“Good art should illicit a response of ‘huh? Wow!’ not ‘Wow! Huh?'” – Ed Ruscha
Whenever I travel I like to check in advance to see if there are any cool museums I should hit. I often am wanting to see the architecture as much as the art. In 2009 I hit the jackpot with the Denver Museum of Art. It’s an amazing structure that had amazing art inside.
One of the pieces there was this one, ‘Molten Polyester’ by Ed Ruscha. I hadn’t seen any of his work in decades, since I had been in graduate school. I had no idea he was doing these larger pieces with epic mountains and words and it resparked my interest in his work.
As a Napkin Kin you know how much I like words and that almost every napkin is a combination of words and images. Then it’s no surprise that one of my favorite artists over the years has been Ed Ruscha. His use of words, sometimes laid over recognizable images and sometimes just on a gradient of color, have always been compelling and thought provoking to me.
His first recognition as an artist came in the 60s when he had his first show at Ferus Gallery, a groundbreaking space in LA that championed a number of California artists, including Robert Irwin and Richard Diebenkorn, already in the ‘Artists I Love’ series.
An interesting side note for those who think New York is and always has been the first city of art in America. It was at the Ferus Gallery in 1962 that Andy Warhol had is very first solo art exhibition. It consisted of his Campbell Soup Cans and 5 of the paintings sold. They cost $100.00 each. The gallery owner, Irving Blum, decided all the paintings should stay together and cancelled all 5 of the purchases. Just imagine what they would be worth now if the collectors had been able to take possession of the paintings.
Ruscha was firmly in the grips of the new pop art aesthetic when he started. He liked using the images of the world he saw, mundane and non-elitist, similar to Warhol, Johns and Lichtenstein.
But he had a subversive side that pushed further than simple pop visualization. He added an element that he said was based purely on his visual curiosity, as in, ‘I wonder what a standard station would like like if it were burning.’ And there is that innocent, gee whiz, element to it. But there is no denying that culturally and socially he was making a statement.
He took it even further when he depicted the new heart of art in Los Angeles, the LA County Museum of Art, opened just a year earlier, burning down. This wasn’t a generic gas station, this was biting the hand the fed him. I remember this painting for two reasons. One, I was taken to the LACMA soon after it opened by my parents. Number two being it was right next door to the famous La Brea Tar Pits, home to long-deceased dinosaurs.
In the late 60s Ruscha started doing paintings of liquid in the shape of words.
Sometimes it would be water, but other times it would be a liquid connected to the word, as in ‘Ripe’.
Adios written honey is another example. By having the ants stuck in the honey we know who the ‘adios’ is meant for. But it also allows us to abstract that idea out to larger situations that could include humans. It’s literal and metaphorical at the same time.
The painting of fruit juice or honey to look realistic is one thing, but taking non-art materials and actually using them as your art-making material was another step. Ruscha, influenced by Duchamp’s readymades and other artists using found objects, started to do the same. One of his most interesting series in that vein is the gunpowder series.
It’s simple enough, he drew with gunpowder instead of graphite. It looks the same in many ways but he liked something about it’s texture and how he could work with it. It was not lost on him however that simply using the word ‘gunpowder’ in his list of materials was part of the artwork and the meaning.
He also started doing work with no words at all.
And what does he do when he uses no words? He leaves blank spaces where words would be then titles the pieces so that you believe the title fits into those spaces.
Eventually Ruscha started to incorporate whole sentences into his work. They were mundane and unremarkable in their reference to the everyday world but when disembodied from their usual context became rich in possible meanings. As usual though, there wasn’t any one interpretation that was right or wrong.
Of course, as one might expect given Ruscha’s inclination towards word play and irony, this painting became the cover of a retrospective book on his art work.
In doing this piece I came across something about Ruscha I didn’t know; he was raised in Oklahoma, where I now live. It actually has found it’s way into his work in many more ways than I realized. From his cross-country travels from Oklahoma to LA where he discovered his love for the landscape and the iconic gas stations along the way to the use of the words Tulsa and OK again and again in his work, Ruscha always remained connected to his roots.
This is from a series he did on palindromes, words or phrases that can be read the same forward or backward.
Even when he doesn’t use words he is still often asking a question, ok?
Meaning and Questioning
One of the questions that gets asked about Ruscha’s work has to do with meaning. What is he trying to say, what does he mean? I think the best way to understand Ruscha’s meaning is to replace the word ‘meaning’ with ‘question’ since he isn’t really much of an answerer or a propagandist. He reminds me of a visual Paul Simon. Simon’s lyrics often stop short of an clear storyline, instead they give pictures and hints about meaning. Ruscha does the same thing and that’s why he is an artist I love.
In 2013 Ruscha was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.
This is not a exhaustive showing of his work or explanation of his place in contemporary art or art history. There are incredible resources to explore if you are interested in finding out more about his work and life. Here are just a few.
Ferus Gallery history – Archives of American Art
Road to Ruscha – a collaborative road trip from Oklahoma to LA
More Artists I Love
The entire ‘Artists I Love’ series can be found below or by clicking on the ‘Artist I love’ link at the top of the page.
- Week #2 – Ed Ruscha
- Week #1 – Robert Arneson
- Week #5 – Francisco Goya
- Week #4 – Robert Irwin
- Week #3 – Veruschka
- Week #2 – Albrecht Durer
- Week #1 – Roger Brown