Spring 2002

Audacious master of the painted word

Ed Ruscha

MOMA, Oxford
3 November 2001 - 13 January 2002

Ed Ruscha’s retrospective at Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art was the first in the UK to bring together paintings, books and drawings from the Los Angeles-based artist’s 40-year career.

One has to remind oneself just how audacious Ruscha’s first deadpan canvases, with their bold words and photorealist renderings of small commonplace objects must have seemed when he launched them on the art public of early 1960s America. The Abstract Expressionists still reigned supreme and their champion, the critic Clement Greenberg, was proclaiming that painting should be kept ‘pure’.

Ruscha encapsulated in a cool, ironic way postwar America’s love affair with the mass media and consumption. Along with Rauschenberg, Warhol and Lichtenstein, he stormed the bastion of fine art with the ‘oh so trade’ tools and iconography of the graphic arts, forcing it to enter into a dialogue with the artefacts of mass consumption.

Ruscha has placed clichés and phrases that have lost their meaning through overuse into the incongruous contemplative space of the painting. In Talk about Space (1963) a small yellow pencil neatly painted at the bottom of the canvas hovers in space on a blue/purple ground. Writ large above it in comic-book 3D lettering is the word ‘space’, a reference to figure ground debate, but also an absurd proposition. As in all Ruscha’s word paintings, the apparently simple equation doesn’t quite add up.

In Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western (1963) which consists of photorealist paintings of these very objects and the word ‘noise’ painted in 3D lettering at a diagonal, Ruscha posits the words he paints as the noise of everyday life. In a series of drawings in gunpowder, including Sin and Dusty (both 1967), in which the words are formed by trompe l’oeil folded paper and a canvas entitled The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68) he revealed a fascination with the destruction of the image by fire. There were more trompe l’oeil works, with liquid paintings such as Adios (1967) and Rancho (1968), in which the painted words appeared to have been poured from viscous liquids. At times he abandoned oils and canvas, presenting disembodied phrases such as Vanishing Cream (1973) or Very Angry People (1973) painted to incongruous effect with pallid organic substances such as egg yolk, and cherry juice on moiré.

In the 1980s Ruscha turned his attention to panoramic skies bearing captions such as ‘Eternal Amnesia’ or ‘Sea of Desire’, and made a series of silhouetted monochromatic paintings with distinctly gothic overtones. Some had white spaces where the words of the title should sit. In Strong, Healthy (1987) a silhouette of two houses with their upstairs lights on and two blank spaces in front of them creates an unsettling atmosphere. In a further series, he removed any wording or imagery, simply leaving the spacing, which could be filled by the title Little Snitches Like You End Up In Dumpsters All Across Town (1997).

Ruscha has said that his books were the hardest thing he ever did because he had no art context in which to place them. Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) presented 26 black and white photographs of gas stations all taken from the same matter-of-fact viewpoint, captioned with their location and the name of the oil company. This book was followed by others, including Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967). The books were enormously influential on conceptual artists of the 1970s and we have them, in part at least, to thank for the aesthetic of the serial that is so pervasive today. A week after Ruscha’s show closed in Oxford, London gallery Rhodes+Mann showed a series from 100 paintings by Mario Rossi of the moment in 100 classic films where ‘The End’ flashes up on screen. This Ruscha-esque project neatly draws together the two strands in the older artist’s work – the paintings and the books. In 1994 Ruscha himself made a black and white painting entitled The End with those words painted in gothic script complete with stylised scratches.

Ruscha was one of the first artists to comment on the way in which print mediates our experience of the world. In his Standard Stations series, inspired by his trips from LA back home to Oklahoma along Route 66, he painted the image of a gas station in the elegant ground-level view diagonal style of the graphic artist. Here he is painting representations of gas stations, not gas stations themselves. Similarly in The Mountain (1998) he paints an idealised mountain made up of small flat plains of colour similar to painting by numbers or the methods used by billboard painters. It is captioned merely with large letters spelling ‘The’.

As his retrospective showed, Ruscha continues to pursue new leads, too numerous to mention in one short review. Recently he has made paintings of maps of LA that are drained of all colour and typographical detail. All that remains are the lines of the streets and their names hovering in a foggy airbrushed haze. As with all his works, Ruscha doesn’t give too much away and we are left puzzling over an enigma, a riddle that could have many answers.

A richly illustrated, comprehensive 196-page catalogue, with informative essays by Neal Benezra, Kerry Brougher and Phyllis Rosenzweig, accompanied the exhibition (£28, Scalo).

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