Ruscha and Pop: Icons of the 1960s

Posted on March 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring 2008
Kristin Monahan Garcia, Curatorial Assistant for Academic and Student Programming

As aspiring art student Ed Ruscha drove the now mythic Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles in 1956, the world around him was changing rapidly. A postwar economic boom had brought abundance for many and supported a burgeoning consumer society, while new technology delivered information (and images) with a previously unimagined speed and scope. These developments, especially in the economy, were furthered through prolific advertising and branding. It was this trip, and the subsequent treks Ruscha would make between his Oklahoman roots and his life as an artist in Los Angeles, that laid the groundwork for a new look at both modernity and art. The movement Ruscha would come to be associated with, pop art, appropriated imagery from the popular imagination and everyday life, exploring in the process how culture had become mediated by graphic art, consumerism, and media imagery. The works of art on display in Ruscha and Pop: Icons of the 1960s represent the changing American landscape, both literally and culturally, during this era, with Ruscha's Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963) as their centerpiece.

Gifted to the Hood Museum of Art by James Meeker, Dartmouth Class of 1958, in memory of Lee English, also Class of 1958, and inspired by one of Ruscha's cross-country trips, Standard Station captures an essential moment in Ruscha's personal artistic journey and oeuvre. It retains a vital position in the context of 1960s pop art as a work that helped create and then define one of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century. The graphic nature of Standard Station is immediate and strong, with its hard lines, crisp, primary colors, and commanding size all alluding to popular commercial art. Ruscha's mythologizing of a simple, everyday structure in this way monumentalizes it. Breaking with the intellectual and emotional constructs of abstract expressionism and the heroic gestural painting of the previous decade, pop art pioneers like Ruscha celebrated the banality of what they had inherited as their modern American landscape.

Like Ruscha's Standard Station, other works on view in this exhibition reflect the changing landscape of the time as pop artists explored methods of appropriating and integrating popular culture into their pictorial language. Allan D'Arcangelo's Hello and Good-bye (1964) depicts a highway disappearing into the horizon with hints of foliage on the sides of the road. A reversed view of the road is reproduced in a car's rearview mirror attached to the top of the painting, referencing car culture and the literal appropriation of the everyday.

Borrowed images, from the comic-book styling of Roy Lichtenstein's Crying Girl (1963) to the magazine- and newspaperbased content in Andy Warhol's Birmingham Race Riot (1964), evoke the media inundation of the early years of pop art while commenting upon the mechanical processes used to propel it. High art also provides fodder for the pop artists, as in Lichtenstein's Cathedral #4 (1969) and Mel Ramos's Manet's Olympia (1974), as they call into question past painterly traditions, the artistic canon, and ultimately pop art's place within it.

The scenes may look familiar—they are, after all, uniquely American landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Looking to the world around them for inspiration—and revealing the influence of their surroundings—the first generation of pop artists immersed themselves in urbanization and commercial culture. Ruscha and Pop: Icons of the 1960s presents a distinctly modern landscape through artworks that are at once standard and anything but. 

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Written March 01, 2008 by Kristin Swan