All posts in “Ed Ruscha”

New Topographics: Instantly (in)Famous

When viewing New Topographics, you’ll want to lean in and look closely—on close inspection you discover the dead-pan humor as well as the disquiet in seeing the land sliced up and rapidly developed in this group of photography.

This new installation at SAM brings together a group of photographers who became widely known through a 1975 exhibition at the George Eastman House. What made all the work instantly (in)famous was that the artists turned their back on celebrated landscape imagery.

Landscape as wild and tempestuous (think Bierstadt) or picturesque was set aside. Instead, artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, and others trained their cameras on new housing developments that turned farmland into suburbia, or looked at the topography of cities.

In addition to the new subject of man-altered landscape, the photographers also created a new aesthetic: Modern photography had become known for stark black and white contrast and dramatic perspectives, while the New Topographics photographers had a decidedly quiet and descriptive approach.

A lone beer bottle here, wires and hookups there, are anything but grand but then the piles of dirt come with glamorous titles such as Prospector Park.

In addition to some of the artists who were featured in the original 1975 show, included are artworks that are related and expand this vision into other directions. Thus you will find Mark Tobey’s early painting, Middle West, in an entirely new context. You will also discover several of the great artist books by Ed Ruscha—whose work was very influential to this new generation. Last not least, you will find several of Howard Kottler’s “souvenir plates” that are adorned with birds-eye views of downtown Seattle. (Watch out for his dead-pan humor.)

While you’re visiting, sit down with photocopies of the original New Topographics catalogue and text as well as Robert Smithson’s groundbreaking and fabulously written essay: “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.”

The rapid transformation of the urban and suburban areas of Seattle by new development right now provide a new context for the work of these artists. See New Topographics on view through the end of the year.

– Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirely Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Images: Installation view of New Topographics at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photos: Stephanie Fink
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Happy birthday, Ed Ruscha!

“Made in U.S.A.” It’s a familiar phrase. A distinctive feature of the phrase is that it always comes attached to an object. The statement makes no sense when detached from an object because it lacks the first element of any sentence: a subject. What was made in the U.S.A.? Whatever it’s printed on. This is what one might call an index. Where we see the words has a direct relationship to the meaning we draw from them.

American Pop artist Ed Ruscha chose the language carefully. The physical lithograph that he called America Her Best Product was imagined and then printed within the boundaries of the U.S. The Pop movement that it represents was also distinctly American—cleverly responding to a boom in consumerism during the third quarter of the 20th century with a new brand (pun intended) of satire. The American Dream and the drive to buy that supports it are two more products referenced here. Are they the most telling ones?

America Her Best Product came to SAM as part of a 12-piece art portfolio titled Spirit of Independence, which also featured print works by artists such as Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, and Jacob Lawrence, and which celebrated the country’s 200th year in 1976. The portfolio assembled works symbolizing American creativity and freedom. Curtis H. Judge, president of the donor Lorillard Co., wrote that Spirit of Independence “reflects and projects American independence as interpreted by 12 of America’s foremost artists.”

As Ruscha points out, one of the great parts about freedom is the ability to question the direction of one’s own country.

Happy birthday, Ed Ruscha!

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: America Her Best Product, 1974, Ed Ruscha (American, born 1937), lithograph, 31 3/8 x 23 1/2 in. Gift of the Lorillard Co., N.Y.
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