Allen Ruppersberg, Then and Now

Cleveland Museum of Art
Through December 2
Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

Billboards suck. That was the first thing I thought about when I read Cleveland native Allen Ruppersberg (born 1944) was paying homage to his hometown in his new body of work commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, titled Then and Now. Really, billboards? When I think of Cleveland, billboards are possibly the last thing that come to my mind. Still, Ruppersberg is a big-time artist from two big-time cities (New York City and Los Angeles) where, last time I checked, billboards are plenty, they’re digital, and they’re especially annoying to anyone living near them. In the text that accompanies his work at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where his installation will remain on view through December 2—long past the closing of FRONT International on September 30—the museum explains that “the illuminated photographs were taken from the vantage point of billboards across Cleveland—from the roadways along Lake Erie and the steelyards to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. These billboards no longer deliver commercial messages, but rather offer the viewer unseen perspectives of the city—that is, what the billboard ‘sees’ from up above.”

1400 W. 25th Street at Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, OH, 2018, Allen Ruppersberg, LED light box with Duratran film, vinyl wallpaper, Photo: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Courtesy the artist, Greene Naftalki, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art

Alright, that’s clear enough. In other words, it’s an experience similar to one that I’m about to explain: while you read these words, these words are reading you. Eerie, isn’t it?

I didn’t attend “Curator Talk: Allen Ruppersberg and Kerry James Marshall” when it was held at the museum on September 19, so my bad. Maybe I would have learned a few things about motive, purpose, reason, intent, or any litany of concepts needed to decode Ruppersberg’s Then and Now. But that was then, and this is now. As I stood in front of the illuminated photographs within the context of the Museum of Art—which I did recently with a colleague from Cleveland, someone active in the arts and an artist in her own right—I wondered what, if anything, this had to do with Cleveland. I turned to her and asked the question. We shrugged our shoulders in disbelief. “Billboards. If only they could talk,” she said. “I wonder if he got out of the car to takes these? They look like drive-by pictures.”

Fair enough question. Allen Ruppersberg is an important conceptual artist. His exhibition record is impressive. While in Los Angeles in the early years of his career, he hung around with John Baldessari (the grandad of conceptual art) along with Ed Ruscha (whose seminal 1963 photography book Twentysix Gasoline Stations turned art photography on its head), William Wegman (of the hilarious and iconic Weimaraner series) and Allan McCollum (known internationally for his crazy Plaster Surrogates, an exploration of mass production with a nod to the impenetrable art world.) These dudes were onto something then and remain important in their own right even today.

But Google search “Cleveland” and you’ll get words like Dawg Pound, Polish Boys, mustard, The Big Egg, Great Lakes, pierogies, rock ’n’ roll, Sweeties, Westside, Slyman, beards, A Christmas Story, leg lamp, Melt, Orchestra, fries, Drew Carey, Playhouse, Happy Dog, Goodyear, Lola, Phoenix, Browns, bowling, Indians, and Cavaliers, along with burning river, burning hair, housing crisis, tree lawn, and you guys. You’ll also get information like Cleveland is the 51st-largest city in the United States, and the second-largest city in Ohio; Cleveland residents are called Clevelanders; it was founded in 1796 and emerged in the early 20th century as an important American manufacturing center; by 1920, Cleveland was the nation’s fifth-largest city; potato chips were first mass produced in Cleveland; Life Savers candies were invented here; Karamu House is the oldest African-American theater in the US; American poet Langston Hughes attended high school in Cleveland; the Hough Riots erupted in 1966 and the Glenville Shootout took place in 1968. In 1967, Cleveland became the first major American City to elect a black mayor, Carl Stokes (who served from 1968 to 1971), and plenty more interesting, enlightening revelations about the Remake on the Lake.

Search for “billboard + Cleveland” and, well, not so much. Other than a colorful ad from Lamar Advertising Company, one of the largest out-of-home media companies in the world, to lease their billboards, logo signs, and transit displays, combining the words billboard and Cleveland is like using ketchup on an all-beef hotdog (rather than Cleveland’s famously tasty Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard!). You want to enhance the all-beef dog, not camouflage it.

With a moderate degree of experience taking pictures myself, I said, “It looks to me like Ruppersberg got out of his car to take these photographs.”

My colleague thought about it for a moment. “He probably asked whoever was standing in his view to move to the left or right, to get out of the picture,” she replied, then added, “I’m in the mood for a hot dog with Froot Loops. How about you?”