ART AND FILM:
QUESTIONS TO EDWARD RUSCHA
ABOUT MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI’S VISIT
IN HIS STUDIO (1967), THE RUSCHA EFFECT
IN ZABRISKIE POINT (1968-70)
- They might not even think it’s a plane.
- Strange prehistoric bird spotted over Mojave desert with its genitals out.
Daria and the old man laugh. She walks around the cabin to join Mark.
- You are just crazy enough to take this thing back to L.A.
- Sure ... You don’t borrow someone’s private plane..., take it for a joyride, and
never come back to express your thanks.
Daria is now behind the cabin. Horizontally painted, a match is shown ignited, flashing. She washes her hands in a bucket. The plane’s N-number is seen uncovered by the deep purple letters O WA, the short phrase NO WAR is readable.
- It’s nice to see a young man who shows some respect.
Daria laughs. To the right of a green surface, Mark diagonally paints THANKX in yellow capital letters over a side window of the Lilly 7 airplane, which is seen transformed into Lilly 7 Freecome.
Who is “X” in THANKX, and what was X thanked for?
Asking questions to Edward Ruscha about the Italian filmmaker who visited him in his studio “about 1967” I am trying to fill with information and words an almost empty glass: a ‘Ruscha effect’ in Zabriskie Point.
When Michelangelo Antonioni was visiting the Los Angeles painter at his North Western Avenue studio, it was his third visit to a contemporary artist before a filming. Before directing Red Desert (Il deserto rosso) he had visited Mark Rothko, before directing Blow-Up he had visited the British painter Ian Stephenson to whom he submitted Don Mc Cullin photographs “for a painterly response”.
In 1967 Ruscha’s work is unseen before in Italy, his first European exhibition is happening in London, January 1966: “Los Angeles Now”. Films directed by Antonioni are yet well known in New York and Los Angeles, they have been influential as “art films”.
When they are meeting, Ed is 29 years old, the two men have a twenty-five year difference. At the time, published writings on his exhibited artworks are including Ed Ruscha in American Pop Art and “highway culture”.
Michelangelo Antonioni came to California at first in May. After going “across the United States” he went back to Rome, where he “looked over [his] notes and gradually decided to do a film about young Americans”. Early autumn he returned with a written outline and revisited several places he had explored previously.
I can write on the brief comments Ruscha had on Antonioni, but I can’t write on what Antonioni said about Ruscha: NO WORDS follows NO WAR over the other side of the airplane’s cabin. In interviews Antonioni has not been questioned (see R. Ebert’s interview in June 1969) on the role played by any of the visits: none of the artist’s names appears in any of the film’s credits. Per se and put together the facts are singular.
Two of Antonioni’s visits to an artist stood before the film’s screenwriting, those are recorded in no more than one phrase: the first one happening in 1962 and the last one in 1967. But recently all three visits have been said to be a significant part of a creative process during the filmmaking: probably anticipated by the filmmaker they had a participatory effect he united under his control. The visit to Stephenson in March 1966 has now precise commentaries.
Visit to Mark Rothko in New York, late 1962: one phrase remains. “Your paintings are like my films, they are about nothing... but with precision”. Citation is not a direct authorship but is “according to Robert Motherwell and Peter Seltz” who organized the visit.
Before coming to New York, Antonioni has written in May a letter to the artist, “Dear Rothko”, commenting on his work he had just seen in an exhibition in Rome: “They are marvelous, these paintings, Mr. Rothko. Moreover, it’s now clear this is the maximum painting can achieve today.” A ‘Rothko effect’ in Red Desert (1964) has been identified and commented on by Richard Gilman and Lee Seldes.
The shop project scene shows arrangements of colored shapes painted a fresco over the walls of the visited room, empty. One of the abstract combinations – “I would better use blue” says Giuliana -, recalls No.61 (Rust and Blue), from 1953; another multi-form recalls No.12 (Black on Dark Sienna on Purple), from 1960, both are among the 7 Rothko paintings acquired in 1984 by MOCA Los Angeles from the Panza collection.
With his wife Giovanna, Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo began to purchase Mark Rothko’s paintings in October 1960. Antonioni and Panza had a mutual friend: the American photographer Milton Gendel, whose apartment in Rome is shown in the opening scenes of L’avventura (1959-60).
The postwar art collector – “who found L.A. before critics in the United States found L.A.” (see M. Govan) -, and his wife have not been identified as anonymously involved in the filming of Il deserto rosso, but it is an hypothesis to work on (see L. de La Hire).
Visit to Ian Stephenson in London, March 1966: “when he first came to London to make the film”. A ‘Stephenson effect’ has been identified in Blow-Up (1966) and commented on by Matilde Nardelli, George Porcari, Philippe Garner and David Alan Mellor: “an exchange of inspiration between photography, film and painting”.
The works of the painter Ian Stephenson and the photographers John Cowan and Don Mc Cullin, a war photographer, became more than an insert into the narrative of the film. Asked by the filmmaker, Mc Cullin took twelve photographs in Maryon park, Stephenson did a painting “with tiny pinpricks of colour” and had a “map-like” one shown (see N. Charlish, G. Cunningham and S. Barber).
Visit to Ed Ruscha in Los Angeles, “about 1967”: a ‘Ruscha effect’ in Zabriskie Point has not been identified and commented on, but it has been noticed by me through ‘deserted spaces’, brand signs in motion along streets and highways – words becoming pictures -, a narrative within a narrative about pig’s meat – echoed by the soundtrack of the opening credits sequence, Heart Beat, Pig Meat, recorded 1969 in Rome by the Pink Floyd -, the use of printed and painted words, written language and typography, a car ride in an early 1950s grey Buick Special, route 66 on a map, small objects and aerial views.
What is manifested in Antonioni’s American film is visual, musical and textual. Deeply cinematic, it ends in an apothéose, the explosion of ‘things’ from the United States.
Misconception or misinterpretations?
Was the artistic content of the film ahead of its time? Written in May 1970 after its brief theatrical run, here is a review by Manny Farber: “slugged by critics, this continuous photographic lyricism shouldn’t have treated a realistic portrait of America” (see R. Polito). Is this a problem of audience? In the Nineties, Jean-Luc Godard, even, detracted Zabriskie Point through the black and white diptychs he inserted in the chapter “Une vague nouvelle” (3 B) of his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1993-98). UNE ERREUR TRAGIQUE DE MONSIEUR L’ANGE: Godard’s citation is assembling production still, images of former days, antiquarian illustrations, the Italian filmmaker is shown but not named (see L. de La Hire).
Historical information and analogy: is THANKX a memorial inscription, multiform and multimedia?
Absence of name in the credits: do I have to ask Ruscha about a tree full of secrets, about stolen ideas? No. The dialogue I cited above is informative – historically backgrounded those moments should be taken an appendix or an index which takes many forms (see K. Schoonover and J. D. Rhodes in conversation) - , such as it was experienced in Il deserto rosso.
Am I in a realist vision, the American world as it is? Mojave desert is also a place where old planes go to slowly die.
Am I in a puzzle difficult to solve? I have in mind Memory and Prudence, precision and fairness,... and corroborated in my ancient thoughts by the location of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, I have Nicolas Poussin, the memorial inscription read on a tomb in his painted enigma Les Bergers d’Arcadie (1638-40, Musée du Louvre): ET IN ARCADIA EGO. In modern thoughts about verbal enigmas and Locomotion aérienne, I have in mind Marcel Duchamp who met Ed Ruscha in October 1963 (see the artist’s chronology), and who died October 1968.
Minutes before in the film but with no doubt, I was in a remake - female -, of Cary Grant (Roger O. Thornhill) chased down by a plane in North by Northwest, a film in which the enigma will be solved.
In contrast to Godard’s elusive principle, and far from figurative images having the appearance of being true, the word lilly naming the rosy Lilly 7 airplane can be clarified, it has homophones, it can be pronounced exactly the same as six other words: liley, lili, lilley, lilli, lillie, lily. Such “precision” in an association multiform of a word to a number might have originated in consulting one of Ruscha’s notebooks, or in asking the artist to choose the name. Maybe such choices were in collaboration, maybe Alfio Contini, the cinematographer, was invited to select billboards and to frame them in a specific way? While Mark is wandering around a neighborhood full of signs, we successively have a STANDARD gas station, Bank of America, and then a 7 up ad treated like a mural. The vernacular language is used to communicate a particular urban experience.
X in names and in traffic signs
Many forms are occurring, all in significant terms? Through names and traffic signs, “X” is a repeated letter in the film. When Mark – “how do you spell it?”, “Mark: MARX” in the police station scene -, stops at a liquor store, we briefly see in the background a hitchhiker standing by an X road sign: the railroad crossing RR X-ing round. Then Mark enters the shop while a can is heard falling down the gutter. Maybe it’s pure coincidence, but spelled names - first one is P.O.L.L.I.T., by the “associate professor of history” whose “occupation” is noisily typed, shorten into “clerk” by a duty officer named Bill -, and homophones – Phoenix in Arizona is also in Egyptian mythology a bird who rises from the ashes, renewed and reborn -, STANDARD and vernacular language, “hitchhiker” and round “road sign” are all factual elements Antonioni can have taken from Ruscha’s work and from a narrative of the artist’s life.
Turning around an enigma which stands out in the field of Contemporary Art and Film
In a 1981 interview, following a question by Paul Karlstrom about Blow-Up, Ed Ruscha agreed about “all of Antonioni’s movies”, he cited Antonioni’s visit and declared “and I remember him really responding to Standard Station”. Next questions went back to Blow-Up: “Have you been or are you attracted to the high fashion world [...].
Whereas the painted THANKX - over a passenger’s side window -, was remaining unnoticed and anonymous - for forty-two years -, the information about the visit “to [his] studio one time” was published for the first time by MIT Press in 2002, in an “anthology [...] divided into three parts” edited by Alexandra Schwartz: LEAVE ANY INFORMATION AT THE SIGNAL. It is now ten years the artist’s words have not been exploited - neither scholarly nor in criticism -, to revisit the film. Written in June 2010 in realistic and figural terms by Juli Kearns, a precise but reductive description of Zabriskie Point obscured the key issue.
The risk of mistaken identity is low. Was Antonioni wordless when he responded to Ruscha’s cited work? A relationship between the American painter and the Italian filmmaker began in Hollywood? Was it a productive relationship, did they collaborate during a road trip and later on the set? We are in something that matters but what are we in exactly? Not only the questions-and-answers will tell us more about the film’s own history but maybe they will allow us to turn upside down the clichés of Antonioni criticism and to challenge the accuracy of film analysis.
In continuity with Marcel Duchamp’s oeuvre – The Large Glass, 1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art, related to The Green Box, 1934 -, and its principles of collaboration in the United States, and taking a temporal coherence from Duchamp initiating Walter Arensberg in With Hidden Noise (À bruit secret, 1916-63, see K. D. Allan’s “Duchamp in Pasadena”), Zabriskie Point hosts a Large duchampian ready-made – the Lilly 7 airplane surrounded by Verte Belle, “a near homonym of verbal” –, and redefines the politics of enigma away from realistic representations or forms.
Date, contact and choice of a visit to Ed Ruscha.
- Which month was the visit? Was it a direct contact initiated by the filmmaker?
- It could have come about through a friend or intermediary or art consultant. I
- His choice to visit you was from his own? Who organized the visit?
- I remember being very impressed that a person I admired so had the interest to
visit my studio. He was with a beautiful woman and another man. It was a cordial ½
hour-45 minute visit with not a lot of aesthetic chatter.
Ed Ruscha’s work
- In case he said he had seen your work before, where was it?
- I don’t remember but he came and went like a phantom but a phantom who’s ideas coincided with mine.
- The first exchange with him was about Italy, then about your painted work? Did he ask to
look at your photographic work, your artist’s books?
- I gave him a copy of “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” which he appreciated.
- Antonioni was interested in architecture, the relationship between sound and image,
in emptiness. Did he look at your “sounded words”? SPAM, SMASH...
- We both shared the notion of lost, empty time without acknowledging it to one
another. There were no profound declarations coming from either of us.
- “I remember him really responding to Standard Station ”
(E.R.). Was his ‘response’ wordless or did he comment on the painting?
The two-point perspective?
- I told him “Standard Station” came right out of old American B-movies.
Antonioni’s films and his American film project
- Did you talk together about Blow-Up, the film and the filming, the blow-up?
- His visit might have been pre-“Blow-Up” but in my estimation this was a landmark movie.
- Did he talk to you about his American film project? Did he ask you something
related to the filming?
- Rothko, Stephenson, Mc Cullin, Ruscha: to you now, is there a logical step by step
in such a list of artists? It seems you are the final one Antonioni was visiting.
- I was unaware of any visits he made to other studios but filmmakers are usually inspired by artists, and in my case, vice versa.
Zabriskie Point: deep into or on the surface
At Zabriskie Point, there is a California to Oklahoma moment when the camera focuses on stickers and a young boy over a passenger side window of a deep blue Dodge camping car, the close-up sounds like a self-narrative moment.
- When you watched Zabriskie Point, did some moments remind you Antonioni’s visit?
- Zabriskie Point seemed to have less impact on me than his other films, but it was certainly brave of him to “take on America”.
- Watching now Zabriskie Point, I would suggest that on the surface Dennis Hopper’s
photographs and Bruce Conner’s painted elephant are not so far. But deep into the film, would say Ruscha’s work is close by. Would you say there was “an exchange of inspiration” in between distinct media, or it was in a different way?
- Would you say there was an interplay, or an intersection between something in your
work and something in his films?
- When you directed your own films, Premium (1971) and Miracle (1975), did you have a
filmmaker or a cinematographer in mind, at once?
- No, I met filmmakers who were students at UCLA. Eventually these students helped
make my films.
- Was there another contact between you and Antonioni, happening after his visit?
Visits by filmmakers in Ed Ruscha’s studio
- What was making a difference between Antonioni’s visit and other visits you had by
- Can’t recall other filmmakers visiting my studio.
- Is there something you would like to add about Stanley Kubrick (born British) and
Michelangelo Antonioni (Italian)?
- Kubrick had the courage and good fortune to use the great talent Timothy Carey who
acted in more than one Kubrick movie.
Published in La Furia Umana n°15 (winter 2013) with the agreement of Ed Ruscha.
© Emmanuel Herbulot
November 7, 2012
Special thanks to Mary Dean.
Under the pseudonym L. de La Hire, Emmanuel Herbulot (b.1950) has written in English critical essays on cinema and contemporary art published in La Furia Umana n°10 (autumn 2011), n°11 (winter 2012) and n°12 (spring 2012).