty in the mundane, or was 1960s America – specifically California – beautiful in a way we cannot appreciate now in the 21st century? The parts of the exhibit surrounding Ruscha’s life in Los Angeles truly allow us to appreciate how easily the American Dream was – and is – so universally felt, but makes us wonder if there is any real basis for it anymore.

Music from the Balconies at Modern One , until 29th April 2018.

Photo credit: T. Thielemans via Wikimedia Commons

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