(I was fortunate to recognize comparatively early-on the artistic genius of Ed Ruscha. Of course, I cannot but wonder about its current value in light of major retrospectives of his career in London and Venice! ;-)
Edward Ruscha, American artist
May 26th 2005 LOS ANGELES
From The Economist print edition
Edward Ruscha has a way with words — and an ever-growing influence
CALIFORNIA'S biggest urban sprawl is often described as a city of movement rather than monuments, one defined by car culture rather than great architecture or beauty, but Edward Ruscha has found it a source of inspiration for more than 40 years. “Monet had the Seine, I had Route 66,” he says of the interstate highway that led him west from an Oklahoma boyhood to art school in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and whose roadside imagery appears in much of his work. At the time, he seemed to be heading away from the rest of the American art world; the New York school and abstract painting were then at their height. But Mr Ruscha (pronounced Rooshay) felt he had nothing to add to Abstract Expressionism and studied graphic art at a school sponsored by Disney. “It was an enormous freedom to be pre-meditated about my art.”
Today the 67-year-old artist, who refuses to be typecast as either pop or conceptual, has become an unlikely art-world superstar. Long marginalised by the New York establishment, his work has featured in two international touring shows this year. Next month, his work will be seen both in Venice and in London. Mr Ruscha is now regarded, along with Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Bruce Nauman, as one of the four most influential American artists to have emerged in the 1960s. But the artist remains detached about his current fame. In a recent interview at his LA studio (a vast warehouse space filled with paintings, dictionaries, record collections, and piles of newspaper and magazine clippings), he was as happy to chat about restoring his model-T Ford as he was about his work for upcoming shows.
This homely, laid-back attitude is a central part of Mr Ruscha's art. He is equally comfortable working with different media, from painting to print, photography to drawing. But he returns to two central themes: the faded glamour of the Californian dream and the idea that words can be still-lifes. His art mixes Californian sunshine with film noir, and it records in a deadpan way the ubiquitous architecture of this strange paradise. He photographed 26 petrol stations he passed along Route 66 on his way to LA, every building on the Sunset Strip, and many swimming pools, palm trees and car parks. In these books of photographs and other work, he catalogues an American material culture that is so pervasive as to be almost invisible. And he gives everyday places the real Hollywood treatment, presenting them in his paintings in dramatically lit Technicolor.
Mr Ruscha's love of the commonplace is reflected also in his distinctive paintings and drawings of ordinary words and phrases. His painting “Hollywood is a verb” parodies the fleeting nature of LA's movie culture by making it a permanent work of art. On the one hand, this phrase looks like a book or film title; on the other, it sounds like a slogan. Like all of Mr Ruscha's text pieces, this one conjures up a range of possibilities in the mind, eye and ear of the viewer. A word as a work of art, rather than just something to be read, is both strange and familiar—at times even funny—and therein lies the allure. “I am instinctively drawn in my DNA to words”, says Mr Ruscha. They might grab him while he is dreaming, watching a film, reading the newspapers, or listening to the radio (he does not watch television). He sees words as his still-lifes, as three-dimensional objects, and responds to their look and sound before considering their meaning. “Painting a picture of a word is my way of etching it in stone, of making it absolutely official, almost like an epitaph.”
In some cases there is more to it. One of his most successful recent works, “Words without thoughts”, plays with both verbal and visual meanings. This installation in a Miami library consists of a series of paintings of words from the phrase in Shakespeare's Hamlet: “Words without thoughts never to heaven go”. Individual paintings of each word are displayed around the library's rotunda so that viewers encounter them randomly. The phrase has a profound resonance, reminding viewers of the power of well-chosen words at a time when talk is cheap. In a world where the media are awash in spin, where advertising, political sound-bites and reality television provide ever more invidious forms of communication, Mr Ruscha's art—his words with thought—provides an antidote. But he refuses to be drawn on politics or the specific meanings of his work. Mr Ruscha is not reacting to anything tangible, rather he is picking up fragments of meaning from the ether, treating words like a jazz player riffing on a common melody, revealing the rich tonality of something we thought we knew.
Edward Ruscha's work will be shown in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, from June 7th-August 15th. He will also represent America at the Venice Biennale from June 12th-November 6th