How does it feel to be the artist representing the United States at this year's Venice Biennale? Edward Ruscha sums it up in a four-letter word -- gulp.
If his response were writ large in one of his paintings, it might appear to float in the sky above Los Angeles, the city that has supplied him with images and ideas for nearly 50 years. His spoken "gulp" seems to fill the air in his industrial-style studio in Venice, Calif., as he talks about the prestigious international contemporary art exhibition in that other Venice, across the Atlantic Ocean in Italy.
"The 'gulp' word comes up very easily," said Ruscha, who is never at a loss for words in his art but speaks with laconic wit. "I guess I have no excuses now. I have to do it. I did accept the mission."
Not that he is unaccustomed to recognition. Ruscha, who was born in Omaha in 1937 and raised in Oklahoma City, came to Los Angeles fresh out of high school, studied at Chouinard Art Institute and soon became a star in L.A.'s burgeoning art scene. A master of American vernacular who spices a Pop sensibility with Conceptual twists and ambiguous meanings, he has created a distinctive body of paintings, prints, drawings, books and films that have been exhibited all over the world.
"Being in the 212 area code would have given me more opportunity to be noticed," he said, when asked if plying his trade in Los Angeles, rather than New York, had slowed his rise to international prominence. But his career has never languished, and interest in his art has soared in the last few years.
Last year the Royal Academy of Arts in London elected Ruscha an Honorary Academician, placing him in an elite league of 20 artistic luminaries who reside outside Britain, including Americans such as architect Frank Gehry, sculptor Richard Serra and painters Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. Ruscha will stop in London on his way to Venice to launch an exhibition of his work at the academy. Closer to home, a major show of his drawings organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York made its debut there last summer, then traveled to Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and Washington's National Gallery of Art, where it continues through May 30.
Still, there's nothing quite like the Venice Biennale. Documenta, an international contemporary art show established in the 1950s in Kassel, Germany, and a plethora of younger, less distinguished extravaganzas present a global melange of contemporary art. The 110-year-old spectacle in Venice is more akin to an old-fashioned world's fair. Although the Italian event has grown enormously with the addition of a massive international group show and temporary installations all over town, the historic core is a group of pavilions built by individual nations.
"One thing this Venice Biennale thing has done is to make me focus on being an American," Ruscha said. "You can't help it. They make the rules and they have these nationalistic entries from each country. That does focus you on your origins. So I am feeling the fact that I am an American in Venice. I feel good about that. I take it from a particularly American perspective."
His work will fill the U.S. pavilion, a Colonial Neoclassic-style building that opened in 1930.
"I love the building," Ruscha said. "It kind of resembles Monticello. It immediately hearkens you back to Thomas Jefferson, so that sort of pulls you home. If it was just a homogenized kind of international architecture, it wouldn't be the same. It's not considered a landmark or a great building, but it stands alone. It has a particularly American sense, and the place where it is, in Venice, gives it a real potency."
As for how he is going to fill the U.S. pavilion, mum is mostly the word until the June 9 reception and June 10 press preview. He plans to unveil a series of paintings inspired by his 1992 "Blue Collar" works, which depict recycled industrial buildings in what he calls "an imaginary time jump." Five new pieces will be displayed with five older ones. The paintings have something to do with "expressing my doubts about the progress of the world as such," he said. But that's as far as he would go in describing the project.
Why the secrecy?
"Oh, for once, why not?" he asked. "I'd rather have it be done, step back and let people feel what they want. I think going there and seeing it will have its results."
Viewers aren't likely to find that he has had an attack of artistic patriotism in creating his show for the U.S. pavilion -- or that he has made any other radical change.
"I don't feel that I have a duty to pictorially represent my nation," he said, "and I'm not sure I do surprises. These things are extensions of my other work. It just so happened that these thoughts came along at this absolutely perfect time."