Thursday, 12:24pm
15 October 2009

Ed Ruscha

The 'graphic designer's painter' delivers a London treat

Ed Ruscha is the designer’s painter, bar none, writes Rick Poynor. He studied graphic design and typography alongside fine art, winning first prize in graphic design at the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and spending six months learning to hand-set type. As a painter, words were his subject matter right from the start.

Below: Ed Ruscha, 1964. Photo by Dennis Hopper.

Ruscha by Hopper

‘Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting’, which opened yesterday at the Hayward Gallery in London, and travels to Haus der Kunst, Munich and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, is a chance to review his entire career. It hardly needs saying that the exhibition is a get-there-at-the-first-opportunity treat.

In 1991, when he painted The End (top), Ruscha was in his mid-50s. There is nothing concealed or ambiguous about the painting’s sense that things are fragile, decaying and coming to a close. The fractured image catches the normally unperceived moment between two frames at the end of a film. From the blurred Gothic lettering we might infer that this was a historical drama, but the typography could also be no more than a convention, signifying gravitas, in a very old movie. With great feeling, Ruscha details every abrasion, scratch and hair that disfigures the celluloid. It’s like a delicate abstract field painting overlaying the hard typographic image. The marks remind us of the film’s physicality: the reel’s long history of handling, projection and viewing.

The End is a big picture, beautifully painted, and a tiny reproduction can hardly do it justice. To appreciate fully its elegiac tribute to early cinema and to painting itself as an ‘archaic form of communication’ – in Ruscha’s words – you really have to be there.

Rick Poynor will review ‘Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting’ in the Winter issue of Eye (no. 74), out in December. The exhibition ends on 10 January 2010.

Read Rick’s celebrated Critiques on the Eye archive website.

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