The Old Tech-Chem Building, 2003; Courtesy The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica; All images: © Ed Ruscha, 2009 with photography by Paul Ruscha
Opening today at the Hayward Gallery in London is a major retrospective of the work of Ed Ruscha, with paintings by the artist made over the last five decades.
The Back of Hollywood, 1977; Courtesy Collection Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon
Ruscha has been based in Los Angeles throughout his working life, and the influence of the city is strongly evident in his work. “A lot of my life as an artist is inspired by crass commercialism,” he says. “I see that we’re living in a consumerist society that’s pretty messed up, I’m quite cynical about it. I see something that’s really ugly out there, that’s offensive to me, but that maybe has some potential to it.”
Annie, 1962; Courtesy Private Collection
This ambiguity runs throughout Ruscha’s paintings, which are often deeply enigmatic. His work has been slotted into many art movements, from Pop to Dada, but as the Hayward show emphasises, it in fact moves amongst them all, constantly developing over time. From his very earliest paintings – there are works here going back to 1958 which were painted while Ruscha was a student – the influence of graphic design and typography is evident.
Securing The Last Letter, 1964; Courtesy Collection of Emily Fisher Landau, New York
In his early 60s paintings, words became objects or signs, splashed across the canvas. Of this period he comments that “the visual noise of words crammed into commercial magazines and newspapers cried out to have art made of it. I just obliged.” The influence of LA’s movie scene could also be first seen at this time, again a theme that runs through much of Ruscha’s work.
It’s Only Vanishing Cream, 1973; Collection of the artist
Over the following decade, the words became phrases, often referring to banal everyday substances, such as vanishing cream or vaseline, which take on an added mystique when they appear on Ruscha’s canvases. In the 1980s, Ruscha created his own typeface which he titled Boy Scout Utility Modern, used in many works in this period. He began to speak of his word paintings as ‘landscapes’ at this time, and the epic night skies of LA, with their twinkly lights, also began to infiltrate his canvases.
Talk Radio, 1988; Courtesy the collection of Joe Goode and Hiromi Katayama
While nature plays a strong part in his work, as ever with Ruscha, all is not quite as it appears. In the 1990s he created a series of works with idyllic mountain backdrops. For Ruscha, the interest in these mountains is not in their reality but their function as a motif representing the sublime, the ideal. “I’m not a naturalist who goes out there,” Ruscha says of his landscape works. “I’m not that sort of artist – I paint the idea of the mountains.”
The Mountain, 1998; Courtesy Allison and Warren Kanders
Words are often placed in front of the mountains, and Ruscha comments that “I’ve always liked the idea that if you stare at a word long enough it begins to lose its meaning. This is a part of my work, especially when I do a picture of a single word like the word ‘the’ – if you look at it long enough it begins to look funny. It begins to toy with your mind.”
Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, 1962; Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Looking at 50 years of Ruscha’s paintings, certain motifs repeat over the decades, with the use of words and signs appearing throughout (although certainly not on all of his canvases – there are many works at the Hayward without text), alongside an exploration of change or decay. Ruscha acknowledges that he finds change uncomfortable, remarking, “I simply observe the cruelty of progress and make pictures of that.”
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting is on at the Hayward Gallery until January 10, 2010. There will be a number of talks and events related to the exhibition throughout its run – for more info see haywardgallery.org.uk.