It seems that all the elements of Ed Ruscha's mature style derive clearly from his formative experiences as an artist.
When he was first trying to make a name for himself in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, he knew that the problem of pronouncing his name would be a barrier, so he printed business cards that spelled it out phonetically: (Ed - werd Rew - shay).
Ruscha was born in Omaha (in 1937), but he was raised in Oklahoma City. His father was an auditor for an insurance company, and there were two other children in the Roman Catholic family. He showed an interest in cartooning at an early age, and his artistic talent was encouraged. When he was 18, in 1956, he and his friend Mason Williams, who later became a famous composer and guitarist, drove to Los Angeles in a 1950 Ford Sedan.
We can imagine him, still in his teens, at the peak of vulnerability to new impressions heading to California, a sort of promised land, in the footsteps of Okies and prospectors and pioneers of the previous century. Many of his most famous themes and images derived from that road trip, which he repeated many times in order to visit his family in Oklahoma City.
A road trip is inevitably dominated by gas stations, especially in those days, and by long hours of flat land and big skies, by signs and billboards, and by stories and dreams. Likewise, Ruscha's work is dominated by gas stations, sunsets, and signs, but he stripped these images of all sentimentality, all detail, all texture, all personality. The trip itself was almost incidental. What grabbed his imagination was the constant stream of words coming down the highway, and how their placement in the real world affected their meaning. He was one of the first artists to make words their primary subject, a trend that now includes several others. He once said, “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again.”
When he got to Los Angeles, he was impressed by the glitter and speed of the Hollywood-driven cultural life, but he was also sensitive to a certain phoniness. He dwelt on symbols in the local culture, but his attitude was always ambivalent, which led to sly humor.
In L.A., Ruscha attended Chouinard Art Institute, which is now known as the California Institute of the Arts, and made friends with several talented artists. His training was rooted in commercial art, and he began his career as a layout artist for an advertising agency, and later for a magazine. However, he pursued personal art projects at the same time, and he was soon able to become a full-time artist.
Through October 9, 2016, the De Young Museum in San Francisco is hosting an exhibition of his works called "Ed Ruscha and the Great American West" which shows words and scenes related to the road trip and to Hollywood.
The only problem with this exhibit is that it gives the impression of an orderly artist with a conscious plan, whereas a little research on his career shows that his creativity is so profuse and uninhibited that it seems compulsive. In addition to painting, drawing and printmaking, he also worked in photography and film. For instance, he published a book called Every Building on the Sunset Strip, which included a photo of every building in a 2 1/2 mile stretch of the famous boulevard. Later he photographed the entire length of Hollywood Boulevard with a motorized camera. This exhibit is mainly paintings and prints, but, similarly, each work is actually part of a long series on the same theme.
Although Ruscha soon rejected commercial art as a career path, he continued using its techniques and its flat, machine-made look, and to apply it to various aesthetic goals. He was associated with Pop Art before it even had a name because he was interested in the signs and symbols used in street advertising. He was part of a new direction in art that dealt with the observable world, as opposed to the opposing trend of exposing the inner world through Abstract Expressionism, which was dominant at the time.
Minimalism is expressed in Ruscha's work by strong geometry and extreme simplification of forms, as well as by his works in a series, exploring variations of a simple theme. Often his works include oddball juxtapositions, which stimulate thoughts far beyond the canvas, like Conceptual art or Surrealism. He broke the mold of high seriousness in art by introducing a certain light-hearted skepticism. He says, "Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head," and his does.
In one of his first famous images, he uses the elements of graphic design—simplification, geometry, even rays like searchlights—to focus all our attention on the word "Standard," with all its possible ramifications on the road. The gas station glows and beckons in the dark night like a temple or a nightclub, but the scene is so flat that what matters is the geometry of the black triangle, the red rectangles, the white space and the yellow rays. It reminds me of the spare geometry of Piet Mondrian and Ellsworth Kelly.
|Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963|
|Burning Gas Station, 1965-66|
|The Back of Hollywood, 1977|
|Western, with Two Marbles, 1969|
|A Particular Kind of Heaven, 1983|
|Honey…I Twisted Through More Damned Traffic to Get Here, 1984|
|Blue Collar Tires, 1992|
|The Old Tool & Die Building, 2004|
|La Brea, Sunset, Orange, De Longpre, 1999|
|God Knows Where, 2014|
|Pahrump Signage, c. 2003|
|Pahrump Signage, c. 2003, photo|
Over the years, several of Ruscha's paintings have been occupied with the words "The End," as in the end of the movie, or the end of the book, or maybe the end of the world. He looks for images that use minimal means to express this idea. In this early example, he uses a reflection of a window on the floor. My photo is complicated by the glass over the image which reflected my iPad and the paintings across the room (and a slant due to a glitch).
|The Absolute End, 1982|
In the next example he actually uses Gothic letterforms, and yellow marks that first look like flames, but then subside to dried grasses.
|The Final End, 1991-1992|
|Rusty Signs – Dead End 2, 2014|