LOS ANGELES - How does it feel to be the artist representing the United States at this year's Venice Biennale? Edward Ruscha sums it up in a four-letter word - gulp.
If his response were writ large in one of his paintings, it might appear to float in the sky above Los Angeles, the city that has supplied him with images and ideas for nearly 50 years. His spoken "gulp" seems to fill the air in his industrial-style studio in the Venice section of Los Angeles as he talks about the prestigious international contemporary exhibition that begins next month.
"The `gulp' word comes up very easily," said Ruscha. "I guess I have no excuses now. I have to do it. I did accept the mission."
Not that he is unaccustomed to recognition. Ruscha, who was born in Omaha, Neb. in 1937, came to Los Angeles fresh out of high school, studied at Chouinard Art Institute and soon became a star in Los Angeles' burgeoning art scene. A master of American vernacular who spices a Pop sensibility with Conceptual twists and ambiguous meanings, he has created a distinctive body of paintings, prints, drawings, books and films that have been exhibited all over the world.
"When I first saw L.A., I just felt this is like Santa's workshop," said the artist, who works in a cavernous, bare-bones space filled with rolling tables of neatly arranged materials and tools. "I loved it for that. There was so much material, so many subjects. It was overwhelming."
Last year, the Royal Academy of Arts in London elected Ruscha an Honorary Academician, placing him in an elite league of 20 artistic luminaries who reside outside Britain, including architect Frank Gehry, sculptor Richard Serra and painters Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. Ruscha will stop in London on his way to Venice to launch an exhibition of his work at the academy. Closer to home, a major show of his drawings organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York made its debut there last summer. It is now on view through May 30 at Washington's National Gallery of Art.
Still, there's nothing quite like the Venice Biennale.
"One thing this Venice Biennale thing has done is to make me focus on being an American," Ruscha said. "You can't help it. They make the rules, and they have these nationalistic entries from each country. That does focus you on your origins."
His work will fill the U.S. pavilion, a Colonial Neoclassic-style building that opened in 1930. "I love the building," Ruscha said. "It kind of resembles Monticello. ... so that sort of pulls you home."
As for how he is going to fill the U.S. pavilion, mum is mostly the word until the June 9 reception and June 10 media preview. He plans to unveil paintings inspired by his 1992 "Blue Collar" works, which depict recycled industrial buildings in what he calls "an imaginary time jump." Five new pieces will be displayed with five older ones. The paintings express "my doubts about the progress of the world as such," he said. But that's as far as he would go in describing the project.
Why the secrecy? "Oh, for once, why not?" he said. "I'd rather have it be done, step back and let people feel what they want."
Viewers aren't likely to find that he has had an attack of artistic patriotism in creating his show for the U.S. pavilion - or that he has made any other radical change.
"I don't feel that I have a duty to pictorially represent my nation," he said, "and I'm not sure I do surprises. These things are extensions of my other work."
Ruscha's work "is really consonant with this age of information," said Linda Norden, associate curator of contemporary art at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, who also will serve as commissioner of the U.S. pavilion. "We are so bombarded with images and information that our heads are full of things we haven't processed. His work is attentive to that and to the idea that a painting can be a kind of receiver for information that is not interpreted."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.