Go See – London: Ed Ruscha at the Hayward Gallery through January 10, 2010

November 2nd, 2009

Los Angeles County Museum on Fire,(1965 – 1968) Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © Ed Ruscha 2009 Photography: Lee Stalsworth. All images in this article are by Ed Ruscha.

The Hayward Gallery, in London’s Southbank Centre, is currently hosting the UK’s first major retrospective of the leading Californian artist Edward Ruscha. The exhibition is comprised entirely of paintings – by highlighting this medium in a multidisciplinary oeuvre testifies to Ruscha’s influence on it.  After all, in 1956 Ruscha enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles, intending to train as a commercial artist, but this course was diverted somewhat after taking complementary fine art classes: this truth is made greatly evident in this exhibition in which the works hover at an interesting crossroads where graphic design meets Conceptualism in painting.

Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962) via The Guardian

More text, images and related links after the jump…

Annie (1962) via The Guardian

Ruscha’s interest in typography, book production and advertising is prolific and central to these works. Through his plundering of popular culture he references and his love affair with LA, the city he described as “the ultimate cardboard cut out town.” Ruscha’s work weaves a strong thread with American post-war modernity, so much so that this body of work is often described as a “portrait of American culture”.

OOF, Ed Ruscha (1962-1963) via The Guardian

The prevalent theme in this exhibition is words – their design, meaning and context. In his works from the early 1960s, Ruscha proves that paintings are not mute. Brief, big, bold words like “NOISE” and “OOF” make onomatopoeic visuals that reverberate around the gallery in bold shapes and colours that are as punchy as the spoken word. “The visual noise of words crammed into commercial magazines and newspapers cried out to have art made of it,” he commented, “I just obliged.”

As in English Drama or Oily, the aesthetic beauty of lettering is manipulated by Ruscha to make visual puns. It could be said that with Ruscha’s wordings the devil’s in the detail: for two paintings, Faith and Purity, referencing his Roman Catholic upbringing, Ruscha chose a typeface designed by Giambattista Bodoni, typesetter in the Vatican‘s printing works. When he became temporarily dissatisfied with using paint, he used household products and organic substances, such as drink or bodily fluids to stain longer phrases onto canvases.

It’s Only Vanishing Cream (1973) via The Guardian

The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) via The Guardian

His love of lettering culminates in monumental canvases where words become landscapes – in a literal way with The Back of Hollywood (1977) to the subtler A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983). The changing backgrounds from generic sunsets to the Paramount Pictures-esque mountain act like scene changes in a movie where words are the protagonists. Ruscha explains: “Words are pattern-like and in their horizontality they answer my investigation into landscape. They’re almost not words – they’re objects that become words.”

The Back of the Hollywood, Ed Ruscha (1977) via The Guardian

The importance of graphical structure in his student works, 1938 and E. Ruscha, is irrefutable, but the influence of Abstract Expressionism (taught in his fine art classes) creates a tension between what is construct and what is chance. Ruscha said that his work “had to be planned and preconceived, or rather wondered about, before being done.” This is true even of the “mistake” positioning of the ‘HA’ in ‘RUSCHA’ in the latter work. Yet the handling of the paint in these instances is almost wholly in line with Abstract Expressionism. In this vein, the precisionist perfection one gleans from a photograph of Ruscha’s work belies the presence of the artist’s hand that we see in reality.

Later, in 1986, Ruscha began a series of silhouette paintings, returning again to Abstract Expressionism, in this instance the work of Franz Kline. However he rejects Kline’s energetic and resounding brushstrokes in favour of a “strokeless” mist emitted from a spray gun. He explained it thus: “I’m doing this because I’m tired of brushstrokes…I wanted something smokey and difficult to see.”

Untitled (1986)

Securing The Last Letter, 1964 Courtesy Collection of Emily Fisher Landau, New York © Ed Ruscha, 2009 Photography: Paul Ruscha

Ruscha, despite acknowledging the figurative nature of his work, insists the genesis of it is abstract art. Obvious in this exhibition is the ambiguity of his practise; a tension between figurative and abstract graphic pattern, high and low culture, design and art, the individual hand versus the machine, that is the essence of Pop Art. In fact he ironically commented that he felt “newspapers, magazines, books and words to be more meaningful than what some damn oil painter was doing.”

Related Links:
Ed Ruscha: 50 years of painting, Hayward Gallery, London
[The Independent]
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting at the Hayward Gallery, SE1 [Times UK]
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting [The Guardian]
Ed Ruscha, Hayward [Time Out]
Movie director David Lynch on artist Ed Ruscha [Times UK]