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The Artists’ Artist

From the 1960s, artist Allen Ruppersberg (b. 1944) has been turning words and ideas into visual art. A pioneer of conceptual art, Ruppersberg experimented with commercial culture and paved the way for a new generation of American and European artists who followed with new conceptual works during the 1970s. Ruppersberg’s work centered on life and he began with creating environments. In downtown Los Angeles, 1969, Ruppersberg created a work entitled “Al’s Café” from materials that he collected including abandoned chairs, tables, display cases, circus tents, signs and pinecones. Ruppersberg crafted, installed, and performed a restaurant once a week. The artist’s guests who became participants in the work of art were served inedible dishes such as “simulated burned pine needles a la Johnny Cash, served with a live fern.” After showing for three months, “Al’s Café”was shut down by the police, and the artist and waitresses were arrested. Similar to a cultural anthropologist, Ruppersberg researched and observed the vernacular of southern California, while his process of crafting the work, and participating in its environment, derived intimacy and character.
For six weekends in the spring of 1971, Los Angeles, Ruppersberg took over a two-story house on 7175 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and converted it into a hotel. He entitled the work “Al’s Grand Hotel.” Prior to the opening, Ruppersberg sent out mailers advertising the hotel’s unique rooms, including the Jesus Room, the Breakfast Room, and the Bridal Suite. The hotel also hosted Saturday evening concerts by artists such as Ruppersberg’s friend from art school, Terry Allen.
Ruppersberg’s fascination with everyday life and culture typically extended into fiction and music. In Paris, 1973, he copied Thoreau’s “Walden” by hand onto hundreds of sheets of paper, and the following year in Los Angeles, he copied the text of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” onto twenty-six canvases. Hence a novel about a work of art was turned into a work of art about a novel.
In recent years, Ruppersberg participated in the MoMA exhibition In and Out of Amsterdam (2009), and Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977 at the Art Institute of Chicago (2012).  In his new work, Ruppersberg continues to create environments and investigate culture, and his material is reissued through contemporary technological methods of scanning and printing.
Ongoing in Chicago, at the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, Ruppersberg’s latest piece, “No Time Left to Start Again/The B and D of R ’n’ R,” is a survey of American vernacular recorded music from blues singers of the early 1900s through guitarists of the 1960s. Ruppersberg has compiled a history of folk, gospel, blues, and rock by scanning and laminating three kinds of source material: covers for vinyl records, amateur snapshots taken at music events, and obituaries for musicians. The installation becomes the world’s largest box set. Colorfully designed, the gallery space turns into a flea market environment and the viewers walk around several thousand photocopies, wall images, and specially made boxes arranged on the floor, dealing with music in the home, church, sock hop, and elsewhere. All of the photocopies are available for reading in binders at the center of the exhibition, where visitors can also hear approximately 1,400 popular songs that the artist has collected. Ruppersberg captures Rock n’ Roll and gives us a picture of its sound. The exhibit runs through January 6, 2013.

Published: December 02, 2012
Issue: 2012 Philanthropy Issue