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His Never-Ending Story

Allen Ruppersberg has been exhibiting 'The Novel That Writes Itself' for more than a decade, and the final chapter isn't in sight.

March 11, 2001|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar

Gore Vidal once suggested that we don't need better writers, we need better readers. Allen Ruppersberg is just such a reader. In fact, he has turned reading into an art. His art.

Among the first generation of Conceptual artists to employ language as the subject of his visual output, for three decades Ruppersberg has turned to books, magazines, posters and films for both the content and form of his work. His latest installation consists of colorful posters with rhetorical texts, a long-term project known as "The Novel That Writes Itself." On top of these posters, he has hung 47 drawings depicting a library in a stately home with pithy captions, a series titled "Honey, I Rearranged the Collection." The show opened this weekend at the Margo Leavin Gallery, where it runs through April 14.

After the show was installed last fall at nonprofit ArtPace in San Antonio, Frances Colpitt wrote in Art in America magazine, "Unburdened by subtext or political critique, 'The Novel That Writes Itself' embraced all forms of expression with a merry sense of humor."

Ruppersberg, 57, is a true eminence grise these days, his hair turning gray and combed straight back. He retains the aura of cool, a laissez-faire hipness shared by colleagues Bruce Nauman, Terry Allen and Ed Ruscha. Black jeans, a little goatee patch on his chin, he still sports signs of the rebel with a cause. For 20 years, he has kept a rent-controlled apartment facing the ocean in Santa Monica. Tidy stacks of magazines and shelves of books dominate the small living room, along with a 1950s TV set that works and quirky, pop culture souvenirs like old Beatles dolls. Simultaneously, since 1985, he has lived part time in a SoHo loft, but due to soaring rents in Manhattan, he recently had to surrender it. He bought an apartment in Brooklyn but moved his studio to El Segundo.

"For most of my life, I have lived in both L.A. and New York," Ruppersberg says, sitting in a canvas chair in his Santa Monica living room. "They are both a part of me as an artist and as a person."

His art too has been affected by this nomadic routine, combining the droll surreality of West Coast Conceptual art with the relentless intellectual inquiry of its East Coast practitioners.

Ruppersberg, who is single, gives a simple reason for three decades of bicoastal living: "I'm restless," he says.

Restlessness characterizes the fundamentals of "The Novel That Writes Itself." Basically, it is a piece about the inability to leave well enough alone, about an all-consuming obsession with arranging and rearranging. Its very history is a shaggy dog story.

In 1978, Ruppersberg began thinking of creating an autobiographical "novel" about the adventures of an artist. Its major characters--his supporters--could purchase their way into the story for $300 each (among the takers: collectors Elyse and Stanley Grinstein, Terry Allen and art critic Dave Hickey). To become a minor character cost only $100, and ancillary figures could participate for $50 but only if recommended by another higher-priced participant.

"It was based on E.M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel,' " Ruppersberg explains. "His book is about fiction technique. The idea was my way of perpetuating the novel and a way of perpetuating the narrator, which was me."

Although this idea incubated for more than a decade, it never really came to term. He occasionally sent one of the "characters" a drawing, but he could not visualize how the piece should be completed. Along the way, as a separate thing, he began having aphorisms and questions printed on multicolored cardboard in the manner of old-fashioned carnival posters. These posters proclaiming "Drawn From Life by A. Ruppersberg" or "What Should I Do?" started appearing in his exhibitions in the mid-'80s.

"In 1990, I realized that I had written 50 texts in the form of these posters and therefore that the novel had written itself," he says. "I just hadn't recognized it until that point. So I put the two things together, the texts from all these posters and the original idea for how the novel was to be."

Each time the "novel" is exhibited--it's been installed four times--Ruppersberg writes more texts, including 10 new additions that are in the Leavin show. The supporter-characters make appearances in various ways on the posters. For example, Allen and the Grinsteins show up in photographs, and names are listed as in a cast box. There are now some 800 of the posters, though many are duplicates because each time a poster is made, the L.A.-based printing company that makes them for Ruppersberg prints a minimum of 50.

At this point, the "novel" only exists as an installation, which means that it is in a constant state of flux. Ruppersberg hopes at some point to publish the posters together as a book. "I don't have the money to do it," he says, "and no one else has come forward to pay for it."

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