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American Masters, Past and Present

“The Course of Empire: Destruction,” 1836, Thomas Cole, Oil on canvas, 99.7 × 161.3 cm.
(Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image created by Oppenheimer Editions)

When the Venice Biennale opened to VIPs and members of the press in the spring of 2005, all eyes were on the American pavilion, and on the artist chosen to represent the United States that year: the painter Ed Ruscha. Even before the show’s public opening, all of the new works had been sold to museums (according to the New York Times), and a dinner for 400 in honor of Ruscha was organized by the Gagosian Gallery in a 16th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal.

Inside the pavilion, Ruscha presented two sets of paintings. The first featured five black-and-white views from 1992 — four of them showing box-like industrial buildings, and the fifth, a phone booth. The second pictured the same sites roughly a decade later. “Course of Empire” was the title that Ruscha gave the 10 paintings. He named them after a series by the 19th century American painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848). “They reflect my feelings about American industry,” he told the New York Times. “It’s about then and now.”

The 10 Ruscha paintings are now in a standalone, one-room display at the National Gallery in London (through Oct. 7). They have been brought together to coincide with an exhibition of Thomas Cole, previously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire.” The Ruscha paintings are presented the way they might have been in the 19th century: in a double hang (two rows of five paintings each). That makes it easy to compare the buildings from each era and observe what happened to them over the course of a decade.

The purpose of showing the Ruscha and Cole exhibitions simultaneously is to demonstrate “that there is a continuity: that artists will deal with similar issues,” explained Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery, who organized both shows in London. “They continue to derive direction from the art of the past, and at the same time, continue to comment on it.”

Ruscha’s original title for the first set of paintings, the black-and-white ones, was “Blue Collar.” They represent box-shaped buildings emblazoned with logos that all start with the letter T — Tech-Chem, Tool & Die, Trade School, and Tires — as well as Telephone, the top of a phone booth. They’re painted from below, so that the eye of the viewer is pulled upward: di sotto in su, to use art historical lingo.

Fast-forward to the second set of paintings a decade or so later, and the buildings have either disappeared or been repurposed, their new function no longer all that clear. Tech Chem has been replaced by Fat Boy (no explanation as to what that might be). Tool & Die has been taken over by a Korean concern, with Korean inscriptions running across the top. The trade school has been boarded up, a sign that blue collar worker training is no longer a priority. And the telephone booth is long gone, replaced by the ubiquitous cellphone. The only building that exists in expanded form is the Tire building, a sign of cars’ uninterrupted prevalence in the urban landscape of turn-of-the-millennium California.

“Deterioration is an ongoing thing, and it could be viewed negatively of course,” Ruscha is quoted as saying in the exhibition catalogue. Yet it’s “kind of awesome” to “visualize everything that it might encompass, and to know that nothing lasts.”

At first glance, Ruscha seems to be doing the opposite of what Cole does: chronicling various stages of progress by offering snapshots of modern-day reality. Cole appears, instead, to turn his back on the present by glorifying nature and the landscape and turning away from all that is manmade. And yet the two painters are ultimately saying the same thing — a century and a half apart.

Cole, as it turns out, grew up in an environment where he was surrounded by the machinery of technological and industrial progress. He was born in 1801 in Bolton, northern England, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and he and his family were employed in mills. His childhood years were spent in squalor and filth; even the air he breathed was thick with factory fumes. “He went to work in the dark satanic mills as a child in the cotton industry at a point of great political and social agitation. So that poverty and a pretty dismal view of economic reality were his formation,” said Riopelle.

When circumstances led him as a young man to move to the United States with his family, he jumped on the opportunity. “America must have seemed this extraordinary opening up of possibilities once he got there: all that air, all that space, the landscape still pristine,” Riopelle added.

Cole made the most of it. After getting art training from a portrait painter and at an academy, he started placing his landscape paintings in the vitrine of a New York shop, where they were spotted by two men who became his mentors. Thanks to their patronage and that of others, Cole was able to make a lengthy study trip back to Europe, meeting J.M.W. Turner and John Constable along the way, and traveling up and down the continent to observe the works of other landscape painters.

His famous vistas are a product of those European influences and of his own vision and gift. Cole’s bestknown painting, the 1846 “The Oxbow” (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), shows the Connecticut River Valley after a storm. There is also a five-part series of paintings, “The Course of Empire,” that was acquired by the New York Historical Society in 1858, its home ever since.

Cole first makes reference to the series in 1829-30, on a return trip to England, when he notes in writing that he envisages a cycle of paintings on the rise and fall of a great city. The resulting paintings show a metropolis with a strong resemblance to Rome, and they seem to be some kind of cautionary tale. “Cole is worried that the hubris that brought down Rome could bring down America, which is not taking care of the natural paradise it is being granted by God,” Riopelle said. “There is nostalgia and a warning that America will have to take care or the same thing that happened to ancient Rome will happen to it.”

By contrast, Ruscha, in his riposte to Cole, “consciously avoids any kind of overt political statement,” according to Riopelle. “He doesn’t want to make any glib comparisons. He is pointing out that things are changing and becoming more ambiguous.”

As Daniel F. Herrmann writes in the catalog: “In contrast to his artistic predecessors in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, the Contemporary artist Ruscha is describing history neither as trajectory nor as a narrative cycle,” but “as a process.” In effect, Ruscha “succeeds in using history not just as subject matter, but as an artistic tool, mastering it for his own means.”

The Ruscha show in London was hung by the artist himself, who traveled over especially beforehand.  What was he like to work with? “Easy,” said Riopelle. “He’s quite laconic, doesn’t necessarily say much, and doesn’t waste time either. He just turned 80, but you’d swear he was 50.”

As for his contribution to the hang, “he’s been at this game for a long time, so he’s used to solving practical problems. When I presented the space, he figured out how to use it in a very clever way.”

— This story appears in the June edition of Modern Painters.

Founder Louise Blouin