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Ed Ruscha Echo Park Studio Los Angeles, California, 1963 © Photo: Joe Goode.


Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting

At the Hayward Gallery
by Anna Leung


Ed Ruscha somehow seems to move easily within a “both/and” artistic sensibility in that he is able to integrate many seemingly disparate artistic tendencies into his own painting practice. This side of the Atlantic he is best known for his photographic work that anticipated the conceptual art of the 70’s such asTwenty Six Gasoline Stations (1963), a small format book that he published himself and which represented a move away from process and Abstract Expressionist gesture to concentrate on an objective documentation of the West Coast landscape characterised by urban sprawl’s manmade constructions: free flowing highways, gasoline stations, parking lots, street signage and billboards, with the car the sine qua non of mobility to explore a terrain that was relatively new, and therefore all the more exciting, to Ruscha. This exhibition, which concentrates on fifty years of his paintings - and there was only a relatively short period when he stopped painting - is therefore a revelation, and in more senses than one. For Ruscha is able to navigate between figuration and conceptualism, narrative and abstraction. He is one of the few artists of his generation who never really gave up on painting.


Ed Ruscha (possibly a derivation of Ruschitzka) was born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska into a family marked by a strong work ethic. He was brought up as a strict Catholic, an enduring element that was to mark, even if tangentially, much of his future work.  From a young age, much like the writer John Updike, his vision had been formed artistically by a passion for cartoons and comics, stamps and type faces and all things to do with graphic materials, inks and post marks etc. Like Warhol and Lichtenstein Ruscha was inspired by comic book heroes, but lettering and fonts were equal sources of fascination for him Subsequently, when studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, later to become part of Cal-Arts, he studied graphics, graduating in 1960. Perhaps as a result of this background, he was able to escape the seemingly intractable dilemma of pictorial illusionism, originally posed by strict Greenbergian doctrine, and the “you see what you see” impasse that navigated several painters into Minimalism, by making letters the main protagonists of his paintings. For Ruscha these letters were by no means merely passive signs or ciphers but created an opportunity for him to bring out their intrinsic aural characteristics as well as their narrative potential. His early paintings are literally loud paintings that spell out onomatopoeic exclamations. OOF is painted bright yellow against a Prussian blue background and inBoss, black lettering appears against a painterly chocolate brown background reminiscent of Jasper Johns. What is arresting about these early paintings is their continued engagement with the stuff of painting, the abstract expressionist immersion in the materiality of the paint’s surface, and with its literal application as expressive gesture. At the same time, they demonstrate an early Pop sensibility.


Pop is more often categorised as an East Coast than a West Coast phenomenon with Oldenburg opening his Store on the Lower East Side of New York and Lichtenstein appropriating imagery for high art from the world of advertising and comics in 1961. The West coast tended to be marginalised despite the fact that it was the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles that was responsible for Warhol’s move from commercial to high art with his ground breaking exhibition of Campell’s Soup Cans canvases. Ferus was likewise responsible for resurrecting Duchamp and revealing him as the eminence grise behind the most significant contemporary art developments. Duchamp had a determining influence on Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns whose use of vernacular motifs and 3D objects had a catalytic effect on Ruscha – he describes John’s Target with Four Faces as having had “the effect of an atomic bomb in my training.” Ruscha’s Box Smashed FlatI, with squashed raisins emerging from the flattened packet that celebrates sun-rich California, anticipates both his engagement with icons of consumerism and his fascination with actual materials. Later, letters would be strung out horizontally against totally neutral backgrounds as if they constituted a landscape in their own right as in Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962) and Standard Station (1966) with their characteristic steep diagonal perspectives, all action taking place in the left hand side of the picture. The letters figure as three-dimensional objects in space while the diagonals suggests the dynamic movement of objects and buildings glimpsed while speeding past them on the highway. Later, the gasoline stations were pictured on fire, as was Ruscha’s painting of Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965). Though the very painterly flames do not look too dangerous, this has of course been interpreted as a transgressive anti-establishment gesture. But whatever the initial motive, the theme of buildings going up in flames anticipate a certain taste for the apocalyptic that characterises Ruscha’s work though it never descends into total nihilism.


Ed Ruscha, The End, 1991.

Word Works

For Ruscha, who sounds as if he has a neurological condition known as synaesthesia, letters and words seem to exist independently and have a distinct tactile, olfactory and auditory presence. He explains, “Words have temperature for me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me.…” This basic objectness of words and lettering is conveyed in another series in which letters are done violence to and pictured distorted by metal clamps. Then in the mid-sixties came a series in which words figured in what Ruscha termed his “romance with liquids,”  hyper-realist paintings that featured liquid words painted in a meticulous  trompe-l’oeil manner so that water, oil, or syrup, among other substances, appeared to have been spilled onto the surface of the canvas, but not absorbed.  There is a cool Surrealist edge to these paintings that will resurface in the next series of paintings that forego words altogether. In similar fashion, there is a series of paintings in which the words, strung out across the canvas, begin to lose their link with meaning. What characterises all these paintings is the meticulousness of their rendition and the fact that they are totally premeditated. There is no more room here for spontaneity or gestures of self expression than there is in the work of other artists such as Bruce Nauman and Denis Oppenheimer whose art practices, categorised as conceptual in the late 60’s and 70’s, tended to be limited to the simple photographic documentation of everyday aspects of life. Ruscha, as we shall see, takes as his subject matter ordinary and quite banal objects, but by isolating them within the deep space of the canvas invests them with a sense of comic mystery.


Objects in Space

One of the salient characteristics of Modernist painting since Manet is its tendency to integrate figure and ground and thereby minimise the effect of perspective and chiaroscuro. With Pop, and prior to Pop with the Precisionists in the 1930’s, the sharp distinction between figure and ground was reasserted and illusionistic artifice acknowledged, but in a neutral mode. Ruscha’s backgrounds are just that; they are foils for the depiction of his isolated, trompe-l’oeil, life-sized objects. The backgrounds to his series of objects in space are rendered as subtly gradated layers of colour that often darken as they approach the upper edge of the canvas, which further undermines their mimetic qualities. These objects inhabit their own spaces much as Magritte’s apples, windows, or gentlemen wearing bowler hats inhabit a dream world, and share with them a certain static fixity of being. These wordless paintings also look back to the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, but whereas Tanguy populated his space with mysterious organic creatures Ruscha peoples his with ordinary domestic objects subjected to small disaster. Milk and milk bottles, water, pencils, ball bearings and olives are all pictured in some sort of transformative process: breaking, bouncing, floating, falling, shattering or spilling in a deep, echoing space. The paintings that depict liquid phrases and food stuffs prepared the way for still further inventive explorations of new artistic materials.



In the early 70’s Ruscha went through a temporary phase in which he felt unable to continue painting with oil on canvas. He began to search for alternatives by experimenting with substances such as gunpowder, grass, spinach, egg yolk, beer, chocolate syrup, salad dressing, olive oil, and motor oil, among others, using brand names as well as making up his own substances and exploring their properties as stains on canvas or paper. It was around this period that he started to place words or phrases against backgrounds made up of silk, satin, rayon or moiré all of which delighted him with the various ways they modified the support he was using. Since the nature of the materials did not allow trompe-l’oeil effects he began to use texts so that the paintings read more like public signs, but often with a covert linguistic or poetic twist. Within a year he had returned to painting and began to work on a series of paintings that he referred to as landscapes but which feature words set against panoramic backdrops.


An American Sublime

In these grand horizontal pieces, ranks of words seem to hover against evocations of a sunrise or sunset, liminal worlds which Ruscha has described as “anonymous backdrops for the drama of words” that almost surreptitiously suggest another dimension of being. In A Particular Kind of Heaven the letters themselves take on a spectral and almost hypnotic quality. Yet this evident metaphysical strain is at the same belied by a certain laconic humour. Other notably existential murmurings echo in the mountain painting Me (1999) and It’s a Small World which pictures our planet earth floating inconsequentially in the vast blueness of the heavens as if it was of no greater significance than one of Ruscha’s gravity bound olives. In some cases, landscape and text seem to have very little to do with one another, and the phrase or text seems abandoned, suspended in the air hovering over a stretch of landscape.

Much of Ruscha’s inspiration has always come from his love of cars and the sequence of images grasped whilst speeding down the highway. By the 1980’s other images were prompted by plane journeys regularly taken between Los Angeles and Miami. Talk Radio, with its crisscrossing of night lights, suggests looking down on a nocturnal city whose inhabitants are tuned into the radio waves. By this time, there was another innovation in Ruscha’s practice. He had begun to use an air brush, spraying on the layers of acrylic paint to make up his backdrops, where previously they had been slowly built up in a much more laborious way using oils. Out of this new technique came a series of soft-focused, monochrome silhouette paintings and a new direction, again a series of paintings without words. The images he used, often taken from childhood books, are archetypal motifs of American history: inHomeward Bound the schooner may be taking emigrants to the New World, while in The Uncertain Trail(1986), convoys of horse-drawn wagons follow their “Manifest Destiny” by going west, images that instantly convey a history and an identity. On the other hand, the presence of censorship bars that render these paintings wordless could suggest an alternative history, or at least another narrative, and therefore introduce a degree of ambivalence toward aspects of American history that have become almost doctrinal. This ambiguity was of prime importance to Ruscha. 

Ed Ruscha, Baby Jet, 1998.


Ruscha is fascinated by all means of image-making, especially the movies, and during the 90’s produced black-and-white paintings that take as their inspiration the actual material of celluloid, showing all the scratches and damage it would have suffered through multiple replays over the passage of time. Pictures such as Exit and The End (again significantly written in Gothic script) spell out the temporality and mortality of all things but also have a mysteriously static quality. It is curious that Ruscha, who seems so interested in moving images, should emphasise the static quality of things, investing them with a mystery and magic that is difficult to analyse. The exit sign overshadowed by the glowing whiteness of the empty screen has something spectral about it, or even purgatorial, signifying portals to another world or another existence. At the same time, we cannot help wondering “What end?” and “For whom?” Sin-Without(1991), like the earlier Hell Heaven (1988), seems to suggest a questioning of religious doctrine that underpins Ruscha’s scheme of things.


In our technology-driven age, Ruscha’s fascination with celluloid, a medium quickly being rendered obsolete by digitalisation, carries with it the bittersweet pungency of nostalgia. This emphasis on change and decay, which denote intimations of mortality, is again picked up in a series called The Course of Empires, its title taken from the nineteenth century American landscape painter Thomas Cole who drew on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to paint the life cycle of a city state from savage state back to savage state, with obvious premonitory allusions to America’s possible fate. Ruscha’s series, originally painted for the 2004 Venice Biennale, was based on an earlier series of urban paintings of industrial buildings which he contrasted with what had replaced them.  The first series was in black-and-white, the updates in colour. The old windowless academic or manufacturing Tech-Chem building is replaced by Fat Boy, some sort of burger eatery, plus possibly a reference to the first atomic bomb to fall on Hiroshima, and where there was a Blue Collar Trade School there’s a deserted building surrounded by barbed wire. A similar sense of the inevitable cycle of change characterises the diptych Azteca/ Azteca in Decline (2007). It is based on a motif glimpsed on a wall when Ruscha was touring the ancient ruins outside of Mexico City. The motif reiterates the diagonal composition that characterises one of Ruscha’s earliest paintings, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights. The colourful motifs painted with trompe-l’oeil accuracy suggest a graffitied billboard which appears in the second painting to have crumbled and seems to be peeling off the canvas. Significantly, the graffiti is the sole element left unchanged.



Ruscha’s Mountains are not representations of actual landscapes but invented images, and while they too figure as anonymous backdrops for his drama of words, this archetypal image is so strong that a conflict can arise between image and text. Ruscha explains that they are “ideas of mountains picturing some kind of unobtainable bliss or glory…tall, dangerous and beautiful.”  Yet again Ruscha has taken hold of a visual cliché and endowed it with qualities that span the poetic, the playful, and the profound. As in all of Ruscha’s landscapes, concepts encompassing macrocosm and microcosm, space and temporality, are almost unwittingly evoked by the interaction between image and text. Yet, also as in his other paintings, there is no one relationship spelt out and should the existential element seem too assertive, a corresponding echo of wry laughter can usually be inferred in the immeasurable spaces between image and text and thought and language.


©  Anna Leung 2010

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 


Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting was at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 14 October 2009 - 10 January 2010. It is now at the Haus der Kunst in Munich from 12 February - 2 May 2010. After that, it will be at theModerna Museet, Stockholm from 29 May - 5 September 2010.



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