In Summer Days (1971), an early example of conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg’s text and image-based photo-narratives, two men, ‘Me’ and ‘You’, are photographed hanging around a series of distinctively Southern Californian urban vistas: the portal of a community theater, the stoop of a bungalow apartment building, the receiving door of a mom n’ pop business. They are apparently deep in conversation. The weather looks warm; in one photo their shirts are off. Their poise can only be described as California mellow.
‘No, where is it?’ asks Me in one of the text panels. ‘You know Laurel Canyon?’ asks You. ‘Yeah.’ ‘O.K. Take a left on Kirkwood off Laurel Canyon, half-way up, the first street on the right is Ridpath. Turn right. Almost at the top is Walnut. Left on Walnut to Walnut Dr. Not a through street. Turn left and it’s the last house on the right.’ In another panel, a similarly absurd conversation plays out: ‘Yeah. You go down Sunset to La Brea. Right on La Brea to Third Street. Then right on Third and it’s right there. There’s a parking lot right across the street.’
Isn’t this humorous description of street routes and convoluted driving directions the main punch-line of ‘The Californians,’ an ongoing comedy sketch from NBC’s Saturday Night Live? Were SNL’s writers inspired by a nearly 50-year-old work of conceptual art?
‘It's a combination of going through Google Maps but also just remembering what it’s like to be in Los Angeles,’ recalled Fred Armisen, who co-writes ‘The Californians’ with James Anderson, Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson, in a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. ‘Just for no reason, we would talk about how we were just in LA and what roads we were on, and we’d be talking about directions, and, ‘Well, yeah, you go on Vermont and you make a left.’” That is to say, the similarity between Ruppersberg’s artwork and SNL’s sketch is most likely a coincidence, and a prime example of what the avant-garde literary group the Oulipo call ‘anticipatory plagiarism,’ a provocative expression the Oulipo use to identify its predecessors who, living in the past, remain woefully unaware of their literary crimes. More prosaically, it reveals the almost invisible influence that Allen Ruppersberg has held over several generations of popular culture.
LA-based artist Frances Stark was first introduced to the work of Ruppersberg by her art school advisers when they pointed out that her project of hand-copying Henry Miller’s Sexus (1949) was remarkably similar to Ruppersberg’s project of hand-copying Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). ‘It doesn’t necessarily imply you are hopelessly delusional regarding your own potential for originality,’ Stark writes in a 2002 essay on the artist for Afterall. But ‘the question practically forces a confrontation with the most basic problem of how to navigate one’s own influences.’ This influence is most apparent, and less obscurely received, among several generations of artists and poets who have come to prominence in more recent decades, from the Pictures Generation and artists engaged with relational aesthetics, to artists such as Kathryn Andrews, Amanda Ross-Ho and Yoshua Okón.
Words and literature have always been central to Ruppersberg’s work. ‘It seemed to me that the kind of emotional and intimate experience that I wanted to put into my art had been traditionally dealt with in the world of literature,’ claimed Ruppersberg in Peter Kirby’s 1986 documentary The Secret of Life and Death. From early bookworks such as 23 Pieces and 24 Pieces, to the series of book drawings such as ‘Reading Time’ (1973-4) or ‘The Gift and the Inheritance’ (1989-91), to later installations such as Stop Traveler (Siste Viator) (1993) and the Colby Poster Printing Company prints, attention to the book and the word, as both object and subject, has remained constant for Ruppersberg.
It was a poet, the late Bill Berkson, who numbered Ruppersberg among an older cohort, ‘the California literati,’ ‘Word People’ for whom spoken and written language was vital, such as John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha. Ruppersberg might fall into a slightly separate category of ‘Collecting People,’ for whom collecting pop cultural ephemera and tossed-away objects has been a critical practice. (See also: Jim Shaw, Martha Rosler, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Noah Purifoy.) For Ruppersberg, centering the expiring or forgotten object in a work of art is all about ‘bringing the past forward’ and saving objects or ideas from vanishing forever. ‘I do try to find things that are on the verge of disappearing so I can resuscitate them, use them so that they are present again,’ Ruppersberg told the artist Cheryl Donegan in 2009. A non-exhaustive list of the things Ruppersberg has been known to resuscitate include: phonographic records, jigsaw puzzles, movie posters, educational films, slide projections, religious tracts, calendars, newspaper clippings, library card catalogues, audio tapes, comics, postcards and books. It is only now, as reading habits move from the printed and the bound to Kindles and clouds, that the book seems in sudden need of resuscitation.
When I first discovered Summer Days (1971), a few weeks before the opening of Ruppersberg’s career retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles—originally at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—I became obsessed with following the convoluted directions given to You by Me on the photo-narrative’s text panels. I excitedly hopped in my car and set out into the night. But first I visited other famous Ruppersberg-related locations: the building that hosted Al’s Grand Hotel (1971) in Hollywood still exists, though the neighbourhood that surrounds it has changed drastically. Al’s Café (1969), just down the street from MacArthur Park, is long gone, replaced by a modern apartment complex. One of the directions described in Summer Days (1971) led me to a mid-century stucco residence in the hills of Laurel Canyon that seemed unchanged since the early 1970s. Other directions steered me to a bland mid-city street between a Trader Joe’s and a CVS. It occurred to me that this dexterous method of providing directions is a dying verbal art in the era of geolocation apps. Perhaps I could have saved myself some time with Google Street View; but Ruppersberg has always been interested in resuscitating things on the verge of disappearing.
If you find yourself in LA between 10 February and 12 May 2019, just get on the Pasadena Freeway and head south to the 10. Merge onto the 10 Freeway and drive west for about seven and a half miles until you hit the Overland Avenue offramp. Turn right onto Overland and keep driving until you hit Pico Boulevard. Turn left on Pico and then right on Westwood until you hit Wilshire. The museum is right there. You can’t miss it.
‘Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968-2018’ is on view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, until 12 May 2019
Main Image: Allen Ruppersberg, The Singing Posters: Allen Ginsberg's Howl by Allen Ruppersberg (Parts I-III), 2003/2005 (detail). Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer