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THe ArTisT’s sTudio ed ruscha, having just finished a painting at his studio in Venice, california, in 2006. round his neck is a mask to protect against the fumes from his air spray paint gun


Poetry of art with his depiction of californian life and witty juxtaposition of phrases and images, the american artist ed ruscha has been intriguing his audience for half a century photography Laura Wilson | words Ben Lewis


d Ruscha has spent much of his life painting words (though that’s not all he paints, draws and photographs). He’s made paintings of famous logos like the Hollywood sign, and of everyday phrases like ‘Not a bad world is it?’ and of strange puns like ‘Chili Draft’. When I spoke to him, he had just found a nice new combination of words. ‘Bliss Bucket,’ he says to me happily, ‘I like that. It has a kind of fist-clenching strength to it. And I suppose that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t have to be analysed necessarily; it just stands for its own power. I forget where I heard it, if I ever did. Maybe it came to me in a dream.’ Alongside Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and a few others, Ed Ruscha is a leading member of the generation of American Pop artists who came to prominence in the early Sixties. Each worked on different materials in a different way. Warhol did screenprints of celebs and newspaper photos, Lichtenstein focused on comic strips, and Rosenquist worked in the style of billboards. Ed Ruscha’s shtick was simple American words and icons, that always

somehow seemed to be seen from a passing car. In fact the whole of Ed Ruscha’s 50-year career has the feel of a road movie. Born in 1937, Ruscha studies fine art and commercial design at the forerunner of the California Institute of the Arts in LA in the late Fifties, while also working as a typesetter. His artistic career begins, appropriately, cruising city streets. He paints flattened boxes of Sun-Maid raisins in 1961, as if his tyres were squashing them into the Tarmac. He paints the name of a cartoon strip character ‘Annie’ (1962), and the word ‘Boss’ several times. ‘“Boss” was one of the first word paintings I did, and I think that came about because there were multiple meanings to that word,’ he recalls. ‘There was one “Boss” which was someone you worked for. “Boss” was also another way of saying “cool” in 1959. People would say “Hey, that’s boss”. And it was also the name of a clothing label for workmen, for Levi’s and Boss was like a blue-collar work clothes brand.’ Then Ruscha switches on his ‘Radio’ (1964), a painting in which the big hoarding-style letters of the word are comically squeezed by small workshop clamps. In 1966, Ruscha stops for gas, producing one of his best known works, a portrait of an American petrol station, ‘Standard Station’. The angle is low, as if we have driven in and are looking up through the windscreen. It’s cleanly graphic, like an architectural drawing. This picture is about an icon of post-war America, but, the petrol station has become the basis for a flat slice of constructivist geometry. Ruscha explains simply: ‘I’m a combination of an abstract artist and someone who deals with subject matter.’ As the years speed past, Ruscha produces series after innovative series, using words but in strikingly different ways. He makes influential books of photographs in the Sixties, alongside his paintings. Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a revolutionary artist’s book which draws attention to a random number of petrol stations on American highways. He follows it with Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Then come swimming pools, parking lots and so on. Ruscha seems to be searching for an emptiness of meaning – something that looks like a book, and feels like one, yet does not serve the purpose that books had hitherto served. Ruscha has a favourite road movie, Vanishing Point, from 1971, in which Kowalski, a car delivery service employee, drives an old Dodge to San Francisco. He breaks the speed limit and the cops give chase. Along the way he tunes into a blind DJ with a police radio scanner, who helps him evade capture. ‘He breaks the speed laws,’ Ruscha tells me, ‘so the law is after him and somehow radio stations get hold of this guy that’s



have to make any curves in the letters, and so if you had an R or an O it was all made up of straight lines so that made it very easy. Then I just kind of stuck with it.’ Ruscha’s road trip never ends but instead loops back on itself – like the track race at the climax of classic road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). In 2005, Ruscha presented ‘Course of Empire’ at the Venice Biennale, when he returned to the industrial buildings and warehouses he’d painted in 1992, and recorded their changed logos against glowering skies. Why do you like the road so much? I ask. He says: ‘Probably like a mountain climber, I’d say I climb it because it’s there.’ Ruscha’s oeuvre is not restricted to the road and the word. A landmark work, painted

he developed his own angular typeface that recalled welded metal

font of knowledge Ruscha has perfected his own, instantly recognisable typeface, above. In 2009, he donated his work ‘Uh Oh’, top, to be auctioned in aid of Laurence Graff’s charity FACET, which helps African children. Opposite page: Ruscha has an eclectic collection of music to listen to in the studio, top. One of his iconic Standard gas station works, ‘Burning Gas Station’, painted in 1966, bottom

running from the law and he becomes a folk hero for attempting to outrun the law. And it also had a lot to do with just driving on the road, just what I like to do.’ In the mid-Eighties, the artist finally hits the open road, painting slogans such as ‘A Particular Kind of Heaven’ against ironically romantic sunsets. In later decades he heads up into the mountains, writing odd phrases like ‘Baby Jet’ or ‘American Tool Supply’, which seems lifted from a hardware catalogue, over panoramas of snow-capped peaks. ‘The mountains are a way of suggesting some kind of heroic thought within a picture plane,’ says Ruscha. For these pictures he had developed his very own angular typeface that recalled welded metal – ‘I wanted to arrive at some sort of “can’t-go-wrong” typeface. So I imagined a kind of graphically inept person making an alphabet for a poster, where you didn’t

in the late Sixties, depicted the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on fire. It’s an oddly confrontational image considering Ruscha’s warm embrace from the art world, but it’s also a sign of the other notable quality of his art – his rebellious streak. At the tail end of the Sixties, Ruscha executed a strange series in which pills – amphetamines, tranquillisers and painkillers – floated in expanses of space. ‘Pills represented to me something that could be dangerously edgy, and I liked them also for their visual properties; they were tiny and potent.’ The pills are painted exactly life-size. ‘I was doing it at the same time that other artists were taking small objects and blowing them up real big. So I wanted to focus on the faithfulness of the object and just paint that.’ In the late Eighties, Ruscha painted nostalgic subjects for the first time, plucking out images from the black and white matinee films of America in the Fifties: lines of wagons from Westerns, and the silhouettes of sailing ships, yet painted as if seen through fog. ‘These images are based on what you might see in a book and so you are one step removed from the reality. I’m painting the idea of a ship. Marine painters have always been artists that loved the sea and being on ships. I’m the furthest you can be from that. I’m not very interested in sailing or ships.’ Even in these shadowy images, words are not entirely absent. Crude white oblongs lie across parts of some images, as if the artist was blocking out text. The climax of the series is a painting of the last frame of an old movie that reads ‘The End’. The image is at once an American icon, an affectionate depiction of the scratchy surface of old film, and a symbol of death. ‘I grew up on


black and white movies,’ says Ed Ruscha, ‘and I always appreciated those scratches and pops – the little irregularities that happened that weren’t supposed to happen – I started to mimic those. Now movies in the future are not going to have those scratches, so I also look at that as affecting my art in the sense that 40, 50 years from now, people will look back and say, what does that mean? So I’m in a sense painting a lost cause.’ And yet, American icons and Pop Art are half of Ed Ruscha’s art. His work is also a philosophical investigation of the way images and words, the two tools that man uses to communicate and make art, create meanings. Look at one of his pictures for a long time, and you might feel a certain fuzziness, even


‘i just find myself nodding towards things that don’t make a lot of sense’ frustration, in your head, while at the same time a wry smile crosses your face. It’s a reaction you might have when you look at ‘Steel’, in which the title word is photorealistically painted as if it is liquid on a surface. And it’s the sensation you might have when you read ‘Faith’ (1972), painted in bright white italic capitals against an infinitely receding mysterious background of red and black. That is because Ruscha is playing with the different ways that images and words function – and the pleasure and cleverness of his works comes from these games. Sometimes Ruscha works with contradictions – in ‘Hell Heaven’ (1989) he writes ‘Hell’ above an upside-down ‘Heaven’, creating a visual, verbal reversal of the normal spiritual order. At other times, he works with visual literalism. In ‘Scream’ (1964), he writes the word contrastingly in black on a bright yellow ground. But then shards of the yellow cross into the lettering, threatening to obliterate it, the colour equivalent of a searingly loud noise – a scream. Ruscha’s painting of the back of the Hollywood sign (‘The Back of Hollywood’, 1977) is different again – a symbol that suggests another dark side to the glamour of Hollywood. It’s a meaning that can only be conveyed by an image. You can never write the back of a word; yet here, of course, Ruscha has painted the back of the word, creating a meaning that language can never have. Not that Ruscha has steeped himself in dense books about semiotics or, what philosophers call the phenomenology of visual perception. Rather, the impulse comes from Ruscha, the contrarian, the artist who delights in experiencing those moments when meaning breaks down. ‘I just seem to find myself nodding towards things

taking inspiration A collection of framed images in Ruscha’s studio, including a portrait of a young Ed and his sister, and one of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, top. ‘Boxer’, one of Ruscha’s sunset paintings, from 1979, right

that don’t make a lot of sense,’ he says. ‘I’m kinda treading on eggshells here, but I also feel like I don’t need to make any particular type of sense…’ The artist laughs, continuing, ‘I’m happy to be in a vocation where incoherency can actually be a virtue. I feel we’re lucky. Artists can get away with murder. When you build a house all the nails have to go into the right places. When you build a painting, all the nails can go into all the wrong places and it can be a great painting.’ Ed Ruscha is represented by the Gagosian Gallery,

Ed Ruscha  

Ed Ruscha interviewed in Graffiti AW10