Kunsthistorisches Museum presents Ed Ruscha The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas

Kunsthistorisches Museum presents Ed Ruscha The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas, an exhibition on view September 25–December 2, 2012.

In April 1961, a young graphic designer and artist from the American Midwest named Ed Ruscha boarded a passenger ship to Europe, accompanied by his mother Dorothy and brother Paul. From Paris they set off on a road trip that would take in seventeen countries in seven months. Ruscha’s brother stayed for two months, and his mother for four. The remainder of the time he travelled alone. Among the places he visited were some of the continent’s great museums: the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. “Europe,” Ruscha later recalled, “added the weight of history to the whole picture.” Shortly after his return to the United States, Ruscha’s debut solo exhibition opened at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. It marked the beginning of a remarkable career in painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and graphic design that has established him as one of the most restlessly inventive and internationally respected artists of our time.

Exactly 50 years later, Ruscha was invited by the Kunsthistorisches Museum to return to Vienna, to spend time with its collections and curators. This exhibition, for which each object was personally chosen by the artist, is the result. Like the visitor, who chooses postcards of some favourite works to take home, Ruscha was encouraged to assemble objects without regard for the museum’s historical conventions of display. Removed from their usual contexts and paired with unexpected neighbours, the objects speak with new voices. Unfamiliar aspects of familiar objects are revealed. Seen as a whole they represent a personal reinterpretation of the past, a form of historical argument that engages the museums’ works as evidence and in doing so deepens our understanding of them.

The thread that unites these works is the eye of the artist who chose them. The challenge and pleasure for the visitor is to try to match our eye to his, to understand the reasoning behind his preferences. In doing so, we are encouraged to look again at works that we think we know well, and to question the value of certain objects over others. Just as importantly, this process serves to cast light on the artist’s own work, and the thinking and decisions that lie behind it.

The majority of objects in the exhibition are drawn from two of the museum’s collections: its magnificent Picture Gallery, and its remarkable Kunstkammer, widely regarded as the most important of its kind anywhere in the world, which will reopen in February 2013 following a decade-long renovation. Ruscha also requested the loan of several objects from other collections beyond the museum: from Schloss Ambras, in Innsbruck, Tyrol; from the Natural History Museum in Vienna, which kindly lent several objects from its holdings; and from a private collection in the United States, which generously agreed to lend Ruscha’s own 1967 work Wanze, the only German-language drawing that he has ever made, which was produced as a gift for someone he met in Austria in 1961.

Looking at the objects that Ruscha has chosen, strands of thought soon begin to emerge. From his childhood collections of coins and postage stamps, to his books such as Nine Swimming Pools (1968) and Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), the artist has long been fascinated by notions of taxonomy, the desire to classify and quantify the world around us. Within the exhibition this can be perceived not only in a real, quasi-scientific sense, but also fantastical, verging on the absurd. Closely related to this is Ruscha’s interest in art and nature—from painted studies of animals and flowers, to actual preserved specimens—and the point at which the two meet: the Kunstkammer, with its extraordinary holdings of exotica, naturalia, scientifica and artificialia. And for those more familiar with Ruscha’s own work, there are some curious and often unexpected rhymes to be found: panoramic formats, bird’s eye perspective, text and printing, and more.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
1010 Vienna, Austria

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