Whilst in London for the annual Design Festival, I looked around for other events and exhibitions taking place in and around the city at same time and I found that the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was showing a small body of work by the influential American pop-artist Ed Ruscha (b. 1937). The work on show in the exhibition, ‘Course of Empire’, featured 10 paintings of 5 locations with each location being painted twice, once in 1992 and again in 2005: showing the progress of the area, specifically Los Angeles: Ruscha’s home since 1956.
I never formally studied the life and work of Ruscha but I’ve been aware of him and his work since I started paying attention to art. Despite having such a broad and extensive body of work it’s relatively easy to spot a Ruscha in an art gallery or museum and it is this broadness and range of styles which appeal to me, both as an artist and as a graphic designer. I adore his use of traditional painting techniques combined with typography and graphic shapes where he manages to bring in letters and words into his paintings of buildings, landscapes and colour studies in a way that feels right.
This exhibition at the National Gallery encouraged me to look further into the long career and various styles of Ruscha; I wanted to understand how and why he combines painting and letters and what is the meaning to the often ambiguous and abstract phrases in certain pieces. Is there a deeper conceptual meaning to messages like ‘PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL’ and ‘SOME PRETTY EYES AND ELECTRICAL BILLS’, or are these found literature; a visual, painted narrative of 20th and 21st century America.
The combination of painting and words can be traced back to the early cubist painters of Braque and Picasso who added letters into their work through painting and collage. Dada artists also used words but in more humorous and ambiguous ways; Rucha cites Dada as part of his inspiration to use words in his work. Ruscha’s words and phrases play with language to create a sense of humour and excitement through puns, alliteration, onomatopoeia and oxymorons. Even his very early works depict single and simple words in a strong font such as ‘Honk’ (1962) which already suggests the artist’s interest in cars and the motor industry in mid-century, post-war America.
In terms of “type-only work” by Ruscha, his catch-phrase pieces are very recognisable: simple pastel letters on fields of seemingly flat colour and vibrant gradients. These messages and artworks such as ‘PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS’ (1976), ‘ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES”’ (1976) and ‘SMELLS LIKE BACK OF OLD HOT RADIO’ (1976) are painted in highly legible and formal letters but with the quirky phrases, create an appealing image. They are also reminiscent of film titles, especially ‘ARTISTS WHO MAKE PIECES’ with its sunset-like background; it feels very Los Angeles: the words being Hollywood film titles and the sunset being the west-coast sunshine.
There is perhaps a deeper meaning to these film title-like images as they could be a comment on the mass-media of films and advertising; specifically since Ruscha was living in Los Angeles, home of Hollywood, when he made these. In a somewhat alternative Pop-Art style, the words don’t necessarily look painted but printed; something that can be repeated and reproduced endless times, however unlike Warhol’s Pop-Art pieces, Ruscha’s are a unique creation from his hand using pastels and paper stencils.
'ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS', Edward Ruscha, 1976 | Tate
The white words 'ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS' stand out against an intensely dark black pastel background, giving this drawing…
'I PLEAD INSANITY BECAUSE I'M JUST CRAZY ABOUT THAT LITTLE GIRL', Edward Ruscha, 1976 | Tate
This drawing's ten-word title is arranged over six precisely centred lines of either one or two words that read across…
s well as finding words in his surroundings, the words Ed Ruscha uses in his work also come from books which “occasionally suggest images to him”.
“I read what I want to read. I think most people do that. Or I read what I want to see. I’ve done a few paintings using verbatim words from certain sections of books. Of course the words I use come from every source. Sometimes they happen on the radio and sometimes in conversations. I’ve had ideas come to me literally in my sleep and I tend to believe on blind faith, that I feel obliged to use.”
Ruscha is an avid admirer of the renowned British writer J.G. Ballard and has said that Ballard “cuts open the belly of what’s going on and everything falls out”. The work Ballard wrote was fiction associated with an unpleasant, dystopian modernity including bleak man-made landscapes and the “psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”.
Ruscha uses text from Ballard’s 1975 novel ‘High Rise’ in his ‘The Music from the Balconies’ piece. A painting depicting an epic grassland scene with flora, rolling hills and sky laden with pink and orange clouds implying a sunset or sunrise. The words over the top: ‘THE MUSIC FROM THE BALCONIES NEARBY WAS OVERLAID BY THE NOISE OF SPORADIC ACTS OF VIOLENCE’ in Boy Scout Utility Modern, a font created by Ruscha as a “no-style” font.
Ruscha described this painting as an ‘illustration’ of some of the novel’s themes and ideas and whilst not directly representing the urban setting in Ballard’s ‘High-Rise, the painting creates an intriguing visual analogue for some of the psychological tensions that are apparent in the novel. The contrast between of pastoral imagery and clean-cut, modern font reveal the fight between man and nature that which appears throughout ‘High-Rise’.
The pairing itself is like an act of violence, overlaying the wordy and unsettling quote over a tranquil landscape. There are several of these kinds of paintings; each doing and exploring the same idea and in the process; creating a highly visual and drawing composition.
To Ruscha, “words have no size”. Throughout his 60 year career Ruscha has documented the state of America through photography, painting and words. His work is an archive of 20th century America and has developed over time based on experience and happenings in the country. No doubt he will continue to document the country and all that is happening, especially now in these tumultuous times.