For the first solo exhibition in his new Beverly Hills space, Marc Selwyn Fine Art has mounted a significant show of drawings by conceptual-art pioneer Allen Ruppersberg. Spanning almost two decades, from 1972 to 1989, these deceptively simple works on paper show Ruppersberg dealing with themes similar to those of his contemporaries—appropriation, language, identity, authenticity—but with a wry, nostalgic sensibility all his own.
In these works, Ruppersberg depicts both images and words to produce what he describes as a “‘comparison’ of reading and looking and the ‘confusion of the two.’” As Leslie Jones, Curator of Prints and Drawings at LACMA, notes in her insightful catalogue essay: “Choosing to draw it [the book] points to the graphic affinity between writing and drawing as well as the experiential distinctions between reading a book and drawing it, between interpreting its linguistic contents and rendering visually it as an object.” Drawing and writing are constantly at play as drawings of books, drawings of words, and drawings of illustrations all compete to be recognized for their veracity. Reading Time (The Elements of Style), a drawing from 1973–74, captures this playful questioning of truth as Ruppersberg depicts a simple line drawing of the Strunk and White classic above a reading time of two hours and fifty-eight minutes written (drawn?) in expressive cursive. Following from Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), Ruppersberg questions which is the more accurate representation: a basic drawing of a book or his subjective temporal experience of reading it.
Books are a major inspiration for Ruppersberg, both as literature and as object. A series from 1989, The Gift and the Inheritance, depicts individual titles from his collection, high and low, from Shakespeare to a basic drawing manual. Rendered with detailed specificity, each drawing is a portrait of the object, showing Ruppersberg’s relationship to that particular copy. This relationship is then extended to the purchaser of the artwork: After Ruppersberg’s death, the owner of the drawing will receive the actual book depicted. A relatively straightforward picture of a book is expanded to include a story well beyond the boundaries of the frame.
Before turning to fine art, Ruppersberg studied illustration at Chouinard Institute (now CalArts), and this “practical” art features prominently in many of his drawings. Images of typical Americana appropriated from picture postcards (taken from his massive collection) are blown up to five or six times their original size with the aid of a projector. A five-panel piece, On Possession and Sexual Loss (1979), begins with a drawing of a generic book cover, followed by drawings of a woman with flowers, a woodcarver, a cowboy, and an old-fashioned inn, all rendered with faithful adherence to their mass-market origins. The titular phrase is written out, starting on the first sheet (On Possession), and continuing onto the second (and Sexual Loss), reinforcing the notion that the work is to be read like a book. By appropriating these everyday images and combining them with evocative text, Ruppersberg is suggesting a new narrative, in keeping with his statement that “Art should be familiar and enigmatic.”
Ruppersberg also looks to popular imagery to comment on identity construction. In Self-Portrait Making a Face like Barney Bear (1975), the cartoon character smiles sheepishly out at us in front of a bright orange, crosshatched background. Ruppersberg’s version of the bear recalls the original, but the hand of the artist is clearly present. A similar Self-Portrait as Bugs Bunny (1975) does a better job of capturing this duality, perhaps because of the character’s popularity. These are not the airbrushed and silkscreened cartoon characters of Pop Art. Instead, they express something of the connection between artist and cultural artifact.
Another self-portrait, Autobiography 1. Autobiography 2. (1980), uses various sources and methods of depiction to tell the artist’s story. This work in two parts includes bucolic images of a mother hen sitting atop a litter of kittens and a country cottage, paired with musical notation for Neil Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)” and a recipe for egg salad. Mass media, music, food—drawing, musical symbols, and writing—are all valid means to convey something of Ruppersberg’s identity. Although he is not literally pictured, these borrowed signifiers tell us a great deal more about the artist than would be possible through photographic representation.
Perhaps because of the contemporary ubiquity of art that traffics in language and appropriation, it’s difficult to get a true sense of Ruppersberg’s influence. Echoes of this work can be seen across the spectrum, from Raymond Pettibon to Richard Prince to Fiona Banner. By focusing on an underrepresented aspect of Ruppersberg’s output, Drawing and Writing provides a much-needed reappraisal of his legacy.
Allen Ruppersberg: Drawing and Writing 1972–1989 is on view at Marc Selwyn Fine Art in Beverly Hills through May 17, 2014.