Illusions of Nostalgia: Ed Ruscha’s Hip Absurdism

In dedicating an entire floor to the drawings of Ed Ruscha, the Whitney Museum of American Art demonstrates its ongoing cluelessness about artistic worth. Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is a retrospective of a progenitor of West Coast Pop. Mr. Ruscha (b. 1937) is best known for brusque, sign-like paintings of service stations and the famed Hollywood sign, images that fall somewhere between Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, between the open road and Campbell’s soup.

A brainy absurdism pervades the oeuvre ; Mr. Ruscha mines Dadaism for its humor, placing its nihilism gently on the back burner. His text paintings, cryptic phrases rendered as illusionistic ribbons of letters or situated against cinematic backdrops, play an agile game of cat-and-mouse between differing modes of comprehension: reading and looking. How absorbing you find these conundrums will depend on your tolerance for one small idea writ large-and then writ over and over again. At 200 pieces and counting, The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is at least 190 drawings too many.

Downstairs in the lobby gallery, the Whitney is exhibiting over 300 of Mr. Ruscha’s photographs-which, on the other hand, is nowhere near enough. Don’t be put off by the six photos of commercial products, stuff like Spam and Oxydol, that serve as the introduction to Ed Ruscha and Photography ; their wry insouciance isn’t indicative of what’s to follow. Mr. Ruscha’s black-and-white pictures of gas stations, apartment buildings, 34 parking lots and various locales in Europe aren’t Pop at all, though one can discern in them the artist’s attraction to the mundane. Primarily they look to the disabused aesthetic of photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank for inspiration.

Washed in a neutral, unblemished light, Mr. Ruscha’s photos pit decisive areas of geometric form against zooming angles and sharp juxtapositions of space. A rigorous graphic emphasis-a constant in Mr. Ruscha’s work-doesn’t preclude a surprising current of sentimentality from entering the work. It’s impossible to look at a photo of a trio of fashionable young women in 1960’s Venice without feeling a pang of loss for the good old days. The same goes for photos of the Fountain Blu apartments, Bob’s Service Station and, oddly, the parking lot at Dodgers Stadium.

Mr. Ruscha is hip to the illusory nature of nostalgia; he’s big enough to recognize its pull and human enough not to resist its comforts. Would that the rest of the oeuvre were as open to nuance, contradiction and emotion. If only the Whitney had recognized a good thing when they saw it and given Mr. Ruscha’s photographs the breathing room they deserve. Notwithstanding the curatorial gaffe, Ed Ruscha and Photography is an unassuming delight. Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha and Ed Ruscha and Photography are at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Sept. 26.

Etched Humor

Who is Warrington Colescott? His etching and aquatint Life and Times of Prof. Dr. S. Freud (1989), a kaleidoscopic array of cartoonish vignettes, is the highlight of the exhibition Contemporary Prints from the Collection of the National Academy Museum . It’s only the second time I’ve come across Mr. Colescott’s work. The other piece was also an etching: a ramshackle meditation on religion and football titled Sunday Service (2000), seen in a National Academy Annual a few years back. Both are sufficiently hilarious to make a dent in the memory, but that alone doesn’t buoy Mr. Colescott’s art.

A deceptively loose-limbed way with composition; a knack for knitting gritty gradations of black with hazy overlays of fragrant color; and a take on culture and history that is mordant, though no less good-natured because of it-Mr. Colescott offsets these assets with an excess of good old American vulgarity. He’s not afraid to be obvious. (With Freud and football, it’s hard not to be.) Imagine a lumpish amalgamation of Saul Steinberg and Georg Grosz, leavened with Red Grooms and peppered with Mel Brooks, and you’ll have some idea of the erudite slapstick Mr. Colescott engages in. Then imagine the National Academy mounting an overview of his art. I’d like to see it. I bet you would, too.

Contemporary Prints from the Collection of the National Academy Museum is at the National Academy, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until Oct. 3.

Stone-Cold New York

Picturing New York: The Paintings of Peter Ruta is the first in a series of exhibitions mounted by the Museum of the City of New York to examine the city as seen through the eyes of artists. It features an array of paintings and a smattering of works on paper created since 1970, the year Mr. Ruta-now 86 years old-moved to Westbeth, the artists’ community in Greenwich Village.

Mr. Ruta possesses a keen eye for the particulars of atmosphere (the museum’s mood lighting doesn’t do it justice), and is able to bestow a certain nobility upon even the most undistinguished and anonymous of buildings. Rooftop views are his specialty; streamlined forms the M.O. Mr. Ruta renders the city’s architectural miscellany as a series of flat and shuffling geometric planes. The brushwork is offhand, sometimes hasty. Clouds, a cellophane bag filled with vegetables, a lone blimp floating above the Hudson River are all delineated concisely. Yet Mr. Ruta’s touch is pleasant rather than pointed and too eager to please; the paintings are a bit bland. After a while, they feel cottony and vague.

The best picture is the earliest: an untitled canvas from 1974, a Sheeler-esque portrayal of a smokestack and piers. Its shapes are sharp, its relationships tight and the palette impermeable; in short, the painting is abrasive. That doesn’t necessarily make it more of a New York painting, but any New Yorker who doesn’t recognize its stone-cold truth has been out of town for too long.

Picturing New York: The Paintings of Peter Ruta is at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, until Oct. 11.