Painter, Photographer, Draughtsman, and Conceptual Artist
Summary of Ed Ruscha
For over 50 years, Ed Ruscha has delivered wryly detached portraits of the ephemera of our lives, found deeply embedded within various subcultures, most notably that of Southern California. Through his lens, familiar imagery such as specific architectural gems, common motifs within consumer culture, or font-specific words elevated as objects are bestowed an iconic status. His fodder is often garnered from the environments in which he lives and works, pulling in a mixed bag of visuals from the film and advertising industries as well as a thriving vortex of trends and memes stemming from an area often noted for being the birthplace of "cool." Ed Ruscha is the quintessential Los Angeles artist whose work catapulted Pop art from a form that merely highlighted the universal ordinary into a form in which the ordinary could now be viewed in relation to its geographically intrinsic cultural contexts. In his hands Pop becomes personal.
- Rather than simply painting a word, Ruscha considered the particular font that might add an elevated emotion to the meaning much like the way a poet considers a phrase. By painting a word as a visual, he felt he was marking it as official, glorifying it as an object rather than a mere piece of text.
- Ruscha's skewing of everyday objects with a twist spurs the viewer to look at something ordinary in a new light. This can be seen in his trompe l'oeil word paintings in which oil paint resembles common viscous fluids or, with a touch of humor, in his paintings of LACMA and Norm's - two Los Angeles institutions, both of which he depicts licked with flames.
- The ever-present influence of Hollywood and media machines can be seen in the way Ruscha paints his solitary subjects upon the overall space of the canvas plane. Bold, large words or images floating on vast singular backgrounds mimic the opening screens of movies or fleeting glimpses of roadside billboards that must catch an audience's attention in one compelling instant.
- Ruscha's homage to the ordinary monuments of our lives, seen all around us but typically relegated to background noise, extends beyond the canvas. As seen with his book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations and others, he offers a deadpan look at the common and humble elements that float on our periphery, presented as a form of simple documentation rather than pristine art subject. This furthers the idea of Pop art as a vehicle for pulling out the mundane from its obscurity within our collective consciousness.
- Ed Ruscha believed that photography's potential lay in its use as a means of communicating information and ideas, breaking new ground in his use of the medium for Conceptual Art despite his disinterest in photography as a fine art. Ruscha often arranged his images in groups or sequences presented as books and this approach, exemplified in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, influenced the use of seriality and typology by later artists including Bernd and Hilla Becher and Taryn Simon.
- Ruscha's photography frequently took the American vernacular as its subject, showing the United States as it was encountered in everyday post-war life. Ruscha sought to avoid romanticising his subjects and approached them with an emphasis on concept over representation, arguing that the artwork was almost complete before the images were even taken. Artists including Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Joel Oppenheim drew from Ruscha's approach, capturing everyday environments and breaking compositional rules, combining his conceptual innovation with consideration of photography as an art form.
Biography of Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska to a Roman Catholic family that included his father Edward, mother Dorothy and siblings Paul and Shelby. His father worked as an auditor for an insurance company and his job took the family to Oklahoma City, where they lived for 15 years. Although Edward was very religious and strict, Dorothy was a lover of music, literature, and art, and introduced her children to these features of high culture.
Important Art by Ed Ruscha
View is a collage that acts as a commentary on photography's role in the post-war United States. The central focal point is a silver gelatin print of a painting by Joe Goode, one of Ruscha's housemates, depicting a star above three stripes. This painting, unframed, is photographed against a grey backdrop. This image is mounted with photo corners onto a piece of black paper, which occupies the bulk of the frame, and the word 'VIEW' is written above the painting at the centre while '1960' and 'OCTOBER' provide two additional lines of handwritten text below. This collage is completed by its frame, which is gold and wooden, and by the paint splattered across the glass.
Ruscha differed from contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg in his decision to take his own photographs, rather than using found images, but has frequently dismissed photography as a fine art. Ruscha uses photography as a tool for communication rather than as an end in itself; his emphasis on the organisation of images, through collage or in books, has been tremendously influential. View subtly alludes to ways in which photography was encountered in the mid-century USA, with the black-and-white image of Goode's painting suggesting the reproductions through which art students often encountered canonical works and the photo corners attaching the photograph to the black paper suggestive of a family photo album; this combined references to fine art alongside casual snapshots serves to question the ways in which audiences relate to images and their means of circulation. The splatters of paint across the glass, meanwhile, draw attention to the constructed nature of the photographic image, emphasising the surface as a screen rather than a window into the world. Ruscha used a Yashica 1 ¼ camera to make View and developed the central image in a basement darkroom shared with his housemates; Yashica cameras, requiring the photographer to look down toward a mirror rather than directly at a subject, emphasise the distance between photographer and subject, and this is echoed by Ruscha's treatment of Goode's painting, which is abstracted, flattened and deemphasised as it is transformed into a compositional element.
Ruscha claims that Boss was his first mature painting. It was the first of a long series of word paintings where Ruscha created single-canvas works each featuring a word with strong connotations and a powerful visual impact. Later versions included Honk, Smash, Noise, and Oof. Ruscha later stated that the word "boss" "was a powerful word to me, and it meant various things - an employer, and a term for something cool. Also, a brand of work clothes." Ruscha uses this multiplicity of meaning to encourage the viewer to consider all the subconscious connotations of the word. This could be expanded to an exploration of the subconscious meanings hidden in all forms of language. Art historian Margit Rowell argues that looking at Boss is similar to looking at a billboard from a car window, which is not dissimilar from watching the opening screens of a movie.
Ruscha used thick layers of oil paint to create Boss. His use of impasto and dark-brown and black paint gives the word a heavy visual weight as an image-object as well as a linguistic signifier. It also has what Ruscha has called "a certain comedic value," since there is an element of the surreal or the absurd about placing so much emphasis on a commonplace, mundane word. The painting doesn't take itself too seriously, and is playful as well as thought provoking. Ruscha later said of his work, "I'm dead serious about being nonsensical."
This 48-page booklet entitled Twenty Six Gasoline Stations was inspired by Ruscha's journeys to Oklahoma City from Los Angeles, a road trip he made several times a year to visit his parents. He claimed that the gas stations he encountered along the way became "like a musical rhythm to me - cultural belches in the landscape." He took photographs of the gas stations, stopping the car across the road and getting out to capture them.
He would take the photographs quickly, trying to avoid deliberate or artful compositions, resulting in an anti-artistic style that was to become highly influential with photographers in the future. This deliberate rejection of traditional art photography was intended to make his audience think about why they ascribed aesthetic value to particular visual conventions. He said, "people would look at it and say, 'Are you kidding or what? Why are you doing this?' That's what I was after - the head-scratching."
Although they were taken on journeys, there is no narrative to the final series of images. Instead they have a detached, documentary quality. Critic and director of the Getty Museum Timothy Potts describes them as "deceptively simple," pointing to a deliberate aesthetic choice by Ruscha.
The book was originally released in a self-published edition of 400, which Ruscha sold for $3 each. Building on his experience working with a printing company, he utilized his skill in typesetting and photo offsetting in order to print the book using a professional printing press. The resulting small paperback booklet, with its everyday and unglamorous subject matter, was a deliberate alternative to the glossy, expensive books created by other artists.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Ed Ruscha
- Ed RuschaBy Richard D. Marshall
- Ed Ruscha: PhotographerBy Margit Rowell
- Ed Ruscha's Los AngelesOur PickBy Alexandra Schwartz
- Ed Ruscha: Books and PaintingsBy Armin Zweite
- Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of PaintingOur PickBy Ellroy, Rugoff and Schwartz
- Ed Ruscha and the Great American WestBy Karin Breuer
- Ed Ruscha's LAOur PickBy Calvin Tomkins / The New Yorker / July 1, 2013
- Ed Ruscha: LA's artistBy Jonathan Griffin / The Financial Times / October 30, 2015
- Ed Ruscha: InterviewBy Martin Gayford / The Telegraph / September 25, 2009
- Ed Ruscha on Marcel Duchamp: "He was a guiding light"By Jordan Riefe / The Guardian / March 14, 2016
- Ed Ruscha: "There's room for saying things in bright shiny colors"By Rachel Cooke / The Guardian / September 12, 2010
- Getting There: Ed RuschaBy Matthew Donaldson / Nowness / October 13, 2014
- King of pop art: Why Ed Ruscha's LA-scapes fetch $4mBy Guy Adams / The Independent / October 7, 2011
- Ed Ruscha: A Man of His WordsBy Tom Lubbock / The Independent / October 12, 2009