Romance with Ed Ruscha and Vintage Autos

New Listing: Ed Ruscha "Motor City Suite" 2010

Any man who came of age in the 50s or 60s or 70s, as Ed Ruscha did, has an inexpressible, almost spiritual, relationship to cars, which will probably remain puzzling to those born too late to have heard and felt the majesty of Detroit, the primacy of America, during those years. Corvette, Barracuda, Malibu, Camaro, GTO: how those names still haunt some of us, mixing memory and desire. Can you say Shelby Cobra? Can you feel that healing power? The poetry of V-8 horsepower got into your blood back then and once it does that, it never really goes away: not long ago, Stanley Fish wrote a blog for the New York Times, suggesting that automobiles are primarily works of imagination, miniature worlds on wheels, which is to say there is no cure for this; there is only recovery. This is what Detroit did to some of us: it made automobiles not only a fitting subject for art, but works of art themselves, the physical embodiment of something transcendent—a metaphor of the spirit made flesh. Well, metal.

In Richard Linklater’s, Dazed and Confused, his best movie, the character of Wooderson refuses to let go of that dream, no matter how old he gets. He stands in front of his car and recites a benediction which, for some of us, has more evocative power, is more transporting, than your average Keats or Wordsworth lyric: “Let me tell you what Melba Toast in packin’ right there, all right. We got 4:11 Positrac outback, 750 double pumper, Edelbrock intake, bored over 30, 11 to 1 pop-up pistons, turbo-jet 390 horsepower. We’re talkin’ . . . muscle.” This isn’t just poetry. It’s a catechism, and granted, it’s from the mouth of a fool, but it’s couched in a Latin we love to hear, even if we don’t understand every word. (Hm, pop-up piston, that must have been a hemi . . .) He isn’t just a priest to the younger drag racers. He’s an artist boasting about his achievement—his Detroit production model customized, personalized, almost beyond recognition into a dragon that breathes flames from its pipes. Wooderson speaks to that longing many of us had, as teens, to furnish a garage with every available and necessary tool needed to break down a small-block Detroit engine into its smallest parts and then put them all back together again, just so, lovingly counting the turns of a wrench, like rosary beads, and then, after hours of meditative devotion, you twist that key clockwise to hear this creature roar back to life—a ritual of resurrection we could completely understand and control. I made that. I know exactly how it works. It will take me anywhere I want to go. It’s me.

In the Sixties, California stoked this delusional love, this faith in ourselves and the power of the Hot Rod, this celebration of our Little Deuce Coupe with its offering to release us from everything that held us back—and boy did we have fun fun fun ‘till daddy took the T-Bird away. The car was, and still is, an embodiment of our longing for the individual freedom and power, the heart of America. It didn’t last, of course. Linklater’s movie takes place at the end of America’s Golden Age, for art and automobiles and everything else, in the mid-70s. It was a post-war era that had a quality of giddy hope, a sense that we’d broken through to the other side, as Jim Morrison put it, into a zone where life would simply get better and better, without end. But then came the oil embargo, gas rationing, Ralph Nader, catalytic converters, electronics—and of course Japanese automotive competition. You know a wonderful dream has died when an automaker flees to NASA’s engineers, begging for help in trying to understand why its own cars won’t stop properly. This has become the new, pathetic automotive Grail: how to bring our forward motion to a halt. Automobiles have become, to their own makers, as alien and mysterious as string theory—there is no set of tools I can own that will enable me to break down a Toyota and put it back together so that it would work properly. I would need a degree in computer science, and even then, what would be the point? This is the Age of Prius. Where’s the fun? Where’s the muscle? There is no equivalent now for the Visible V-8 from Revell, a transparent scale model of a Detroit engine for a kid who wanted to understand the mystery of how a shower of sparks could get him to 60 mph in three seconds along a stretch of interstate, floating through the air like a god. There’s no going back to that engineering simplicity.

In the work of California artists like Ed Ruscha and Robert Bechtle, you feel both the nostalgic romance and the bleak reality of the Detroit dream: how moving around often can get you nowhere faster than just sitting still. You see how cars offer an illusory, pagan appropriation of what earlier generations had sought in their Catholicism. When Ed Ruscha published Twentysix Gasoline Stations, he offered a colorless vision of service stations spread between his own birthplace in Oklahoma to the promised land of Southern California. With its sly reference to the Catholic stations of the cross leading up to Easter, it was a landscape, a Great Plains Calvary, as Samuel Beckett might have imagined it: the same thing over and over and over until you die, and yet it was all deeply poetic and evocative. My own series of paintings of jelly beans has to be driven partly by memories of traditional childhood Easter egg hunts, with their baskets of candy. Along with the other major Christian holiday, Christmas, it was my introduction to the power and joy of color—and the hint of a mysterious hope inherent in any appreciation of beauty.

It’s possible Ruscha’s vision will appeal only to those of us for whom that first glimpse of mechanical beauty—the sort of beauty maybe only an American male could believe in—had eight pistons, a full tank of very cheap gas and a fresh set of tires. Back when it seemed anything was possible and the only future that mattered could be seen from the driver’s seat on an open road, a place where, every day, you could leave it all behind and be reborn every morning—without, it seemed, answering to anyone but yourself.

Written by David Dorsey. David is an artist and writer. He has written for a variety of national magazines and is the author of The Force and The Cost of Living.

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