The art historian and University of Tulsa professor talks Ed Ruscha ahead of Friday panel
What happens when Okie sensibilities meet California cool? For contemporary art icon Ed Ruscha, who grew his reputation as a midcentury pop art provocateur into one of the world's most revered living artists, the result is a visual universe unlike anything you've ever experienced in an Oklahoma gallery.
From Southern Plains slang to Hollywood dreams and the allure of the open road, the interaction between Ruscha's Oklahoma roots and California career are the subject of the ongoing Ed Ruscha: OKLA at Oklahoma Contemporary and OK/LA at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, which ends its run at the University of Oklahoma campus Sunday.
This meeting of worlds will be the subject of a virtual panel discussion on Friday, featuring Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt. The two longtime Ruscha enthusiasts will be joined by OK/LA curator Mark White and Ed Ruscha: OKLA co-curator Alexandra Schwartz, along with art historian Kirsten Olds, who contributed an essay to the upcoming Ed Ruscha: OKLA exhibition catalog.
In addition to Olds' contribution to the material record of Oklahoma Contemporary's landmark new exhibition, the art historian and educator is the associate dean of the Henry Kendall College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of art history at the University of Tulsa. For today's #ThursdayThree, we talked to Olds about her research, her first encounter with Ruscha and what viewers can expect from Friday's panel.
Can you tell readers a little about your background and research?
I'm an art historian and curator. I teach at the University of Tulsa, where I also have administrative roles. I've written about pop artists in the past: Ray Lichtenstein, Idelle Weber, Marjorie Strider. I've also written on artists' groups and artists from the 1960s and '70s in the U.S. and Canada who, through mail art, video and performance works, created collaborative networks as alternatives to mainstream forms of display and dissemination in the art world. I've written across a variety of publications, and I've curated exhibitions here in Oklahoma.
Ed Ruscha gives viewers . . . new ways of seeing the familiar.
Can you talk about your first experience with the art of Ed Ruscha?
The first time was probably in the '90s during my art history AP class — that's going way back [laughs]. But I did see an exhibition of his drawings in 2004 at The Whitney (Cotton Puffs, Q-TIPS, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha), and I remember being so struck by all of the paintings he did with nontraditional materials, like the word paintings. I remember one was in gunpowder. That got me thinking about how gunpowder is like charcoal. And that of course led to fascination with other materials, like lettuce juice and rose petals. From that point on, I was hooked.
I think Ruscha's work has endured over the decades because it's really smart, but it also doesn't take itself too seriously. It strikes that tonal balance really, really well. He kept innovating, even as he returned to familiar subjects or imagery. It gives viewers a point of familiarity, or a jumping-off point, but then rewards with new experiences — new ways of seeing the familiar.
What can readers expect from your contribution to the Ed Ruscha: OKLA catalog? And from Friday's panel?
I provided a brief essay that's really less about Ruscha, actually, and more of a snapshot of Oklahoma at midcentury. One of the great things about this exhibition, I think, is that it really centers Oklahoma in Ed Ruscha's formation. It provides a lens for us to reflect on the Oklahoma-related aspects of Ruscha and his work. So my essay gives a little bit of a sense of some of the things that were happening in Oklahoma artistically during that period in which he was coming of age.
As far as the panel goes, I think it's a great opportunity for viewers to learn more about the two exhibitions that are on view now (although the OK/LA exhibition closes March 7). I think it will offer a little bit of insight into the important ways in which both L.A. and Oklahoma City — and Oklahoma kind of more broadly — recognize and appreciate Ruscha and his work, and then provide a contact, kind of, for his work in both states.
Editor's Note: Registration for the March 5 event can be found here. A link to join the webinar will be emailed upon registration.
Gallery images: Ed Ruscha. Hollywood, 1999. Acrylic on linen. 48 x 84 in. Collection of the artist. © Ed Ruscha. Rusty Signs: Dead End 2, 2014. Mixografia print on handmade paper. 24 X 24 in. Ed. 36/50. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. © Ed Ruscha. All gallery photos by Trayson Conner.
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