“Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” is among the eye-catching works on view in “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” at the de Young Museum. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

An American road trip inspired Ed Ruscha works

Painter and photographer Ed Ruscha is known for his gas-station pictures and word paintings as well as pop, conceptual, romantic, absurd — and sometimes delectably perplexing — renderings of the modern American landscape.

But a new exhibition at the de Young Museum focuses on a seldom-explored aspect of his work: a fascination with the sights, cultures and modern mythologies of the U.S. West, from road trips and car love to movie iconography.

“Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” contains nearly 100 works created over six decades — depictions of built environments and urban sprawl featuring the artist’s take on how human activity, excess and dreams have shaped Western landscapes.

Curator Karin Breuer attributes many defining factors of Ruscha’s work to his 1956 road trip from Okalahoma to California. Sights on the famed Route 66 — the sleek-looking gasoline stations in particular — impressed the 18-year-old college student and became ongoing features in his art.

“Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas” (1963) — one of several gas-station paintings stemming from a 1962 photo Ruscha shot — quickly grabs the eye. While its common-object and commercial factors qualify it as pop art, Ruscha’s signature distortions (the elongated horizontal format, suggestive of a view through a windshield, or of widescreen cinema) and wedge-shaped architecture (bringing to mind what Ruscha has described as a train coming into the foreground) reflect his singular personal stamp and gift for the dramatic.

Ruscha’s love affair with Los Angeles and Hollywood is another focal point. Photographs of vernacular buildings and images of Tinseltown landmarks, including “Technicolor” portraits of the Hollywood sign, establish the artist’s adopted home as both a real place shaped by development and a fairy-tale place of allure and glamour.

Also significantly featured are Ruscha’s paintings of words and phrases, characterized by wry humor. Sometimes painted in what looks like spilled liquid or cut ribbons, the words range from the simple “Adios” to lyrics from a Frank Zappa song. Some are, perhaps deliberately, baffling. “Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head,” Ruscha once said.

“The End” (1991), a black-and-white lithograph bearing those words along with some scratchy marks, might suggest a celluloid-age movie, or perhaps something more mysterious. Ruscha has a way with the latter.

Additional items exemplifying Ruscha’s range and depth include: well-known art books; futuristic and socially conscious works (paintings of the Standard station in flames or in “Ghost Station” form predicting the outlook for cars and oil); a mountain and word painting featuring the Paramount Studios peak; experiments with paint substitutes such as gunpowder, Pepto Bismol and fruit juice; and a salute to big-screen Western imagery with covered wagons and coyotes.

Ed Ruscha and the Great American West
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, except until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; show closes Oct. 9
Tickets: $10 to $20
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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