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Ed Ruscha, Lisp, 1968, oil on canvas
Marissa Cuevas Graphic Design History Shane Sullivan 8 December 2010
Ed Ruscha makes communication interesting. He’s a story teller who defies definition, giving words a life and language all their own. They are abstract forms that have bubbled, bled, crumpled and smoothed out again over the years. Wide boulevards and scenic backdrops, gas stations and illuminated signs: these are all things Ruscha has made his own. They’ve smelled like chocolate, been stained in blood and drawn in gunpowder. Ruscha is pop, conceptual, surreal and minimal all stuffed into one fat sandwich of artistic “isms.” His work is consciously ambiguous with no list of priorities or importance. There are no hidden messages and no social, economic or political statements to be found. Instead, Ruscha’s incredible body of work over the past fifty years is an honest reflection of his personality: smart, witty and unique. The man and the art refuse to stand still, they have a constant buzz and possess the power to make art speak fun.
Ed Ruscha, The Back of Hollywood, 1977, oil on canvas
Welcome to the creatively bizarre world of Ed Ruscha, where art is something designed to make you scratch your head. It doesn’t need to make sense; it just needs to make you stop and look. He’s spent the last fifty years testing boundaries, shifting mediums and materials and constantly reinventing himself. He’s a painter, photographer, printmaker, bookmaker and filmmaker who can’t be pigeonholed into any one style, medium or sensibility. Ruscha takes it all on, never playing by the rules. “Making art is like an involuntary reflex,” Ruscha says; it’s so second nature to him that it seems he’s always a step ahead. His pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet whether it’s a print, photograph or painting he calls everything a “picture.” Ruscha says, “The word ‘picture’ has an automatic quaintness that I like. Abstract painters would also use that word. Rothko, de Kooning and Kline would say, ‘Well I’m working on a picture.’ I like that. It’s not just a painting; it’s a picture” (Clark). Ruscha is the art world’s version of a celebrity. In the 1970s he directed two short films: the very witty “Premium” and “Miracle” the story about a curious day in the life of an auto mechanic. Ruscha has even given acting a shot, playing a radio station director in the film Choose Me (“Chronology”). Movie industry heavyweights Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin and Dennis Hopper have Ruscha originals on their walls. Mick Jagger even hangs out in Ed’s studio! (Clark). When people talk about Ed Ruscha, it is not long before they are also talking about Los Angeles, California, the artist’s adopted home town. Ruscha’s iconic paintings, such as the Hollywood sign are emblematic of his own fame (Cooke). It’s propped up, paper-like and it’s aligned in the same respect as much of Ruscha’s work. But the only reason he painted it in the first place is because it was staring at him out the back window. “I had to do it because it was there,” he quips (Clark). Ruscha’s California catalogue is extensive and important. His paintings have mapped, plotted and given perspective to L.A. streets and sections. His numerous photography books about palm trees, swimming pools, parking lots and apartment complexes in Los Angeles established him as a conceptual leader in the industry (Cooke).
Ed Ruscha, The Study of Friction and Wear on Mating Surfaces, 1983, oil on canvas
Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937, but his family moved to Oklahoma City when he was four. Ruscha watched the psyche of middle-America change drastically during his youth (“Biography”). “There was some kind of odd success after WWII. People would leave their garden hoses running. About the time air conditioners were created in cars, people would roll the windows down and leave the air conditioners running. It was a strange kind of affluence.” At about the age of twelve it became clear that Ruscha was an artist at heart. He made murals for his grammar school class, took painting classes in 6th and 7th grades and could draw Felix the Cat, Bugs Bunny and all kinds of cartoon characters (Clark). Ruscha’s mother was supportive; he went to mass and even had a paper route. “I guess I learned good four-square thinking and basic human values in Oklahoma,” says Ruscha. But a visit to California as a teenager gave him the itch for something bigger, and at the age of eighteen he set out for Los Angeles (Cooke). Hollywood was advanced, experimental and fashionable, and Ed liked it all. He enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) in 1956 initially taking commercial art and animation classes, a path that most often led to a job at Disney (“Biography”). But Ruscha developed other artistic interests and simply went with the flow. At first, he wanted to be a sign painter. Then, he got into advertising, book design, and even laid out Artforum Magazine for a couple years. To make some extra cash he took a job personalizing thousands of Christmas trinkets for a gift store. All these technical skills helped form the foundation of his career and certainly explain his obsession with tape. In college, Ruscha moved on to courses in painting, drawing and watercolor. His professors believed the spontaneity of de Kooning, Pollack and abstract expressionism equaled modern art. Ed listened, but admired Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Man Ray and the futurists and clung to the idea the brave new world that was opening up on the east coast would eventually make its presence felt on the west as well (Clark). Ruscha was thumbing through the pages of a magazine when he saw a tiny reprint of Jasper Johns’ Target With Four Faces. The painting was premeditated and symmetrical and
Ed Ruscha, Standard Station, 1966, oil on canvas
Ed Ruscha, Pay Nothing Untill April, 2003, oil on canvas
Ed Ruscha, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, 1962, oil on canvas
Ruscha was floored. “It just went counter to everything that people were talking about in school. It was not just a target. It had faces. It was something immediately recognizable coupled together with something that was totally mysterious.” Robert Rauschenberg’s “combine paintings” gave Ruscha that same kind of hope. “I began to see that there were some artists who were doing something that perplexed me and moved me towards a career in fine art.” With a newfound purpose, Ruscha began sticking fabric and parts of comic strips on his canvases (Clark). He also began experimenting with words and painting common objects like pencils and school supplies. The representational shift quickly turned to popular subject matter, and at the age of thirtyfive Ruscha found himself riding the initial wave of American pop art (Lippard). Johns and Rauschenberg broke the ground, but Ruscha, alongside his New York contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, set the pop art trend (Lippard). Their art gave credence to previously unappreciated objects like Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, or in Ruscha’s case, Cracker Jack boxes and Spam containers. The art these men produced in the 1960’s spoke volumes about consumption and appealed to the masses. The composition of these shots is simple and not manipulated in any way. “I took pictures of different things, mostly gasoline stations, and various kinds of serial imagery that I was more interested in making into books than I was seeing photographs of. I mean the photography was almost incidental to the book. So I was looking at them as the book is the product, not the photograph” (Clark). It was a highly inventive approach that earned respect. While the pictures look like they could have been shot by anybody, putting them in this art context changed the aesthetics of what a good photograph is. The books themselves became three-dimensional works of art and architecture. From 1963 to 1978, Ruscha produced seventeen books, most of which portrayed the landscape of Los Angeles. He called them “the most powerful statements I’ve done” (Cooke). Far-fetched ideas are part of his legacy, but to the layman Ruscha will always be known for his trademark: words. That’s because no artist has ever succeeded at using written words quite like Ed Ruscha. Language is, and always has been, his favorite
Ed Ruscha, Boy Scout Utility Modern Typeface
Ed Ruscha, Quit, 1967, gunpowerder and colored pencil on paper
landscape. For fifty years he’s made words dramatic, romantic, powerful and funny. “Words have temperatures to me,” Ruscha says (Clark). Eventually, Ruscha transitioned from words into phrases and created his own font, which he calls “Boy scout utility modern” (Lippard). It’s a style that rather plainly announces an observation, rather than shouting something else. SAND IN THE VASELINE, ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD DREAM BUBBLE POPPED, even SCREAMING IN SPANISH look like simple statements, nothing more. Read into them what you want. In his quest to make his work as deep as its message, Ruscha spent several years experimenting with stains. He smeared rose petals and spinach around words like Satin and A BLVD. CALLED SUNSET. He turned everything from coffee, squid ink, crushed baked beans and vials of his own blood into art (Lippard). Ruscha also invented the art of gunpowder. Feeling that graphite was too streaky Ruscha went searching for something new. He found that soaking pellets in water washes away the salt and leaves a charcoal-like powder behind. The sulfur added a warm color and yet another dimension to his work (Lippard). As for his subject matter: “There’s no guideline or rule as to what would make me want to select a particular word,” Ruscha says. His ideas have come from casual conversation, talk radio, even reading the dictionary. “I’m still mystified by it and I’m glad. Every so often something just bangs! I see it and I just feel like I have to hammer this in stone and make a picture out of it” (Clark). Ruscha’s “pictures” are powerful statements that turn to portraits when you trace the common thread woven through the decades of his work. From the mythical glitz and glamour of Hollywood to the barren landscape along Route 66 and his original study of the English language, Ruscha has always been painting a giant portrait of America. He has documented consumption, change and the consciousness of our culture. He’s shown us the country’s soul and its armpit without passing judgment. His artistic language is commentary on the basic values and commercial outgrowth that this society produces: “I do feel particularly American in this respect,” Ruscha says. “Some artists can feel universal and that their work might fit well in Paris or Rome or wherever, but I feel like all the history of America has sort of been funneled into my view of the entire world” (Clark).
Work Cited “Biography.” Ed Ruscha. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www.edruscha.com/site/biography.cfm>. “Chronology.” Ed Ruscha. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www.edruscha.com/site/chronology.cfm>. Clark, Erin. “ED RUSCHA.” Artworks Magazine. 17 Oct. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://art worksmagazine.com/2009/10/ed-ruscha/>. Cooke, Rachel. “Ed Ruscha: ‘There’s Room for Saying Things in Bright Shiny Colours’ | Art and Design | The Observer.” The Observer. 12 Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www. guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/sep/12/ed-ruscha-obama-pop-art>. Lippard, Lucy R. Pop Art. New York: Praeger, 1966. Print.
Ed Ruscha, End, 1983, oil on canvas
For nearly 50 years, Ed Ruscha has been reinventing the way an artist can make a mark. He’s never done things by the book, choosing instead to make his own. Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art Curator Paul Schimmel puts it perfectly: “There are artists who are great specialists. The Golden Age of Holland in the 17th Century had still life and architecture specialists. Then there were artists who took it all on, like a Rembrandt. Ed’s one of the guys who will be measured by taking it all on. It’s not a little career, it’s huge” (Cooke). Art books referring to his association to movements, materials and “isms” will be confusing students for centuries to come. But what really matters about Ed Ruscha is that he’s always stayed true to his own vision and has never been afraid to explore just how deep it goes.