Profile: Allen Ruppersberg
This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Allen Ruppersberg spoke in conversation with curator Constance Lewallen on September 21, 2011, at the Kadist Art Foundation, as part of their Wednesday evening program.
Allen Ruppersberg is included in Lewallen's exhibition, State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970, which is on view at the Orange County Museum of Art from October 9, 2011 to January 22, 2012.
Tropes Recited and Revised
Pacific Ocean Park opened its gates in 1958 at the edge of Los Angeles on a pier between Santa Monica and Venice Beach. In its prime, the sea-themed playland’s roller coasters, water circus, and diving bells teemed with tourists. By 1969, it had been shut down, its vacant buildings rented out as art studios and rehearsal spaces. Allen Ruppersberg moved into what was once the Seahorse Inn Restaurant and gathered the things that had been abandoned there: chairs, tables, display cases, circus tents, and signs. These objects were the first few in a collection of materials that grew as Ruppersberg drove through Southern California, “from downtown [Los Angeles] to the restaurant supply [store], to the desert to collect the plates, to the mountains to collect the pinecones.”1 He brought things he scavenged to a rented location in downtown Los Angeles where he installed a temporary restaurant, Al’s Café (1969).
As Ruppersberg facetiously noted in his recent conversation with Constance Lewallen at the Kadist Art Foundation, while the interior resembled an all-American coffee shop, the dinners looked like drug paraphernalia.2 Enumerated on the menu as “three rocks with crumpled wad” or “simulated burned pine needles a la Johnny Cash, served with a live fern,” the dishes Ruppersberg plated for guests once a week were inedible, serial pieces of assemblage, inexpensively priced, and served with beer.3 Over the course of the ’60s, assemblage challenged the status of high art objects; mundane things became materials that could be used to craft unique, original sculptures, which were hoisted into the art world by the galleries that exhibited them. Al’s Café meddled with the art-object status of assemblage by bypassing art institutions and the verification they provided.
But more integral than the question of how the café functioned as art was how it functioned as a café. The gestures performed by the cook and diners were familiar, but with sustenance stripped from the equation, other aspects of the short-order process took on added significance: the labor of plating a sculpture to order and the mysteries driving consumer desires for one indigestible thing over another. Though many of the people in attendance knew of Ruppersberg’s practice and some were artists themselves, not all the customers thought of Al’s Café as an artwork or of their activities inside as a form of performance. The place was a hangout. It changed just enough about the form of a café to make it strange. Diners became performers who authored a plot simply by behaving as they normally would in a restaurant. Without demanding anything extraordinary, Al’s Café offered the opportunity to encounter a familiar thing in an altered state and to participate in its production by placing an order. The restaurant operated once a week for about three months, increasingly under the surveillance of plainclothes police until they came with uniforms, shut it down, and arrested the artist and the waitresses. The arrests testify to the piece’s existence at the edge of what was recognizable as art and acceptable comportment.4
Though insufficiently cited in the developing canon of contemporary socially engaged practices, Ruppersberg’s work has had tremendous influence on artists operating in the hazily defined territory of the public sphere. It’s not only the gestures of generosity present in his work that tie him to a later generation of art makers, even though he served guests in Al’s Café, hosted them in Al’s Grand Hotel, and gave away original artist books for free as part of The New Five-Foot Shelf. It’s the way his work creates the conditions for mythmaking by reclaiming and rewriting the stories embedded in ordinary forms and sites in order to alter the way a place and its protocol are read.
Ruppersberg presents books and posters as social structures that can be occupied like other forms: the street, the café, and the hotel. Though often encountered individually, texts require shared systems of rules and references. When the rules become habitual, they function simultaneously as preconditions and as invitations for engagement. Social spaces—public and private alike—operate using similar systems: they are constructed out of stories, which authorize certain individuals to enter while keeping others out. Narratives structure the conduct that is possible in a place, dictating whether or not things can be sold in them, whether or not eye contact should be made in them, whether or not one should speak in them. When the stories that comprise a site are reworked, the space itself changes and a new invitation is issued. The imaginative mutation of one rule makes others seem susceptible to substantive change.
For example, at Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1997, Ruppersberg produced The Best of All Possible Worlds, a tour of Münster whose focal points were not monuments but street corners and ordinary building facades. Illuminated signs mounted on buildings marked spots of personal significance to the city’s residents. A printed tour guide described the events that made those points pivotal. The project’s title is drawn from Voltaire’s Candide, the eighteenth-century novel in which the protagonist roams the globe seeking an ideal world but finding nothing better than the Westphalian farm he left behind.5 Ruppersberg’s tour and its coinciding guide supplant the city’s dominant histories of Nazi occupation and Allied assault with anecdotes (most of which were set during World War II), locating the capacity to define the city in the mouth and memory of each participating resident and tourist.
The performative aspect of Ruppersberg’s environmentally oriented pieces seeps into his text-based works, which are encountered primarily in gallery spaces. In 1973, he copied Henry David Thoreau’s Walden by hand onto hundreds of sheets of paper for a gallery exhibition in Paris; in ’74, he penned the text of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray onto twenty canvases for a show in Los Angeles. Though the resulting portfolio and paintings are art objects, they are also indexes of Ruppersberg’s acts of transcription. Encountered on canvas, audiences more readily surmise his painstaking gesture than read the text. The Singing Posters (2003), first shown at Gorney Bravin & Lee Gallery, recreates Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on hundreds of rainbow-hued posters made to resemble concert and event notices. The posters transcribe the epic poem phonetically, reassigning the task of reciting the text to viewers, who perform it (if only for themselves) by sounding it out. In these textual pieces, rehearsing a narrative by rewriting or rereading it becomes a way of abducting it. Writing and reciting become parallel activities, equally capable of dislocation.
Al’s Café did not simply make a mundane place perceptible as art; it made the café into a trope, a site ripe for narrative reclamation. Actions as commonplace as ordering off a menu and drinking a beer became aesthetic opportunities: experiences in which a conventional occurrence is interrupted, allowing another arrangement to take shape. Ruppersberg’s pieces invite this sort of twist through a bait and switch—the routine tailed by the unexpected—but eschew contrived aims and premeditated outcomes. They offer familiar entry points that lead to open ends, inciting viewers to engage with rote forms while taking part in their remaking. The social sphere is diffuse: present in different shapes in public and in private, in streets, galleries, and in print. Ruppersberg’s work contends that it’s also revisable.
The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.