Paintings On The Wall - Ed Ruscha

Paintings On The Wall - Ed Ruscha

Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963

Ed Ruscha (1937-)

In the latest feature of the ’Paintings on the Wall’ series we discover the work of Edward Ruscha or as his business cards would say: "ED-WERD REW-SHAY". Journalist Elisa Bray profiles the painter below, and check out Paul’s thoughts on Edward Ruscha in his PS from PM at the end...

TURNING THE ORDINARY INTO THE EXTRAORDINARY

How do you turn a subject as mundane and aesthetically unappealing as a petrol station into one of the most iconic paintings of the last century? Meet Ed Ruscha - a master of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. 

On the long drive along Route 66, from Los Angeles to his hometown of Oklahoma City, Ruscha took photographs of petrol stations (we’ll come back to the photographs later), and then transformed a banal and everyday sight into Standard Station - a painting that is arresting, unforgettable, and possibly his most famous. With its diagonal perspective framing the building and its tomato-red pumps and bold brand name “Standard”, he evoked the era of car-obsessed Americana, while driving himself to the forefront of the new West Coast Pop Art movement.

Ruscha’s art depicts the beauty and value of everyday subject matter. Take his oil painting of the Hollywood sign - a universally recognisable image of the Los Angeles skyline. When the artist set the sign against a vivid sunset, it became a striking dramatic version as iconic in its own individual way as the sign itself. The same diagonal perspective - a signature style – is applied to Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights in which the 20th Century Fox sign is beamed out in bold red lettering. It screams the drama, fanfares and bold lights of cinema.

Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, 1962

Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, 1962

Hollywood, 1968

Hollywood, 1968

FALLING IN LOVE WITH CALIFORNIA

You know that you’re a local celebrity when you find yourself the subject of neighbourhood artwork. So steeped in the culture and colours of California is Ed Ruscha’s art and so a part of the West Coast’s cultural history, that there’s even a mural of the artist in downtown LA. So it’s surprising that Ruscha wasn’t actually from the sunny colourful state of California. 

Edward Joseph Ruscha IV (pronounced “Rew-Shay”; he must have been fed up with mispronunciations as legend has it he handed out business cards in the Sixties with his name printed out phonetically “ED-WERD REW-SHAY” to set people right on the matter) was in fact born in the much less sunny Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937, and grew up in Oklahoma City. He had moved to Oklahoma aged three, with his mother Dorothy, sister and brother, for his father Edward’s job as an auditor for an insurance company. The family - of Irish, Czech and German background – lived there for 15 years. He had a strict Catholic upbringing, which he rejected as soon as he moved to California in his late teens. "When I got to California it was an awakening that I didn’t need this religion, it didn’t mean anything to me.” As religion has a habit of doing, it cropped up later in life in his art: in a series of one word paintings Faith, Mercy, Pity, Hope and Purity, in 1972-3.

Faith, 1972

Faith, 1972

His love of the West Coast stemmed from childhood holidays there. He found inspiration in the powerful black and white photography of Walker Evans, and John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which people fled to California from Oklahoma. California represented a “new frontier”, to which people were flocking in droves of 1,000 a day. LA was America’s fastest-growing city. And Ruscha fell in love with its sunshine, jazz, exotic palm trees, glamorous movie world, and fast cars. “As a child, [California] just threw romance in my face,” he said. “The culture was different than where I came from in Oklahoma… and so it had a strong effect on me and that started it all up.” And so, Ruscha came to adopt California as his cultural home.

A YOUNG ARTIST

As a boy Ruscha loved to paint and draw his own cartoons, which would form the comic humour of his future works, and his affinity for slogans. His practical-minded father wasn’t keen on his decision to study art, a career that held no promise of a lucrative future. But his mother had always encouraged his love of art, taking Ruscha to painting classes run by a local portrait painter called Richard Goetz from the age of 11. It wasn’t an epiphany about painting that the young Ruscha discovered at the classes, however, but a penchant for the smell of paint. “The only thing I really got from it was the fragrance of oil paint. When I walked in the class, I loved that. So I began to like it just for that.”

A young Ed Ruscha

THE BIG MOVE TO CALIFORNIA AND ART SCHOOL

At 18, he hopped into a customised 1950 Ford with his friend Mason Williams (who would later become a famous writer and musician, composing the instrumental hit 'Classical Gas') and drove across America to LA. There he enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, which would shortly become the California Institute of the Arts, to study graphic design, commercial art and animation. As a student, he took on jobs at a printer, painting signs and designing magazines. He envisaged a career in commercial art, as a sign painter, but that was never going to satisfy his questing mind and burgeoning love of art. He lasted just a few months in his first full-time job, as a layout artist for an advertising agency, before he quit. Two years after his father died, in 1961 his mother who had instilled her love of books and art on Ruscha and his siblings, took the family on a tour of Europe. Ruscha spent a further month in Paris, wandering the streets and the galleries, where he discovered that old art didn’t inspire him. On his return to LA, it was decided: he would be an artist. “I could see I was just born for the job, born to watch paint dry,” he said. When he later worked as the production designer for the influential Artforum magazine in the late Sixties, already an established name in the art world, he went under the pseudonym “Eddie Russia”.

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM REFUSENIK

While he was at art school in the late 1950s, Abstract Expressionism (a style of spontaneous, abstract and gestural brush strokes) was all the rage. “They would say, ‘Face the canvas and let it happen, follow your own gestures, let the painting create itself,'” Ruscha recalled. But this method wasn’t for him. Even at that impressionable age, Ruscha knew exactly what his style was. And, unlike the freewheeling style of artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, everything he did in art would be completely premeditated. In 1957 he had already been won over by a collage painting by proto-Pop artist Jasper Johns called Target with Four Faces that he found in the magazine Print. It had pointed him towards a new direction, diverting him from a training in graphic art towards painting.

MERGING TEXT WITH PAINTING

He found his voice early on, when he began to merge his commercial art roots - his childhood interest in advertising, comics and magazines, and subsequent graphic design work - with painting. Artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were using text in their works, and it influenced Ruscha’s exploration of words on painted image, and their ambiguous relationship to each other. It led to Boss - his first painting combining the connotations, and imposing visual effect, of a single word in bold font - in the late 1950s, and his onomatopoeic series that followed, including Oof and Honk. Ruscha now saw himself as “a combination of abstract artist and someone who deals with subject matter”. "Art," he said, "has to be something that makes you scratch your head."

Boss, 1961

Boss, 1961

And Ruscha certainly delivered on that promise, with his works making many a critic and viewer scratch their head. Take one early work influenced by Johns: Box Smashed Flat, a painting begun in 1959, when the artist was just 21 years old and still at art school, in which a box of Sun-Maid raisins was flattened, and appears to have blood spraying from it. Beneath it is the place name “Vicksburg” in Victorian font (for a graphic designer, choice of font is integral). “It’s a rendering of a Sun-Maid Raisins box smashed flat. I was into the violence of things then, smashing,” he said of the work.

One interpretation was that the painting functions as an abstract self-portrait. Aged 14, Ruscha had passed through the Mississippi town when hitchhiking to Florida. The font – a symbol of his graphic design roots - being almost concealed by the paint over it could symbolise the fact that he’d set out to train as a commercial artist but a career in painting won. Then there’s the Sun-Maid - an instantly recognisable California trademark – reigning supreme. Could his use of the universally recognised snack be a symbol of this new American world of branding and consumerism?

But the name “Vicksburg” with the spattered blood also conjures an event from America’s history: Civil War, when the town was defeated by Union troops. Yet another interpretation saw the painting as a statement on the violent early history of a brand whose producer Elmer Erickson was forced to sign a contract in the early 1920s. Or could it be that the spatters really are just smashed raisins? We will never know. Ambiguity is at the very heart of the most fascinating works of the artist whose own mother described him as a “master of evasion”.

Box Smashed Flat, 1961

Box Smashed Flat, 1961

RISING TO PROMINENCE

When Ruscha moved to California, there wasn’t much of an art scene. Yet not long after leaving art school, by the early 1960s, he was already known for his paintings, collages, and prints. The legendary Ferus Gallery had opened in 1957, paving the way for a contemporary art scene, and Ed Ruscha was among its group of hotshot, audacious young local artists including Larry Bell, Ed Moses and Robert Irwin. One artist called it a “macho intellectual gang bang”. But Rusha didn’t quite fit into this macho art brotherhood. “They thought he was too Pop-oriented,” director of the Ferus Gallery, Irving Blum, said. “But then the big paintings started appearing - Standard Station, and the Twentieth Century Fox one – and they came around.” The Ferus Gallery gave him his first solo exhibition in 1963. 

A GODFATHER OF POP ART AND CONCEPTUAL ART (WITH SOME SURREALISM, MINIMALISM AND DADAISM THROWN IN)

A refusal to be neatly pigeonholed into a genre had seen Ruscha’s paintings incorporate irreverent words and phrases influenced by Pop Art. And in 1962 he was included alongside Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol in the ground-breaking New Painting of Common Objects exhibition, at the Pasadena Art Museum. It went down in history as one of the first Pop Art exhibitions in America. “I felt a kinship with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein because it was a logical departure from the kind of painting that was happening at the time," he said. Ruscha’s shirking of the era’s popular Abstract Expressionism helped drive a shift - in both Los Angeles and New York - towards Pop Art’s boundary-smashing blend of popular culture and fine art. His colourful paintings and bold text suggested the striking imagery and slogans of advertising, from his commercial roots. But Ruscha did more than create images of universal appeal; he gave Pop Art cultural context, and made it conceptual. To be called a godfather of one art form is an achievement, but to be hailed a godfather of Pop Art and then a godfather of Conceptual Art is quite possibly unparalleled. He could have just stuck at those two towering art forms, but there are also elements of Surrealism, Minimalism and and neo-Dadaism in his works. “You could hang any one of three or four labels on him,” said Blum.

How about the bird with a pencil for a beak, its rubber end for a tail, with the comedic words, "Give Him Anything and He’ll Sign It"? It’s a surreal image and another example of his deadpan humour. It could be a commentary upon the lack of integrity in the world of advertising.

Give Him Anything and He’ll Sign It 1965

Give Him Anything and He’ll Sign It, 1965 

There was more of his typically laconic humour in It’s a Small World, a gift for Cindy Clark, a girlfriend with whom he lived for a couple of years. Ruscha wanted to “give her the world,” so he painted a picture of the world for her, the planet popping out like a 3D image as it floats suspended in a stunning blue haze.

It’s a Small World, 1980

It’s a Small World, 1980

Minimalism came in the form of a series of 1980s lithographs. Airbrushed to resemble smoky, out-of-focus silhouettes, cliched subjects such as a howling coyote and an hourglass were given a dramatic makeover, none more effectively than the ghostly masted ship being tossed at sea.

Untitled, 1986

Untitled, 1986

Coyote, 1989

Coyote, 1989

TURNING DEADPAN SUBJECT MATTER INTO ART-BOOKS: A KIND OF A ‘HUH?’

Let’s return to the photos which led to his most iconic image. It was on those cross country journeys on the famous Route 66 to see his family back in Oklahoma that he took the photo series that would lead to Standard Station - and his book of deadpan photographs, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1963). Compare the black and white photograph to the eventual image and it’s banal, with trees, bunting, roadside signs and other clutter surrounding the station’s underwhelming architecture. Ruscha removed all that distracting clutter to create a polished graphic reproduction that reimagined the petrol station as something iconic. Hailed the first ever artist book, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations was ground-breaking. But when Ed Ruscha submitted this first book to Washington's Library of Congress, it was flat out rejected. A self-published collection of photographs with no annotations or explanatory text? they said in disapproval. Ruscha was unphased by their criticisms of its "unorthodox form and supposed lack of information". He took out an advert in the March 1964 edition of Artforum, where he would shortly work in production, offering it for $3 a copy under the title REJECTED. "I just wanted to explore the subject dead-head, straight-on, without much emotion," he explained, delighted with the result. “I realised that for the first time this book had an inexplicable thing I was looking for, and that was a kind of a ‘Huh?’ That‘s what I’ve always worked around. All it is is a device to disarm somebody with my particular message.” And so, Ruscha’s idiosyncratic “kind of a ‘Huh?’” was born. He went on to explore more deadpan subject matter in art books. I’m not sure that anyone else could channel the subject of swimming pools and car parks quite as successfully as Ed Ruscha.

UNUSUAL MEDIUM

It wasn’t enough for Ruscha to experiment with concepts, art forms, and the ideas that words painted onto a canvas could conjure up. So in the late 1960s he started experimenting with materials: egg yolk, beer, salad dressing, turpentine and gunpowder. And his own blood. "I wanted to expand my ideas about materials and the value they have," Ruscha said. By the 1970s he had found further fame for his word paintings experimenting with both typography and unusual materials. Coffee, albumen, mustard, chilli sauce, ketchup and cheddar cheese were the unusual ingredients for Dance? You’d find these foodstuffs in an American diner rather than an art shop. Just like with the memorable trademarks Ruscha depicted from Spam to Sun-Maid raisins, he reflected contemporary everyday symbols of American popular culture through his use of unusual medium.

Dance, 1973

Sand in the Vaseline captured in just four pithy words - in capped up Sans-Serif font – the irony of a product designed to soothe made irritating and grainy, rendering it useless. What do we do with that conundrum? Ruscha makes the viewer think: he presents familiar sights and substances in a way that challenges our usual view of them. Then you see that the text is painted in egg yolk upon a piece of grey satin, and suddenly there is an extra layer to the painting, thanks to how it is painted, evoking the senses of sight and touch. When you’re aware that you’re looking at egg yolk, it adds a tactile quality mirroring the tactile quality of the meaning of the words themselves. It becomes a kind of linguistic riddle.

Sand in the Vaseline ,1974

PLAYFUL PALINDROMES AND MIRROR PAINTINGS

Ruscha continued to play with linguistics, moving onto palindromes in his later works. Porch Crop was his first palindrome painting, in which palindromes (when the word reads the same in both directions) and witty, gnomic phrases are painted over mountain views. He even invented his own font used in these paintings, calling it ‘Boy Scout Utility Modern’. Was the phrase Porch Crop a play on the words pork chop? The puzzles continued.

Porch Crop, 2002

Next followed a still more perplexing series that the artist called Mirror Paintings. Solo Gigolos, Lion In Oil, Tulsa Slut, and Sex at Noon Taxes, are all blunt phrases playfully creating that “Huh?” effect that Ruscha loves so much. What these gnomic phrases mean will always remain a mystery. Mirrored images can create an optical illusion. If you look at Lion in Oil closely, you can even make out what could be a lion’s face, down to its teeth. But are we looking too closely to find a meaning or image, where there is none at all? It’s a slippery character, that oily lion. And what does the phrase Tulsa Slut mean, you might ask? View the mirrored mountain image behind the words and you might find the answer, depending on whether you see the inverted triangle formation of the mountain as a uterus. By comparison, the phrase Solo Gigolos is propped up by the pointy mountain peaks behind. And Sex at Noon Taxes? Why, you can see all kinds of shapes when you start trying to find a reflection of the mental images that the words conjure up. Here, the paintings’ backgrounds and overlying texts become a kind of double entendre.

Tulsa Slut, 2002

Lion in Oil 2002

Lion in Oil, 2002

Solo Gigolos, 2002

Sex at Noon Taxes, 2002

SUNSETS AND MOUNTAINS

Just like the sunsets that are a favoured backdrop for so many of Ruscha’s text-based paintings, such as A Particular Kind Of Heaven, the mountains serve to provide drama and enhance the works, rather than provide the essence. “The drama of anything is always amped up by a sunset or a sunrise,” he said.

A Particular Kind Of Heaven, 1983

Mountains were what Ruscha saw on every road trip from Oklahoma to Los Angeles. Ruscha’s mountain images may conjure up the branding of Paramount Pictures, once again imbuing his works in Californian culture, but they serve merely as a backdrop to his text. “They’re ideas of mountains, picturing some sort of unobtainable bliss or glory - rock and ways to fall, dangerous and beautiful.” The point of the paintings lies in the words. As for the words and phrases, they seem to be snatched from somewhere (the artist often finds inspiration for the text in his pictures from words he’s heard in films or on the radio), but whose context we can only fathom. Emblazoned across a painting, they give the impression of holding substance - but do they just sound good or look good, beneath which there is little significance - perhaps mirroring the glitz of Hollywood or the modern world of consumerism? “A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words”, he said in an interview. “In a way, they're words in front of an old Paramount Studios mountain. You don't have to have a mountain back there - you could have a landscape, a farm. I have a background, foreground. It's so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They're just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks.”

BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

A reiteration of his signature technique of placing a word over a view, mountains had been a backdrop of his paintings since 1998, when a stark white "The" popped out of the canvas, over snow-topped peaks. You might look at the painting and think, "Why it’s ‘The’ Mountain - the one and only". But what makes this mountain special? Or how about American Tool Supply, emblazoned on picture postcard-worthy snowy peaks. Against their dramatic backdrops, these novel, playful phrases in imposing fonts read like slogans in advertisements. The relationship between the meaning of the text and the visual behind it is at once in question - what is the link between the background and the superimposed words? You can’t possibly know. They’re all puzzles.

Equally, you find yourself viewing the words as objects - intriguing shapes of their own. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” he said of his inspiration. Although, another time Ruscha said: "I often don't know whether I'm painting pictures of words, or pictures with words," which doesn’t really help to solve the mystery.

The Mountain, 1998

American Tool Supply, 2000-01

“I’m dead serious about being nonsensical.”

It’s summed up by the artist himself, who, now 80, still works from LA and whose paintings command the highest prices than ever before (Smash, 1963 sold at Christie’s New York in 2014 for a record-breaking $30.4 million). "The most an artist can do is start something and not give the whole story – that’s where mystery begins."

A PS from PM:

"I first met Ed Ruscha through my daughter, Stella, and since then have visited his studio quite a few times. He is a very easy going, humorous guy and 'of course’ a very skilful painter. His treatments are ingenious and intriguing. Nancy asked Ed to paint a picture for my birthday which uses the phrase 'For Life' which is taken from the song 'My Valentine', which I wrote for her. It is a beautiful picture with the text in his usual deadpan signature style. The lettering font he uses reminds me of art classes I used to take as a teenager in the Liverpool Institute where we learned to write the alphabet in this style and I enjoyed it so much I even offered to do the lettering on one piece of George’s homework! I feel happy to know him and his family and hope you enjoy reading the essay we have put together for the website."

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