Allen Ruppersberg’s retrospective at Walker Art Center is called “Intellectual Property 1968-2018,” but it won’t be as dry as it sounds. Unless you factor in the dryness of Los Angeles, the city in a desert where Ruppersberg came of age as an artist.
Opening with a party Friday night, this hearty exhibition is a journey through not only the artist’s vast body of work, but his mind as well.
A conceptual artist with assemblage tendencies, Ruppersberg moved to L.A. from Cleveland in the 1960s for art school. Inspired by mass media such as newspapers and books, archival films, street signage, the landscape of Southern California and even Harry Houdini, the artist has produced everything from parody-like built environments such as “Al’s Café” to conceptual paintings like “The Picture of Dorian Gray” — a copy of the entire Oscar Wilde novel — and portraits of himself as other people.
It seemed a fitting time for a retrospective, since Ruppersberg hasn’t had one since a 1985 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
“There was a lot of work that went under the bridge since ’85, and most of it was in Europe and never seen here,” the artist said Monday at the Walker, whose senior curator of visual arts, Siri Engberg, organized this exhibit and a companion book.
His work was more widely shown in Europe simply because “they liked it,” he said — but also because his disinterest in commercial success didn’t appeal as much to the American art market.
Ruppersberg joked that he has only ever made two paintings. The show opens with one of them: “Greetings From California” (1972), which shows an orange book floating over the ocean. It’s practically a parody of West Coast artists.
There’s a coolness to Ruppersberg’s work that feels very L.A. Think Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha. California is a sensibility and a lifestyle, in part a result of the natural landscapes of the region and the fact that you’re simply outdoors a lot more.
The decentralized nature of Los Angeles lends itself to the sort of sprawl that’s reflected in this show. There is no rush; you’ll get there eventually, even if the route is long, winding and full of traffic.
In fact, signage created by the L.A.-based Colby Poster Printing Co. forms one of the largest and most striking pieces in this show. The 2003 work “The Singing Posters: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl by Allen Ginsberg (Part 1 & 2)” is a massive depiction of the Ginsberg poem, using the kind of advertising posters that are integral to the city’s visual landscape.
“It used to be, you’d drive around downtown L.A. and you’d see them on every telephone post,” said Ruppersberg, fondly.
To get a Colby poster made, customers would phone in what they wanted it to say, and it would be printed in all-caps typography, oftentimes on wacky neon paper. Ruppersberg phoned in the entire text of “Howl,” spelled out phonetically. (Ruppersberg was inspired by hearing a recording of the poem by Ginsberg.) It took Colby about a year to print 240 pieces of signage.
Installed floor-to-ceiling, the “Howl” posters are arranged amid other Colby posters that the artist collected.
“The company gave up on trying to figure out what I was doing,” he said. “I worked with them for a very long time.”
Colby closed its doors in 2012 (it started in 1948 after World War II), making it yet another relic lost to the age of digital everything. “I would say that this is as much a memorial to Colby as it is to Allen Ginsberg,” said Engberg. Visitors also will be able to listen to “Howl” while looking at the piece.
Though this piece isn’t about making copies of other people’s work, there is a “copycat” element to it that extends into his other work.
In another conceptual experiment with stuff that already exists, Ruppersberg in 1974 copied “A Picture of Dorian Gray,” writing out every word of the novel by hand onto 20 canvases. This is, of course, a book about a work of art.
“It took me six days a week, eight hours a day,” said Ruppersberg. “And if you don’t know the book, you can stand here and read it,” he said, matter-of-factly, almost bluntly, suggesting that artgoers here might take the time to do it. Or if not, they can appreciate the concept, chuckle, and move on to the next piece.