How Flashy, Trashy Las Vegas Has Played Muse to Artists

Jackson Arn
Dec 27, 2018 9:00PM

Photo by Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive.

What, exactly, is Las Vegas? “A place where millions of suckers flew in every year on their own nickel, and left behind about a billion dollars. But at night, you couldn’t see the desert.” That’s Robert De Niro’s character from the film Casino (1995) talking about the city and the wasteland that surrounds it. Maybe more than any city in the world, Vegas evokes an engrossing bunch of images: Neon signs, roulette wheels, dead celebrities officiating wedding ceremonies, all working as one to dazzle tourists into surrendering their savings. The city is one big symbol for life, for America, for anything and everything else—and, as De Niro subtly suggests, it was designed to be not only lived in, but looked at.

Overwhelming, poetic, a feast for the eyes—why, then, has Las Vegas not left a bigger footprint in the visual arts? It’s hard to think of the Impressionists without picturing the grand boulevards of late-19th-century Paris, or Expressionism without imagining the smoky alleyways of Weimar Berlin. So where is the Edgar Degas, or the Otto Dix, of Sin City?

Andy Warhol
Double Elvis, 1963
TAG TheArtGallery

Even Andy Warhol, whose bombastic, proudly tacky Pop Art creations would seem to fit Vegas like a glove, only visited the town once, in 1963—apparently, he won at roulette using a strategy borrowed from his Dada precursor, Marcel Duchamp (which sounds suspiciously like a metaphor for his entire career). That same year, Warhol completed Double Elvis (1963), a silkscreen which today seems to foreshadow the endless local impersonators who popped up after the King’s death. In more ways than one, Vegas has caught up with Warhol’s vision: The city, with its bottomless supply of second- and third-hand glamor, has become one big, friendly Pop Art painting, in which nobody is quite at home but everybody is welcome.

Maybe there’s a reason why relatively few of the notable artists whose work seems relevant to Vegas culture actually hail from Las Vegas: Its gushiest fans and sharpest critics tend to be passers-through. It’s not that the city lacks for homegrown artists—actually, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Vegas’s whole economy depends on talented creatives, from musicians to dancers to gymnasts to comedians to magicians. But, in a city defined by dizzying extremes, outsiders’ gazes are likely to be the sharpest; they have an easier time recognizing the comedy, the pathos, and the unlikely democracy of life on the Strip.

Take Ralph Steadman, the Welsh artist best known for illustrating the works of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman first became friends with Thompson after supplying sketches to accompany Thompson’s coverage of the 1970 Kentucky Derby; that highly influential sports article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved,” ends in the sinking epiphany, “We came down here to see this terrible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomiting on themselves and all that ... and now, you know what? It's us...” Something of the same disillusionment animates Steadman’s illustrations for Thompson’s greatest work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971): on the surface, the drawings depict the grimy little corners of America’s most infamously sleazy city, but after a while you may start to feel as if you’re looking in the mirror.

Ralph Steadman
The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, 1970
The Chambers Project

Who, for example, is “The Audience” in Steadman’s disturbing, and genuinely obscene, illustration of the same name? The man and woman at the center of the image (patrons, it’s safe to assume, of a dirty movie) are too busy licking and gnawing at each other to notice what they’ve paid to see. That leaves only us, out here in the real world—and Steadman seems to be daring us to believe we’re any prettier than his pen-and-ink creations. In the cover illustration for Fear and Loathing, the two main characters drive off toward Las Vegas, which Steadman reimagines as a towering Emerald City, and we stare after them, unsure whether we’re heading for utopia or inferno, or which one we truly deserve.

The architecture of Las Vegas was clearly an important source of inspiration for Steadman and it’s arguably the city’s single greatest contribution to the arts. That, at least, was the thesis advanced by Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, and Robert Venturi in their influential architectural treatise Learning from Las Vegas (1972), published a few months after Fear and Loathing hit bookstores.

It’s a mark of how stodgy American architecture was in the early 1970s that the authors spend a good chunk of their introduction merely arguing for their right to treat Vegas architecture, with its giant cowboys and cacophonous neon, as a legitimate subject. Thumbing their noses at the then-inescapable dogmas of Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, they connect the layout of the Strip with an early modern European tradition of “expressive architecture” that reaches its culmination in the playful, deliberately disposable style of Vegas hotels. Widely scoffed at in its time, this theory—and Las Vegas itself—may get the last laugh yet.

Nancy Rubins
Study: Big Edge, Las Vegas, 2007

Jeff Koons’s Popeye sculpture at the Wynn Theater in Las Vegas. Photo by Phil Guest, via Flickr.

For in architecture, as in painting, as in literature, the monumental and the serious have for some time been losing out to the unpretentious and the self-aware—and on both counts Las Vegas enjoys a half-century head start on most of the rest of America. In his gleefully provocative essay, “A Home in the Neon” (1997), the great art critic (and long time Vegas resident) Dave Hickey makes the case for his city as the most refreshingly honest (!) place on Earth—and the birthplace of “the only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent, a town bereft of dead white walls, ficus plants, and Barcelona chairs—where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object demanding to be scrutinized.”

Creative people from around the world continue to visit Vegas and revel in, or recoil from, its wild permissiveness, translating that permissiveness into books, films, drawings, paintings, songs. Meanwhile, Vegas just keeps being itself, indifferent to what anybody thinks.

Can it go on like this forever? Las Vegas has only been around for about hundred years; in that time its population has continued to expand, and for the last ten years it’s been more or less recession-proof. And yet its existence always feels precarious, dependent as it is upon a steady supply of gamblers willing to travel to the middle of nowhere and a steady supply of water brought in from God knows where. It’s hard to look at Nancy Rubins’s public sculpture Big Edge (2009), composed of more than two hundred canoes, rowboats, surfboards, and kayaks smack-dab in the middle of Vegas’s CityCenter, without snorting at the sheer, perverse uselessness of the thing—the whimsy, or stupidity, or black humor, that would lead someone to pile boats in a city on the verge of a major drought. Likewise for Jeff Koons’s 2,000-pound stainless steel sculpture of Popeye, the world’s most famous sailorman, which for a brief time decorated the executive offices of the Wynn Las Vegas.

Ugo Rondinone, Seven Magic Mountains, 2016. Image by Travel Nevada, via Flickr.

It’s inevitable that most public artworks in Vegas emphasize their incongruity instead of trying to mask it (how could they blend in with the Mojave?). Insofar as Las Vegas has its own distinct aesthetic, it may stem from this very sense of incongruity—vulgar, brazen, with more than a touch of pathos. The Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains (2016), a stack of colorful boulders located ten miles south of the city in the middle of the Ivanpah Valley, is like a miniature portrait of Vegas in all its pride and piteousness: A buzzing, glittering fly in the ointment, refusing to conform to its surroundings, its survival—like everything else about it—a matter of chance.

Maybe the most telling encounter between an artist and Las Vegas took place in 1968, when the land artist Nancy Holt arrived in the city from back east. Throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, Holt—who passed away in 2014—designed quietly powerful artworks formed from sand, concrete, and soil; her most famous, Sun Tunnels (1976), consists of a set of concrete tubes arranged to block off different parts of the vast Utah horizon. When Holt came to Vegas fifty years ago, she was immediately overwhelmed: “It lasted for days,” she later said, “I couldn’t sleep.” She wasn’t talking about playing the slots, or seeing Elvis or Sinatra or Sammy. She was talking about the desert.

Jackson Arn