Sunday, November 20, 2011

Discovering Ed Ruscha

A few months ago, I saw a feature on "CBS Sunday Morning" about the artist Ed Ruscha. I was surprised I hadn't noticed his art before---my own fault. I'd love to have a print of paintings like "Standard Station, Amarillo Texas" (1963) or "The Canyons" (1979) or the graphite "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" (1964) (or the photographic book), or the painting "Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western" (1963), and others, and I want to look for his art at the MoMA when we're in New York next spring.

Born in 1937, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) is an LA-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, and printmaker. As this article from a recent exhibition in Stockholm indicates, Ruscha has been identified with both pop art and conceptual art, and his work has commonalities with surrealism and Dada, but, according to this article, Ruscha's art isn't wholly identifiable with a particular movement(  He is a contemporary of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, was influenced by artists like Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper, and was featured in very early exhibitions of pop art. His West Coast subject matter makes him an interesting artist in the pop and conceptual art traditions.

After the "Sunday Morning" report I ordered the heavy retrospective history, Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2003). Leafing through the book, I loved the quality of his art explained in the above Moderna Museet article, "Ruscha’s overarching theme is words and their constantly shifting relationships with context and message. In all his paintings there are tensions and frictions at play: between foreground and background, between text and image, and between how words look and what they mean."

Unfortunately, the print in Marshall's Ruscha is small, and gray rather than black---a strain for this middle-aged person---so I'm still dipping into the text as best as I can while enjoying the many reproductions. Meanwhile, I enjoyed an article by Laura Cumming ( Cumming notes how Ruscha "painted words out of context, giving them a non-verbal life of their own as figures in a landscape; and he pictured words as images." "His humour is perennial but it coexists with profundity."

I found another article, an interview with Ruscha by Martin Gayford ( Gaylord writes that Ruscha's work "gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works 'are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence'. They are also sometimes surprisingly funny, in a laconic, Marcel Duchamp-meets-Clint Eastwood sort of way. Ruscha invented an entire artistic genre – one of several in his repertoire – that consists of nothing but words and phrases, floating in vaguely defined space: All You Can Eat, ½ Starved, ½ Crocked, ½ Insane, Chicken Rivets, Girls Girls Girls, Defective Silencer Units, Etc, and – especially ironic in the current circumstances – I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, a pastel from 1979."

As with these other referenced articles, that whole essay and interview are worth reading, with many more insights and discussions that I can summarize. I was interested that Ruscha's friend, with whom he drove Route 66 to California in the 1950s, was the musician Mason Williams, whose pieces "Classical Gas" and "Baroque-a-Nova" have been favorites of mine for over forty years.

In still another article,
, the author writes this: "Born and raised Catholic, Ruscha readily admits to the influence of religion in his work. He is also aware of the centuries-old tradition of religious imagery in which light beams have been used to represent divine presence. But his work makes no claims for a particular moral position or spiritual attitude." As I dig into the Marshall text in the days ahead, this theme is something I'd like to learn more about.

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