Ed Ruscha is a painter, printmaker, photographer, and filmmaker. His most recent large-scale commission, the painting Picture Without Words, hangs in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium of the Getty Center, and an exhibition of his paintings and works on paper, curated by Getty Museum Director John Walsh, opened at the Museum in May 1998. Having lived in Los Angeles since 1956, Ed Ruscha is thought of as a quintessential L.A. artist. In the early 1960s, he was associated with the Ferus Gallery group, which also included artists Robert Irwin, Edward Moses, Ken Price, and Edward Kienholz. He later achieved recognition for his paintings incorporating words and phrases. His experimentation with materials has resulted in works of art that, because of their composition, raise a variety of conservation questions.
Tracy Bartley—a project associate with the Getty Conservation Institute who helped organize the GCI conference "Mortality Immortality? The Legacy of 20th- Century Art"—spoke with him in his studio about these issues and how he feels about the preservation of art created during the latter part of the 20th century.
Tracy Bartley: Is contemporary art only for contemporary times? Because of the ephemeral nature of many contemporary artists' materials, is it probable that no matter what effort we undertake, a spotty record of our 20th century cultural heritage will survive?
Ed Ruscha: Materials, by their nature, are already decaying. Almost any art material you select is going to somehow decay over time. Even if you think about a writer and words, words in their own way decay over a period of time. They're thought of differently today than they were in the 17th century.
That's not the sunniest way to look at things, but art materials are no different. When you think about hard materials like marble, bronze, and other sculptural materials, they all undergo this transformation that you just have to accept as being part of the thing. Oil paint is another example of something that's continually degrading. The sun or light of any kind is going to affect it and add age to it.
It's like how we maintain the human body. We know the human body is not going to live beyond 80 or 90 years. We could be looking at the human body generations from now and come no closer to preserving it than we knew about or pondered at the dawn of civilization. It's going to decay. When it comes to art, you look at traditional materials that have stayed relatively the same for hundreds of years—the way they mixed paints, ground pigments with linseed oil, and carefully followed recipes -- and yet ravages of moisture and sunlight and time all give you the problems that you have to face with conservation.
Do you notice this with your own work?
I notice it in little ways. I've done things before that are inherently problematic—what conservators call inherent vice—like using Scotch tape. I knew when I made my collages that the Scotch tape would be the first thing to go, and sure enough, it was. Even some paper I worked on at one time has totally disintegrated without having been exposed to the elements.
I've been documenting Sunset Boulevard for many years on 35 mm film, and I've called Eastman Kodak to search for ways to preserve film and to store it. Everybody seems to have ideas about what to do. And I know that film is a fugitive material—maybe even more so than paper or other supports.
Film has its own set of problems. Besides the material issues, there are the technological issues: as technology evolves, the film projector that can show your film may become obsolete.
Exactly. I made these films in 1970 and one in 1975, and I haven't done anything in film since then, and I go back today and the language has completely changed. They still work in a projector, but the stability of the dyes and all that makes up the color—they're probably changing even though I keep them in a controlled situation.
No matter what kind of material you use, it's going to face that kind of thing. Now, what artists want, well, that's another thing. Some artists just absolutely do not care about preservation of their work. And sometimes they say they want it to be destroyed—like Tinguely's machines that destroy themselves.
Do you think that artists have a responsibility to ensure that their work has a future?
I don't know. Anybody's approach is a valid one, as far as I see it. You might find artists who say, "I don't want my work to be around in 150 years." Well then, I say, "What's the purpose of the whole mess if you don't want anything to be around?" It's like taking your most precious heirlooms and throwing them in the trash. If you want life to end, well then, end it.
I don't do it out of any heart-thumping responsibility, but I feel I should keep my work as preserved as possible.
Do you want to see the work maintained as it was when you finished it, or do you accept the fact that it has a life of its own and is going to change?
I accept it. Here I am: I've lived it, and this is the way I look. And so paper is going to look the same way. I like that look. You can look at a Kurt Schwitters collage and you can tell that those papers are really from the 20s, and they've aged, and the inks that were used on the papers have aged. This makes up what it is today. It would be strange to look at a collage done back in the 20s if you saw it like it was when it was made. You'd be disoriented. You'd say, "My, this looks clean." The colors would be real crisp and bright, and the paper would be bright white. Paper just changes with time. When you look at the paper, you see that it has aged over the years, and that actually makes it quite what it should be. It's lived an age, like a person who's 85 years old.
Do you think that the change in materials can go too far and you can lose what the piece originally was about?
Well, yes—then you ask yourself how well could you preserve something like that? Should you take that piece of paper that has a collage on it—and all the other materials, including the adhesives used to paste them down—and hermetically seal it in a chamber of some sort, like an anti-aging chamber? You'd still have the problem that 70 years had passed. Something would look different from how it looked when it was made. When I see paintings on paper that were done even in the 50s—Abstract Expressionists' work, where there have been years for the oils to migrate into the paper—the stain looms out, and you see that. Seeing things age is a form of beauty. I'm always looking at paintings and works on paper from years and years ago, and I really kind of appreciate the aged look to them.
If something deteriorated to the point where it couldn't be shown, would you want it remembered through photographic documentation? Do you think that it's important that there's documentation in cases where materials are transient?
I do have things that were destroyed for one reason or another that I photographed, and I feel good about that. The idea of documenting to preserve a record of what you did is a valid one, and I've done it for a long time. It's very presumptuous, though, in a way—how do I know how valuable this thing is to the public? Why should I save it? For that matter, art is priceless and worthless at the same time! As an artist, I've accepted the idea of caring for my work—to ensure the longevity of the work. I've done that, but I'm not a fanatic about it.
So you wouldn't let it determine what material you chose or how you work.
If I did, I wouldn't have used a lot of materials. I did a lot of works with food that changes. I don't think it's an obligation of the artist to choose materials that are lasting. I just don't think that's important. You can make work out of straw—you can make work out of air, if you want to. You're the artist! That's the freedom of the whole thing. An artist can make anything out of anything. You can use cotton candy.
Somebody once gave me a gift that was a fresh fish on a plate. It was a birthday gift. And he had written around the outside of it and I thought, this is such a great gift, I love this gift. So I put it in the freezer and kept it frozen for 25 years! It stayed in pretty good shape! I finally got rid of it. It was beginning to migrate, let's say.
With your painting at the Getty, Picture Without Words, did you think about the issue of longevity?
I sure did. And the issue is not really complete, as far as I'm concerned. The sunlight makes slashes across the painting that change all the time. And of course, over time, as we know, that can affect the piece. There are shades in place, but they let slivers of light through.
Considering longevity also dictated what kind of support I would paint on because if I had painted it on canvas that was stretched onto a stretcher, over time it would sag because of the weight of the canvas. You'd be restretching it every two years. So we arrived at this idea of putting the canvas onto a flat, hard surface—we chose aluminum—and that really made the most sense. That's one example of trying to do something that preserves or maintains an image in the most prudent way.
All you can do is address these issues as best you can. I did an independent evaluation of the location. I do that with commissions. I spoke with the curator and several conservators. I tried to assess the spot on the wall and the conditions there. Light was the main thing, and the weight of the painting.
I suppose the longevity of a work is an issue for any commission you undertake.
I did a commission in the Miami Public Library, a whole series of paintings. This was in 1986, and I went back about 2 years ago, almost 10 years later, and I noticed as I walked in that my paintings were okay. Everything looked basically like it did in 1986. But something told me that 10 years had passed. It's weird. There are no scuffs on the wall, it's all very clean, the paint is all the same color—but it's like pushing open a door that doesn't work the same 10 years later; even though the door works perfectly, it doesn't work the same. There are degrees of subtlety on objects that have a few years life on them, and I noticed that going inside.
I don't know what it is—it's something in the air or something. It looks like it's 10 years old. Furniture looks that way. I think paintings look that way. Works on paper and sculpture are the same. It's very curious, amusing. The whole aging thing is amusing to me.