Gore Vidal once suggested that we don't need better writers, we need better readers. Allen Ruppersberg is just such a reader. In fact, he has turned reading into an art. His art.
Among the first generation of Conceptual artists to employ language as the subject of his visual output, for three decades Ruppersberg has turned to books, magazines, posters and films for both the content and form of his work. His latest installation consists of colorful posters with rhetorical texts, a long-term project known as The Novel That Writes Itself. On top of these posters, he has hung 47 drawings depicting a library in a stately home with pithy captions, a series titled "Honey, I Rearranged The Collection." The show continues at the Margo Leavin Gallery through Apr. 14, 2001. Similar work will be on view in his show in Antwerp in May.
After the show was installed last fall at non-profit ArtPace in San Antonio, Tex., Frances Colpitt wrote in Art in America magazine, "Unburdened by subtext or political critique, 'The Novel That Writes Itself' embraced all forms of expression with a merry sense of humor."
Ruppersberg, 57, is a true éminence grise these days, his hair turning gray and combed straight back. Yet, he retains the aura of cool, a laissez-faire hipness shared by colleagues Bruce Nauman, Terry Allen and Ed Ruscha. Black jeans, a little goatee patch on his chin, he still sports signs of the rebel with a cause.
For 20 years, Ruppersberg has kept a rent-controlled apartment facing the ocean in Santa Monica. Tidy stacks of magazines and shelves of books dominate the small living room along with a 1950s TV set that works and quirky, pop culture souvenirs like old Beatles dolls. Simultaneously, since 1985, he has lived part of the time in a SoHo loft but due to soaring rents, he had to surrender it.
He bought an apartment in Brooklyn but moved his studio to El Segundo. "For most of my life, I have lived in both L.A. and New York," Ruppersberg says, sitting in a canvas chair in his Santa Monica living room. "They are both a part of me as an artist and as a person."
His art, too, has been affected by this nomadic routine, combining the droll surreality of West Coast Conceptual art with the relentless intellectual inquiry of its East Coast practitioners.
Ruppersberg, who has never married, explains a simple reason for three decades of bi-coastal living. "I'm restless," he says.
Restlessness characterizes the fundamentals of The Novel That Writes Itself. Basically, it is a piece about the inability to leave well enough alone, about an all-consuming obsession with arranging and rearranging. Its very history is a shaggy dog story. Ruppersberg conceived the piece in 1978 as an autobiographical novel about the adventures of an artist in which the roles of major characters were purchased for $300 each by supporters such as Elyse and Stanley Grinstein, Terry Allen and Dave Hickey.
To become a minor character cost only $100 and ancillary figures could participate for $50, but only if recommended by one of the participants. "It was based on E.M. Forrester's Aspects of the Novel," Ruppersberg explains. "His book is about fiction technique. The idea of doing the shows was my way of perpetuating the novel and a way of perpetuating the narrator, which was me."
Although this idea incubated for more than a decade, it never really came to term. He occasionally sent one of the characters a drawing but he could not visualize how the piece should be completed. Along the way, he began having aphorisms and questions printed on multi-colored cardboard in the manner of old fashioned carnival posters.
These posters proclaiming "Drawn from Life by A. Ruppersberg" or "What Should I Do?" started appearing in his exhibitions in the mid-'80s. "In 1990, I realized that I had written 50 texts in the form of these posters and therefore that the novel had written itself," he says. "I just hadn't recognized it until that point."
"So I put the two things together, the texts from all these posters and the original idea for how the novel was to be," he says.
Each time that the "novel" is exhibited, Ruppersberg writes more texts including ten new additions that are in the Leavin show. There are now some 800 posters though many are duplicates since each time a poster is made, the L.A. based company prints a minimum of 50. At this point, the "novel" only exists as an installation, which means that it is in a constant state of flux. He hopes at some point to publish the posters together as a book. Resignedly, he says, "I don't have the money to do it and no one else has come forward to pay for it."
Ruppersberg arranges each installation of the posters differently, paying attention to how the questions and observations play off of one another. Yet, he doesn't expect a viewer to stand in the room and simply read. "Your eye takes it in as you walk around and read a little piece here and there," he says. He compares it to his 1974 transcription of the entirety of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray onto canvas panels. In that seminal piece, he effectively transformed a novel about a painting into a painting about a novel. When exhibited, people would not so much read the entire piece as take in various sentences and descriptive passages.
In the current exhibition, the "novel" has become a subtext for an additional layer of image and text -- silkscreened drawings of a well-appointed library in a traditional home. Each is decorated or watercolored and captioned with his hilarious observations: "Honey, I've rearranged the collection to prove that Conceptual art began with Magritte," or "Honey, I've rearranged the collection to separate unhappy artists with problems from the rest. I couldn't do it. It's the whole collection."
Smiling, he explains, "They are like New Yorker cartoons for the art world." These observations have also crept onto the new background posters as in "Honey, I've rearranged the collection according to how different artists names sound together like Serra Bloom or Ray Manzoni or Sherman Opie."
Reviewing such pieces at New York's Christine Burgin Gallery for Art on Paper magazine, Barry Schwabsky wrote, "It shows how little separates the collector from the conceptual artist, if the cornerstone of artistic activity is indeed, as Duchamp urged, the act of selection."
Ruppersberg, however, is selecting from his own stockpile. "The traditional image is from a drawing I made in the '70s, probably from a movie still," he says. "It reinforces the way that I work, which is completely rearranging everything I do all the time. So, it's kind of like a text about how I work."
"It also refers to the fact that I am a collector -- not of art -- but of everything else," he continues. Noting that he collects films, movie posters, books, magazines, and paper ephemera of all kinds, he says, "My work is like an archive that I use so the collections are in and out of storage when I need them. I am constantly rearranging my own collections so I know what a collector's mind is like."
With so much emphasis on the quality of language in the posters and drawings, one wonders. Did Ruppersberg hope to be a writer?
His expression turns serious as he answers, "No, because I always knew that I wanted to be an artist. I was only interested in using language in my art. But if I have to use language, I think I should know about it and be able to do it on a certain level."
Ruppersberg was only eight when he decided to become an artist. Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, he was encouraged to study art as a child and taken to classes at the museum. His father was an engineer who sold electrical supplies but was passionate about classical and swing music. His mother was a housewife and a voracious reader. Both were entirely supportive of his desire to be an artist.
By high school, Ruppersberg was dedicated to the library, where he would read the New York Times Arts and Leisure section rather than do homework. Also, he kept collections of books and magazines, which he rearranged regularly. "Looking back, you could see it as a sensibility developing," he admits.
After a visit to Disneyland at age 11, Ruppersberg expected to become an animator. At L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts), he enrolled in commercial art in 1962. After two years of studying lettering and illustration, he switched to fine art but continued to like the look of commercial art. "I had no interest whatsoever in modern drawing, like Picasso," he says. He also had very little interest in sculpture, ceramics or painting. "I hated making things," he recalls.
Nonetheless, after graduating with a Bachelors degree in fine art in 1967, he pursued painting briefly. Seeing Frank Stella's protractor-shaped painting at the Pasadena Art Museum, now the Norton Simon Museum of Art, brought an end to that. "After that I realized I had learned painting in art school but it had nothing to do with who I was as an artist," he says. "I began all over again."
Around that time, numerous L.A. artists were pursuing alternatives to traditional methods of making art, including Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari. "It was a zeitgeist and it is hard to pinpoint where you get ideas," Ruppersberg recalls. "But a reaction to high formalist art and the theories of critic Clement Greenberg led the way."
"I'm on the cusp between modernism and post-modernism," he says. "There were many ideas leading up to what I did, what my group did. In developing my voice as an artist, my influences were Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol."
"Most of the artists I knew were rebels and our heros in pop culture were rebels -- James Dean, Marlon Brando. You wanted to completely break from what had come before. Plus, there is no way to separate my generation from the politics of the period. It was a period of saying no. 'No, I'm not going to Vietnam. No, I'm not going to paint the same art. So then you have to figure out what you are going to do."
In 1969, Ruppersberg staged a four-month run of "Al's Café." Designed by the artist as a hangout for artists and friends in a storefront near L.A.'s MacArthur park, the humble restaurant looked as though it had been transplanted from the heartland of America. But the menu featured offerings "From the Broiler" such as "simulated pine needles a la Johnny Cash, served with a live fern." A waitress took the order and Ruppersberg was the short-order cook who put it together. A little plate of "pine cones and cookie" cost $1.50.
Artist Allen McCollum, who attended the café, was impressed by how shocking this event seemed to be at the height of Minimal, Post-Minimal and Conceptual concerns. In a catalogue for Ruppersberg's 1999 show at the Regional Foundation for Contemporary Art, in Limoges, France, McCollum writes, "For Ruppersberg to simply reproduce (or even embrace) America's banal traditional rituals (like having a meal at a local café) flew in the face of expectation during those contestatory times."
As a fledgling Conceptual artist, Ruppersberg went on to have a show of his photographs of empty rooms or postcards with texts at what was then the Pasadena Art Museum in 1971. With his trajectory determined, he then moved to New York for the first time. "I stayed for six months, until I was broke, then moved back to L.A.," he recalls. "You could do that then."
Ruppersberg claims that his work constantly cycles back to his original interests, whether they may manifest as collaged movie posters, installations of books, or projections on movie screens.
"What I know about myself is that I am extremely restless, going back and forth for 30 years," he confesses. "And I am restless in the work. It changes constantly and confuses people because it always looks different. Restlessness in me the person, restlessness in the work. That seems to remain constant."
Allen Ruppersberg "The Novel That Writes Itself" and "Honey, I Rearranged the Collection" at Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood (310) 273-0603. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.