Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Ed Ruscha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ed Ruscha. Show all posts

Monday, April 6, 2015

PSYCHIC PEDESTRIANISM



When I first moved to Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure what kind of life I was going to lead here.  It occurred to me that I might become a full-on motorhead.  I was encouraged, in the first couple of months, by meeting, separately, two very different artists and car enthusiasts: Robert Williams and Ed Ruscha.  This is Robert Williams:



In fact I mostly talked to them about each other.  Both had a taste for old cars, preferably 1930s Fords.  Ruscha kept his stock, Williams hot-rodded his.  And I seem to recall that Ruscha told he liked cars, but Williams really liked cars.  Williams knew the parts numbers for gaskets and so on, Ruscha didn’t.


Anyway, I still kind of like cars. but I’ve never turned into a motorhead.  I have decided (arguably in a sour grapes kind of way) that looking at exotic old car is way more fun that owning them.   So, since Robert Williams is currently having a one man exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, titled Slang Aesthetics, I decided walk over there, see the show, and walk home again. 


The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is in Barnsdall Park, right next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s endlessly decaying, endlessly being restored, Hollyhock House, and if you ask me the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery could use a snappier name.  The Hollyhock Gallery perhaps. The current name sounds kind of “worthy” and Robert Williams’s art is never, ever “worthy.”


It’s a big gallery and a big show, and I always enjoy watching people in art galleries, especially the way they walk, in that measured, respectful, dutiful way. So I was there looking at Williams’ paintings and drawings and occasional sculpture and keeping half an eye on the people in the gallery and suddenly I saw the man himself, with his wife Suzanne, walking across the expanse of the gallery floor. 

We said hello.  He said he’d been trying to get a show in this gallery for 40 years, and we talked very briefly about cars: the man has just acquired a Model T Ford, which he tells me is very tricky to drive, which comes as no surprise.  After we’d talked for a little while, he excused himself and went off to talk to a couple of attractive young women he’d spotted.  He introduced himself and took them on a walk around the gallery.  You can do that when it’s your show.


I was tempted to take a few pics of Mr. Williams in situ but I thought that would have been a bit fan-ish so I didn’t, but I found this one taken at the beginning of the show – he’s there doing a “walk through.”


Now a man who owns hotrods and a model T is probably not going to be a great walker, and Robert Williams’s paintings tend to feature cars, women, curious bits of architecture but I did find this picture (not in the exhibition) from 1970 titled, Psychic Pedestrians On a Spiral Horizon (Barycenter).



       However, the open-minded pedestrian, psychic or not, always finds something on his travels.  To complete the expedition, on the walk home, I did find this nice bit of street art, which delivers a message some of us know isn’t strictly true.


As I took the picture I was hoping that somebody might walk by to give it some human interest.  Nobody did, but I was aware of the woman on the right of the picture who looks as though she’s walking, though in fact I think she works in that shop and had stepped outside for a cigarette and a coffee break. 


But it was only when I got home and downloaded the picture that I noticed that waist of her, and the fact that she’s wearing a corset.  Now I wouldn’t say that nobody walks in LA wearing a corset, but really, very, very few.

Monday, February 2, 2015

LOTS OF PARKING LOTS




If you have some reputation as a walker, a lot of people assume you can’t or don’t or won’t drive.   In my own case this isn’t true.  As I often say (in fact I’ve said it so often I’m not absolutely sure I mean it anymore), “I love driving.  It’s parking that I hate.”

On the other hand I really do like walking in parking lots (that’s car parks to my English readers).  It feels vaguely transgressive to walk in a place that’s designed for cars not for walkers, although of course people have to walk at least a short distance once they’ve found their parking spot.

And of course most people want that parking spot to be as close as possible to the exit or to the store they’ve parked in front of.  I try to have the best of both worlds by parking in some distant, empty spot so that even though I’ve driven to a place I still get to do a certain amount of walking; a small thing, but my own.


I’ve discussed Ed Ruscha elsewhere on this blog, and I don’t know what his walking habits are, but since he published an artist’s book titled Thirtyfour Parking Lots I think we do know a little about his attitude to parking lots: detached, ironic, blank, subversive, romanticizing the mundane. 


And I did just read an interview with him that originally appeared in Ruscha and Photography.  Sylvia Wolf asks, “Was the idea of mapping a motivating factor in your work?  I see this in Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) and Ruscha replies.  “The first pictures I made of the Sunset Strip were taken by walking along the street. Only when I could see that it didn’t produce works that I approved of … did I decide I should maybe try something with a motorized camera.  That’s how that idea was born: with Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles when I realized that I wanted aerial photographs of downtown.  I thought, wouldn’t it be great of they were professional pictures.”  He went up in a helicopter with the photographer Art  Alanis.  He continues, “It was astounding that, for less than five hundred dollars, we went out in a helicopter one Sunday morning – Sunday being the proper day because all the parking lots are empty – and photographed all these works in a matter of maybe an hour and a half or something.  You can cover a lot of ground in an hour and a half in a helicopter.”


To be fair not every one of Ruscha’s lots is completely and utterly empty, a vehicle pops up here and there, but even so they’re some of the most denuded parking lots I’ve ever seen.  You definitely can’t see any people walking in them either but maybe we’d be too high to see them even if they were there.


Empty and abandoned parking lots are wonderfully attractive, and of course perfect for the perverse pedestrian.  It’s even better if the lot is attached to a business that’s no longer functioning.  The cars are gone and nature reasserts itself trough the tarmac.


 Thanks to Google earth the parking lot enthusiast can easily make any number of faux Ruscha images, although generally there are plenty of cars visible.  Here’s the parking structure at the Arclight Theater on Sunset Boulevard:


Here’s the parking lot at my local Vons supermarket:


And here’s lot at the LA Zoo:


I became unwillingly reacquainted with the parking lot at LA Zoo just last week.  I was driving up the 5 Freeway when my car started madly overheating and by the time I got to the exit and found the zoo lot (much emptier than in the pic above) the small quantity of coolant that remained in the reservoir was boiling fiercely.
        I coasted to a halt in an empty part of the lot, and called the AAA who said they’d send out a tow truck.  While I waited I paced up and down the lot, but it wasn’t exactly “real” walking, and then a cop in a truck pulled up to see what I was doing.  He could see that the car hood was up and he seemed pretty sympathetic (I guess cops who work the zoo beat don’t get too embittered) and he said he’d send the AAA man in my direction if he saw him.
         And then, in one of those “Only in L.A. moments” he said, “Wait a minute.  Don’t I know you?  Don’t I know your face?  Are you an actor?”
         I said I wasn’t.
         “Well in that case, did I ever arrest you for something?”
         How we laughed.


The tow truck came, my car ended up in a repair shop in Glendale where it would have to stay overnight, and I had to find a way of getting home, which was about ten miles away.  I knew the route pretty well and had walked every section of it at one time or another and so I set off walking.  And after I’d been going for a short while, in considerable heat, not dressed for it, in shoes that weren’t good for walking, I suddenly thought, “Are you insane?”  And then I saw a bus that said “Hollywood” on the front and I got on.  In fact the bus didn’t go all the way to my part of Hollywood so I still ended up walking a couple of miles, which somehow seemed appropriate, the end of a thoroughly imperfect day.  And of course my car remained, parked (as it were) since it wasn’t going anywhere, in a repair shop ten miles from home.  From above it would have looked much like this (not really impressive enough to be a Ruscha).



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MAN RAY- RHYMES WITH RUSCHA (KIND OF)


Right before we finally signed the deal to buy the house we now live in, my wife and I did a walk through which the vendor, and he pointed at various things, saying, “I’m taking that, but I’m leaving that” etc. Generally, of course, he was leaving the things we didn’t want, taking the things we did.

And at some point we came to the wall above the couch, on which was a signed poster of Man Ray’s “Observatory Time: The Lovers,” signed by the artist.


“I don’t suppose you’re leaving that behind,” I joked.

And the guy was taken aback, and said, “Oh my, so you’ve heard of Man Ray?” Apparently he didn’t meet many people who had.

I asked how he came to have the signed poster and he explained that Man Ray had been a friend of his mother. And when he was a kid she’d regularly taken him to Man Ray’s studio in Hollywood, and each time, before they set off, he was given a stern talking to and told he absolutely mustn’t touch anything when he got there. He’d always behaved himself, he said, but it hadn’t been easy. Man Ray’s studio had been like a toy store, absolutely full of small found and created objects that any kid would want to grab and play with.

Needless to say he took his poster with him.


I knew that Man Ray and Juliet Browner, eventually his wife, lived in Hollywood from 1940 to 1951 and I’d always read that their place was at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which seemed a slightly surprising location for a major artist to hole up, but what did I know? Once in a while I’d wondered what the exact address was, but I hadn’t really bothered to find out. But last week I looked it up online and of course found the address in about 20 seconds flat. The Man Rays had lived in the Villa Elaine, an apartment building at 1245 Vine Street: they were in apartment 10, I decided I’d have to walk down there one of these days.


During the first month I lived in LA, I was taken to meet Ed Ruscha at his studio, a former beer warehouse, in Venice. I’d written an article about his “palindrome paintings” for Modern Painters magazine, and Ruscha had been persuaded by the editor – Karen Wright - to judge a readers’ palindrome contest. This didn’t take long.

As with Man Ray’s old place, there were a lot of things in Ruscha’s studio that caught the eye and that I wanted to pick up and investigate, but there weren’t many paintings on display. I guess he can sell them as soon as they’re finished. The few that were there looked like this:


And of course even as a new boy in Hollywood, perhaps especially as a new boy in Hollywood, I felt the resonance of those words Sunset and Vine. My conversation with Ruscha was brief but he did say that for a long time he’d had a studio on Western Avenue, in sight of the Hollywood sign. He’d get up in the morning, look out in that direction, and sometimes he’d see the sign, but because of air pollution, there were many morning when he couldn’t see it at all.


I didn’t ask the address of where he lived, but now, a few years later, a minimal amount of research again revealed the exact location: 1024 3/4 North Western Avenue. Sources say Ruscha “maintained this address” for 20 years, from 1965, which I assume means that in the beginning he lived and worked there, but once he’d made some money he moved somewhere better and kept that place as a studio.

I decided I’d walk to Man Ray’s old place, and then walk from there to Ed Ruscha’s old place. They were no distance away from each other, scarcely more than a mile.

Man Ray enjoyed his time in Los Angeles. “I explored the town. It was like some place in the south of France with its palm-bordered streets and low stucco dwellings … More cars of course … And I seemed to be the only one on foot, sauntering along leisurely, avoiding the more populated districts. One might retire here, I thought.”


The Villa Elaine is indeed on Vine Street, but it’s some way below Hollywood Boulevard. It’s below Sunset Boulevard too, for that matter. And if you were giving somebody instructions on how to get there you’d say it was at Vine and Fountain, but I can see that’s an address that lacks pizzazz.

The Villa Elaine is a big, solid, red brick apartment building, with a handful of stores and cafes at ground level, and a central, arched entrance gate, that leads into a central courtyard, with the apartments up above. Man Ray wrote, “I was taken to the end of the court and shown a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, a high-ceilinged studio, den, dining-room, kitchen and loggia with bedroom and bath, completely furnished. I couldn’t have imagined anything more perfect.”


When I was there, a big sign offered apartments to rent, and I did think of pretending I was looking for accommodation, but that seemed a bit creepy, and I thought they’d see right through me. Instead I went through the gate into the gorgeous courtyard, a tall, thin space, with palm trees soaring up to the roof level, and in places there was so much greenery you could barely see the building. Why wouldn’t Man Ray have been happy here? Why wouldn’t anyone? I walked among the plants, looking around and taking pictures. There were lots of handymen and gardeners who ignored me completely and there were some young hipsterish types, the residents I suppose, who looked at me with suspicion. I reckoned I had a pretty good explanation for my presence, though I wasn’t sure how many of them would have heard of Man Ray. But in fact these hipsters were far too cool to ask who I was and what I was doing.


These days the Villa Elaine is situated opposite the Office Depot, a place I’ve been known to buy my ink cartridges, but back in the day it was opposite the legendary Hollywood Ranch Market, a place that seems all the more legendary now that it no longer exists. It appears on the album cover of Zappa’s Freak Out! as a “Freak out! Hot spot.” Bukowski wrote a poem about it. James Elroy describes it as a “homo heaven,” though it also seems to have been a big hit with the kids, since it had small fairground rides inside. Even so, it was a genuine supermarket, frequented by oddballs, who after Man Ray’s time turned into hippies, druggies, groupies and whores; but Lucille Ball was also spotted there once or twice.

I liked the idea of Man Ray strolling up and down Vine Street, but in fact he hadn’t lived long in Hollywood before being a pedestrian got to him. “I began to develop an inferiority complex. I went out shopping,” he writes and he came back with “a beautiful, streamlined, metallic-blue car.” Here it is: a Graham “Hollywood Supercharger.”


If you’re walking from Man Ray’s place on Vine, to Ed Ruscha’s place on Western, the chances are that you’ll go along Santa Monica Boulevard, so that’s what I did. There’s a strange and wonderful strip mall on Santa Monica that may once have been a row of ordinary stores, but now all the businesses there are related to the automobile: Economy Auto Care, Fred’s Machine Shop, King Bear Autocenter, Manuel’s Tires. I’m especially fond of the muffler man at Hollywood Mufflers.


The strip itself is inevitably a bit grubby and workaday but behind it you can see what looks like a grove of palm tress, and among them is a grand gold and black dome. The trees and dome belong to Hollywood Forever, a cemetery, “the final resting place to more of Hollywood’s founders and stars than anywhere else on earth,” as they proudly claim.


I go there once in a while and walk around, it’s exotic and a little bit kitsch, some of the monuments seem a bit “excessive”, like the one above featuring the Atlas rocket to symbolize the achievements of a graphic artist named Carl Morgan Bigsby. And there’s this one (below) of Joey Ramone.


And certainly this is the only cemetery where I’ve ever seen free-roaming peacocks, but it’s still very peaceful and pleasant, and there are generally a few other people walking around contemplatively, taking in the sights, and one or two people sitting on benches reading. Hollywood Forever is what passes for a public space in LA.

And it isn’t just a resting place for celebs. It’s very much still in business and there are plenty of ordinary people buried there, and increasingly the style seems to be to have a portrait image etched into your marble headstone, something based on a photograph. This always strikes me as odd. It takes maybe a sixtieth of a second to create a photograph. You looked like that for a tiny sliver of time and now you’re memorialized looking like that for all eternity.


You’d think a photographer, of all people, wouldn’t want something like that on his headstone. Imagine my surprise then to discover that the grave of Man Ray and Juliet in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris bears a photograph of the couple, although it’s on her headstone rather than his, and I don’t know if either of them was personally responsible: it may have been relatives or fans. On the other hand, that line “unconcerned but not indifferent” on Man Ray’s headstone is an absolute winner. Anyone in Hollywood would be proud of that.

I went to Hollywood Forever as a tourist long before I lived in LA, and my impression at the time was that the streets around it were a bit scary. Now I don’t find them scary at all. I realize they’re simply Latino, and I’ve learned that in Los Angeles, things Latino are generally not all that scary. Certainly as you walk from Hollywood Forever toward Western Avenue and Ed Ruscha’s former studio there are sections that feel like a part of old Mexico.

There’s an interview with Ruscha that appeared, improbably enough, in People Magazine in 1983, that describes his place as “seedy pseudo-Mission-style building on Western Avenue, in the middle of an adult movie strip.” Lord knows there are very few adult movie theaters left in LA, but Stan’s Adult Super Store survives half a block away on the other side of the street. Otherwise the adult movie strip has been replaced by a bicycle repair shop and a law office (I think) that offers “professional consultations.”


I’m not sure I could recognize pseudo-Mission-style architecture, and I’ve also reached the point in my life when I’m no longer quite sure what “seedy” means, and I definitely don’t know if it’s a criticism. I think there are many people in the world, many people in LA, who’d think Ruscha’s old place was a decent enough place to live, a series of one and two-story structures, with open staircases and arches, and a small leafy courtyard at its center. It wasn’t nearly as lush as the one at Villa Elaine, but then few are. And here the gates were locked to keep out people like me, and people worse than me too, and the doors and windows that opened to the street had iron bars on them. Hipsters may very possibly live there but I didn’t see any of them.


If you stand right outside the gate there’s no way you can see the Hollywood sign: there are too many people and things in the way. But if you go up to the southeast corner of Santa Monica and Western and look northwest you’re in with a chance. I did my Man Ray-Ruscha walk was one of those June-gloom days that we get in LA, grey, overcast, sunless, but even so the sign was just about visible, above the traffic, the people, the buildings and the haze.

I don’t know how much of a walker Ed Ruscha was or is. That People magazine article said he owned a house out in the desert in Yucca Valley and I can’t believe you can live in the desert without going out and doing some serious walking once in a while. And if some further proof of Ruscha’s walking credentials were required, here’s another of Ruscha’s painting, from 1985, the year he finally left Western Avenue, titled “Man Walking Away From It All.”