Meet Richard Eurich, Artist Who Inspired Ruscha's Fire Paintings

Richard Eurich, 1936

Artistic influence takes many forms. Sometimes an artist is so consumed by another's achievement that they struggle to distinguish their own work (the "anxiety of influence"). In other cases the influence is only tangential. An artist appropriates ("steals," as Picasso put it) a single idea from another, making of it something the idea's originator wouldn't or couldn't. That describes the minor, though striking influence of British artist Richard Eurich (1903-1992) on L.A.'s globally famous Ed Ruscha. A 1940 picture by Eurich was apparently a point of departure for Ruscha's paintings of buildings on fire, including Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68).
Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1965-68. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

That Ruscha painting (namesake of this blog) is now on view in LACMA's "Ed Ruscha/Now Then." In the late 1960s, LACMA contemplated buying the picture but decided against it. Bad move, as everyone now concedes. The painting instead went to Latvian-born uranium tycoon Joseph Hirshhorn, a voracious collector set on founding a vanity museum for his collection of modern art. After toying with sites in Connecticut, Florence, Zurich, Beverly Hills (the Greystone Mansion), London, Israel, and greater New York, he settled on the National Mall in Washington. LBJ and Lady Bird helped clinch the deal. Thus this quintessential work of 1960s L.A. is normally in DC.

Installation view of Los Angeles County Museum on Fire at LACMA

Los Angeles County Museum on Fire is a panoramic view of the original, William Pereira-designed LACMA campus, which had just opened. In Ruscha's painting, the building resembles an architectural rendering suspended in an ominous pea-soup smog. And of course, the building is on fire.

What was Ruscha saying with Los Angeles County Museum on Fire? The two most common glosses today are (1) it's a reference to the burning of Watts; or (2) it's institutional critique: a satirical dig at at Pereira's "banal" architecture, the city's upstart cultural ambitions, or the role of museums in general.

The exhibition label  quotes Ruscha on Watts, crediting it only as "a backdoor influence."

The museum picture is one of a series of paintings of L.A. landmarks on fire. Ruscha painted Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire in 1964. That was also the year he produced the artist's book Various Small Fires and Milk, which consists of reproduced photographs of small burning objects (and a glass of milk). 

LACMA opened March 31, 1965, and Watts burned in mid August. Thus fires were already an ongoing Ruscha motif prior to the Watts uprising. 

Ed Ruscha, Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire, 1964. The Broad
Ed Ruscha, Burning Gas Station, 1965-66.

Ruscha has endorsed the institutional critique reading. He said of Los Angeles County Museum: "About this time that I was painting this picture, I had some oh, maybe personal gripes about the art world in general. And I felt like the museums were not really doing their jobs as far as opening their doors to contemporary art. I didn’t have a hatred for museums, but maybe, like, I had a healthy distrust for museums."

(Christopher Knight has lately complained that LACMA has become a de facto contemporary art museum and is neglecting older art—the inverse of Ruscha's 1960s beef.)

Helicopter news photo of Watts, 1965

Norm's and Burning Gas Station are street-level views. But Los Angeles County Museum offers an aerial perspective. Ruscha rented a helicopter to photograph the museum from above. Intentionally or not, this echoes news images of the Watts fires from police helicopters.

Ed Ruscha, Untitled Study for Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1964-65 [despite March 1967 inscription]. Getty Museum
Ruscha has credited still another inspiration for his painting, one that might also account for the eye-in-the-sky view: Richard Eurich's Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940
Richard Eurich, Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, 1940. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Eurich was a precocious artist who, at the age of 11, began turning out watercolors with titles like Ship on Fire and Sinking Ship in Flames. He went on to a long career as a British figurative painter, sidelined in the age of French and American abstraction. Imagine a mix of Stanley Spencer and O. Louis Guglielmi. That was Eurich, a magic realist favoring odd allegories, caricatural subjects (The Critics), weirdo still lifes, and empty landscapes. Yet he achieved his greatest fame as an official war artist in WWII. 

Withdrawal from Dunkirk represents the Dunkirk evacuation. 338,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the French seaside town as German forces moved in. Eurich's painting depicts a brilliant sea and sky, with with a mushrooming black cloud from bombardment of oil tanks.

Withdrawal from Dunkirk was shown at the Museum of Modern Art virtually before its paint was dry, and the British Navy reproduced it for its 1940 Christmas card. 

How did Ruscha come across Eurich's picture? In an interview with Paul Karlstrom, Ruscha recalled seeing "a painting of the Battle of Dunkirk, painted by I don't know who—English.… It was  the most bucolic, restful image I could imagine. It was a large aerial view of the harbor of Dunkirk, with the ships in flames and the battle actually going on at the time. I couldn’t imagine any picture being more sedate and more charming and tranquil—and here a war is going on. That picture, say, compared with Picasso’s Guernica: the jagged lines and explosions and people’s arms cut off, gestures toward the sky of life-giving—the drama behind that. Yet it was less literal, but more emotional—more abstract yet more realistic—than the picture of the Battle of Dunkirk. I mean, what says 'war' more: the Guernica or this other painting? I don’t have particularly one choice over the other; but it is a primer, or lesson, about what a picture can evoke."

Ruscha (who did not recall Eurich's name in this interview) had apparently come across the Dunkirk painting in Alfred H. Barr Jr.'s What Is Modern Painting? (1943). This short, illustrated guide was long the Museum of Modern Art's best-selling title, pitched as just the thing for middle-brow laymen looking at "those modern paintings which are sometimes considered puzzling, difficult or incompetent." 

José Clemente Orozco, Dive Bomber and Tank, 1940. Museum of Modern Art

Barr's book juxtaposes conservative paintings with avant-garde ones, praising the latter and damning the former with faint praise. One page pairs Withdrawal from Dunkirk with José Clemente Orozco's Dive Bomber and Tank. "Both were painted in 1940," wrote Barr, "but they are so unlike that they seem done in different centuries, even different worlds."

Of the Eurich picture, Barr writes: "The painter has recorded all this patiently, with exact detail and British reticence. His picture is as calm as the blue sky above the scene, clearer than a photograph and almost as impersonal. From the way he paints you would not guess that his subject was one of the crucial and overwhelmingly dramatic moments of the entire war."

Barr prefers the expressionist Orozco, not suprisingly, as MoMA had commissioned it. "These ancient symbols of dramatic agony and doom are fused with the shapes of modern destruction to give the scene a sense of timeless human tragedy."

Ruscha's comments in the Karlstrom interview parallel Barr's analysis (with Guernica substituted for the Orozco), though without Barr's doctrinaire modernism. Rather than "British reticence," Ruscha saw in Eurich's picture the power of understatement, the irony of a beautiful place where bad things happen.

"Ed Ruscha: Now/Then" runs through Oct. 6, 2024. You can learn more about Richard Eurich at his website

Richard Eurich, Hillside in Wales, 1967. National Museum Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru
Eurich's almost diagonally bisected landscape rhymes with Ruscha's Standard Stations and Large Trademarks, made a few years earlier. I would guess that neither Eurich nor Ruscha were aware of each other's mid-1960s work.
Richard Eurich, The Boats Were Machine-Gunned, 1941. Manchester Art Gallery

A nightmare seascape in which the cherry sun of Impression, Sunrise is the misplaced dot to the exclamation point of the vertical cloud at right. 

Richard Eurich, In the Museum, 1937. Private collection
I believe this is Eurich's only painting of a museum (and it's not on fire).

Richard Eurich, Dunkirk Beaches, May 1940, 1940. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Eurich did a series of Dunkirk paintings, very different, yet in quick succession. In this one, the toy-like soldiers remind me of Chris Burden


Anonymous said…
> (Christopher Knight has lately complained
> that LACMA has become a de facto contemporary
> art museum and is neglecting older art—-the
> inverse of Ruscha's 1960s beef.)

Not sure if it's somehow symbolically appropriate that LACMA several years ago boggled the opportunity to buy the artwork that's the namesake of this blog and in the current exhibit devoted to its creator Ed Ruscha.

However, since the show is being held in the shadow of the unfinished Zumthor/Govan building, the many moving parts of Govan's baby do come to mind---including one of them being that LACMA is increasingly becoming a contemporary art museum, and (to paraphrase Knight) not a very good one at that.

While this video is in Chinese, it still gives a sense of the TikTok/Instagram nature of Zumthor's blob.

The Pereira buildings did need a massive makeover, and the Hardy-Holzman-Pfeiffer structure from 1986 did complicate matters. But all those new glass-window walls and top-heavy concrete roof (along with a stretched budget, the lack of space for crucial on-site offices/storage/conservation, and dippy-flaky hipster programming) makes me wonder if the new building won't so much go up in smoke - as the 1965 buildings did symbolically in Ruscha's painting - but, when the big earthquake hits, will flatten like a pancake.

Beyond that, when the Govan/Zumthor is completed, LACMA's layout will remain (as the original buildings of 1965 were described) sort of like tract houses. The Price Japanese Pavilion, Broad wing and Resnick gallery are to the sides, while the main building remains cut off in the middle.

Anonymous said…
^^^Ugh, shut up.

The LACMA building was engineered like a bridge, with more isolators than the 6th Street Viaduct Bridge. 56 in the LACMA Building and 32 at the 6th Street Bridge.

Both use the isolators with the triple-pendulum friction bearings. LACMA's isolators have a greater range of displacement (in any direction). The LACMA building is NOT falling down during an earthquake.

... Christopher Knight is a hack. He's been shunned by all the cultural, power brokers in LA. When the Broad announced their expansion plans, they made Liz Diller (the architect) available to the NY Times. Knight and the LA Times were not given the same access.

Re "Ugh": A novel way to start off a winning argument.
Anonymous said…
> The LACMA building is NOT falling down
> during an earthquake.

LOL. Your replies often make me think of the quip, "And other than THAT, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?" Believe me, my comment about Zumthor's blob ending up as a pancake in a quake was meant way more metaphorically than literally.

Similarly, some have theorized through the decades that Ruscha's painting was his disapproval of the mediocre architecture of Periera's 1965 buildings. But other interpretations over the past 50-plus years have also been made. As it turns out, the canvas was apparently Ruscha's unhappiness about encyclopedic arts museums, among others, not giving more attention to contemporary art. Or the flip side of LACMA in the 2020s becoming a contemporary art museum, and not a very good one at that.
Luce said…
1) It's text book simple - Ruscha's LACMA painting is conceptual. Art is not to represent a thing but to question the system of representation. (Paraphrased from somewhere to give credit)

2) The new earthquake proof and bombproof museum is begging for a nickname. "The Blob" is certainly in the running.