Excerpt from interview by Marie Shurkus, February 16, 2010

Marie Shurkus Your work changed significantly after you graduated from art school in 1967.

Allen Ruppersberg I came out of Chouinard as a painter with a minor interest in sculpture. But once you come out of school, you have to start over again—or at least in those days you did. I had some savings bonds that my dad had put away for me, and so I had a year or so where I could just paint and get started. Somewhere in that period, I went to see Frank Stella’s show at the Pasadena Art Museum. Looking at his Protractor series, I realized that he really knew what he was doing, and I didn’t. So that’s when I decided, I have to find my own language, my own voice. And that’s when I really started over.

MS Is that when you started working on the aquarium pieces?

AR The aquariums that you bought then were almost minimalist objects, like a Larry Bell box. They had chrome sides, and tops with little lights in them. They were like 3-D canvases and a readymade all at once. So they fit formally very well into my transition toward making more sculptural work. But what went inside the chrome aquariums became a much more personal kind of beginning. The whole idea of what an artwork could be was up for grabs, and that became my question, actually not just my question, but the question for my whole generation.

MS Your work Al’s Café from 1969 really took that question and ran with it.

AR Well, it began with the aquariums. You can look at the café as just a giant aquarium. And Al’s Grand Hotel (1971) is an extension of the café. The café is an extension of all the pieces that preceded it, beginning with the aquariums.

MS They seem like tableaux, three-dimensional images that people entered.

AR Well, what precede it are tableaux. And those indeed are images. When I made the three books—23 Pieces, 24 Pieces, and 25 Pieces (1968, 1970, and 1971)—those are about images, but they’re also tableaux.

MS How did you decide what places to include in 23 Pieces, for example?

AR I spent a lot of time driving all over Los Angeles, and California in general. Being from the Midwest, this was a great place to explore. Jack Goldstein and I would drive around town, look at things, and say: “That looks like a Robert Morris, or that looks like this other sculpture or earthwork.”

MS Were you specifically looking for tableaux? I ask because a lot of the scenes have a dramatic emptiness to them, as if something is about to happen.

AR Well, I was looking for essences, kind of the essence of indescribable atmospheres, or whatever you want to call it. So, it’s not only in the photographs, but it’s in the aquariums. It’s trying to capture something outside of art objects.

MS In 1970, you published 24 Pieces, which focused more on empty hotel rooms, but you would alter them slightly. For example, in one of them, there’s a picture taken off the wall.

AR There’s a trace of something taking place, but it’s only to indicate to the viewer that you can find traces like that anywhere. Anybody who walks into one of those places can find something like that.

MS In addition to location, there’s often a clue that suggests a narrative that’s left incomplete.

AR Yes, that really comes later, but it begins in those pieces.

MS Ed Ruscha also made books about locations.

AR Certainly, but almost everybody was making books at that time, because it was a way to make something that was not a museum piece or a gallery object. What I liked is that you could make something that could be distributed in a completely different way, and yet it was still art.

MS “The Location Piece” was your first solo exhibition, at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in 1969. When people arrived at the gallery—

AR They didn’t encounter an empty gallery. That wasn’t the point. There were a couple of minor pieces lying around, but the point was that they had to travel again. To go to see the real work—the show, really—they had to drive up La Cienega and come over to Sunset and Gardner, where I had rented offices much like this. Inside one office was the show, which was a room environment that you walked into. It was like walking into one of the aquariums, only it was real life, at its real scale, and it was located in a place where you would not expect to find such a thing

MS Some critics suggested that the location—an old office rather than a gallery or artist’s studio—created a relationship with detective novels and film noir. Helene Winer even once compared you to Los Angeles’s fictional Detective Philip Marlowe.

AR  I was very much influenced by Raymond Chandler and all of that stuff. People still say the same thing when they come to my current studio—it looks like an old detective office. And it is. It’s from 1928, and all the details are still here. I like this kind of atmosphere. When I came out to Los Angeles in 1962, that sensibility was still around, in the post-war environment of the early sixties. I loved living in Hollywood. Part of it was the romance of old Hollywood; it was the time when Hollywood was being reinvented. I remember the curfew riots on Sunset Strip; I was a participant in all of that, so that became part of my influences, too.