With his rescue dog Woody padding around his new Culver City studio, Ruscha uses one of his favorite mediums, words, to paint the vast and ambitious canvas of Pacific Standard Time -- and his place in it.
It's a look backward, and that happens a lot in the art world, actually. They're always saying, "Let's observe Picasso from 1920 to 1926,'' and here we are looking at Los Angeles. I hope they delve into the art that was less popular at that time but still part of the vocabulary. I hope they don't just put in artists who were prominent.
Did you even know it was "a period" while you were in it?
The history of art made in California from 1900 on -- it's sketchy but it is a history. But it's nothing like Paris, New York, you know. I came out here in the late '50s and there was very little in the way of museums. But there was an art world: There was Chouinard [Art] Institute, the Art Center School -- which I couldn't go to because their quota was filled. I came to find out they had dress codes and you couldn't have facial hair, couldn't bring bongos to school -- this is an art school! And you couldn't dress like an artist!
Anyhow, looking back on it, I feel like I lived in a kind of a scratchy black-and-white movie. There was no artist I knew of who actually made a living at art. Art schools today almost promise you a career. It was an idealistic time where artists felt [they] could do it for sport instead of money.
So everyone wasn't hanging out in the same cafes?
There was Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood, but finally all the artists just simply squirreled away back in their studios and made widgets. I think a lot of artists were quite happy to be out of the scene, but at the same time they wanted to show their work and try to make a living at it and still stay on principle. Each one was kind of off on their own thing, so they didn't paint the same picture, which can happen when you have a lot of artists who come together and socialize.
What arts movements were specific to L.A.?
There was a movement here called the Finish Fetish. It involved artists working in plastics and automotive lacquers and more or less high-tech techniques instead of just canvas painting on an easel. Artists like Billy Bengston, Craig Kauffman, Bob Irwin came along, who chose unconventional approaches, and they were caught up in the swirl of the Finish Fetish.
Oh, "finish," not "Finnish." My mind went into the gutter there. That sounded like a catalog I didn't want to get.
Oh no! The patina, the Finish Fetish.
What was the big bang that tipped L.A. art into the big time?
In the '60s and '70s there were younger people coming along and doing conceptual art and those challenging things. I take my hat off to all those people, like Chris Burden. At the same time a few more galleries began to open, and other museums. Now it's moved far beyond that with MOCA and the Hammer and all that. This town has grown. It's a lively, jumpy art world today by comparison. It was the dark ages back then. Now I don't even know who all the artists are; any artist over 20 is like over the hill!
Early on, no one was saying, "You can't do that." Was that an advantage?
There were no manifestoes from many of us, but everyone was quietly making their own manifestoes. The artist Harry Gamboa said it best when he said L.A. is a desert with mirages and something happens and, poof, it's gone. I always liked that. That's Los Angeles.
What about the curators, the patrons, the art historians then?
I might be making it sound like the artists themselves were the entire picture, but there are a lot of people in the art world and some of those people are curators and directors of museums and they help shape it. [Ferus Gallery's] Walter Hopps, a phenomenal person, seemed to know everything and was truly a friend of the artist. You had Marcia Weisman and her brother Norton Simon; Norton Simon collected impressionist art and Marcia collected contemporary art.