LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ed Ruscha has spent the last 50 years creating some of the most acclaimed works of the conceptual art movement, and he now reveals he's had a roadmap for much of that time — Jack Kerouac's seminal novel "On the Road."
The breakthrough book, written nearly nonstop over a matter of days on a 120-foot scroll, not only gave birth to a new style of prose, but sent thousands of artists, writers and others on a journey of self-discovery across the highways of America.
"I first read it in 1958, I guess, and I felt like this is almost my story," Ruscha recalled recently. "These restless people moving from one place to another and experiencing the highway and everything in between."
The artist was discussing "Ed Ruscha: On the Road," an exhibition of his photographs, paintings and drawings that pay homage to the book that launched the beat generation. The collection is currently on display at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Shortly before "On the Road's" publication in 1957, Ruscha himself hit the highway, climbing into a car and heading west to Los Angeles to study art.
Left in his rear-view mirror was Oklahoma City, where as a precocious fourth-grader, he'd painted a mural for his elementary school that commemorated the land rush of the 1890s.
He would spend much of the next 10 years criss-crossing the country, just as his heroes of "On the Road" did. Like them, sometimes he'd drive, other times hitchhike.
Along the way he would gain inspiration for such celebrated works as the paintings "Burning Gas Station," ''Hollywood Sign" and "Sex at Noon," as well as such photo books as "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" and "Twenty-six Gasoline Stations," the latter a paean to the final days of America's Mother Road, Route 66.
He says now those peripatetic travels were inspired in part by Kerouac.
"The attitude that he spread with this idea of young and restless has affected a lot of people, generations of people, and I guess I was one of them," Ruscha said by phone from his Southern California studio as he took a respite from a day of painting.
That influence led him to produce a limited-edition, illustrated version of "On the Road" in 2009 that included photos taken by himself and others. Then he decided why stop there.
He went on to create eight large paintings (oil on canvas and acrylic on canvas), as well as nearly a dozen drawings and several more black-and-white photographs embossed on paper.
The works, along with several framed plates of the 2009 book's illustrated pages, went on display at the Hammer earlier this month.
The paintings of skylines, snowcapped mountains and the like are done in the detailed style Ruscha honed when he studied as a graphic artist at the Chouinard Art Institute (now part of California Institute of the Arts).
They also incorporate the signature style found in his "word paintings," as he includes phrases from "On the Road," setting them off in precise letters that make them appear to hover over the landscapes he's painted.
Among the words he chose are descriptions from the book that reflect the fascination of its fictional narrator, Sal Paradise, with the idiosyncrasies he found on the road, including his encountering the word manana — Spanish for tomorrow.
"Sure baby, manana. It was always manana. For the next week that was all I heard, manana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven."
The Hammer exhibition, which runs through Oct. 2, is the first such display of Ruscha's work for the Westwood museum, and its chief curator, Douglas Fogle, says he jumped at the chance to put it together.
"Ed's a senior statesman of the Los Angeles arts community," said Fogle. "For a very established artist he's still making amazing work. And while it's reiterating interest he's had over the years, it's still branching out and pushing into new territory."
Variously described as either a pop artist or conceptual artist, Ruscha dismisses such labeling, although he adds it doesn't offend him.
"If you call me a pop artist I'm proud," he says jovially. "It stems from the word popular. The media and imagery and iconography from everyday life is what is the basis of my work, so I guess I'm a pop artist. But I don't refer to myself as that. And then people have said, 'Well, you're really a conceptual artist.' I'll say, 'OK, I'm that too.'"
He was one of a circle of artists, including Andy Warhol, who came to prominence as leaders of the pop movement through exhibitions at Los Angeles' Ferus Gallery in the 1960s. Unlike Warhol, however, he spurned New York, choosing to stay in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that likely limited his stature in the art world during his early years.
"The art world at the time was all pretty much centered in New York and it was like LA was the Australia of the art world. I mean it was just so far away that it was not worth recognizing," he says of the attitude critics had. "I knew that that was a falsehood but it wasn't up to me to champion Los Angeles in any way, shape or form. It's not my thing to do that. "
Instead he just kept working, turning out an amazingly prolific and eclectic body of work.
"Today I'm painting on the side of a book and I'm painting the letters PDQ. Like pretty damn quick," he says.
When finished, it will likely be included in an exhibition planned for the Kunsthaus museum in Bregenz, Austria, next year that is to fill four of the museum's floors with his art.
Meanwhile, he continues to work in a variety of media, creating whatever comes to mind.
"I never really know," he says, chuckling. "There's no real plan for anything."