Fotograf Magazine

Auto-maticity: Ruscha and Performative Photography

Ed Ruscha’s books are puzzling. While his paintings find a plausible interpretative context in the work of Jasper Johns and Pop Art, his books are more often viewed as proto-photo-conceptual. Ruscha’s response to these attempts at categorization has been to distance himself from both pop and conceptua art, but he has always acknowledged the importance of the work of Marcel Duchamp, especially in relation to the books. He has in fact declared that ‘the spirit of Duchamp’s work is stronger in my books than in anything else’.1 He knew Duchamp’s work in reproduction from his high school days, and in 1963 he was able to see the work and meet the man in person at the first major Duchamp retrospective held at the Pasadena Art Museum.2 It is his reception of Duchamp that makes Ruscha’s work proto-conceptual. But exactly which Duchamp was important for him? Certainly not the ‘appropriationist’ Duchamp that resurfaced in a certain strand of critical conceptual art and later issued in the work of Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine or Richard Prince; or the Duchamp as founder of institutional critique, carried forward by artists such as Daniel Buren or Hans Haacke. Ruscha’s hard-edged style of painting may look back to Duchamp’s intense precision-painting in, for example, the Chocolate Grinder (No.1) of 1913, but the books seem related to the reception of another Duchamp in the United States which might be called the instructional and performative Duchamp. This is the legacy most avidly developed by the experimental composer, John Cage, and the group of artists influenced by him who in 1962 were to become Fluxus. Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris are often cited as the most important inheritors of this tradition, but, I will argue, Ruscha should be added to this list.

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