Ed-Werd Rew-Shay: That Strange Red Afternoon
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was - I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon”.
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957).
With a prolific career of more than 50 years long, the octogenarian American artist Ed Ruscha could be introduced in multiple and diverse ways. Nevertheless, the most recurrent one lead us to a fundamental travel he made at the age of nineteen: “In 1956, Ed Ruscha and his high-school friend, the future musician Mason Williams, drove from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles in a 1950 Ford sedan. That approximately 1.350-mile journey, which roughly followed Route 66 through western Oklahoma, North Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and into the California basin, was ‘a big trip for a couple of teenagers who didn’t know much about nothing’, as Ruscha remembers it”. This shorter adventure, more prudent, organized and conservative than the one of Sal Paradise, the metacharacter of Jack Kerouac in his celebrated novel On the Road (1957), marked his whole practice. Not only because it informed most of his future works but also because it constitutes the lifetime decision of staying in the city of Los Angeles, his muse, habitat and eternal case of study. In this essay, first, I will analyze those strong bounds with the idea of journey and travel, as a personal inspiration and a literary and cinema genre. Secondly, I will examine how Los Angeles, the mecca of the Hollywood film industry, became a theme, a character and a major influence on Ruscha’s work since the 1960’s until today. And finally, I’m interested in his continuous use of words and short sentences, not necessarily as a pop or conceptual practice but rather as another form of closed captions.
As cliché as it main sound, the early story of Ed Ruscha fits pretty well in the romantic idea of the young traveler and its initiatory journey. It was the summer of 1954, two years before his three-day trip to L.A., at 14 years old, that he undertook a first hitchhiking trip to Florida. A large map with the exact places that he traversed at that moment still hangs at his studio, confirming his interest in movement and adventure. Similar to this document is a detailed expense log, showing a list of miles and fuel prices, that he also saved from the road trip with Manson and which is surprisingly neat and organized, especially if you take into account that it was made by two adolescents. It seems that he knew, intuitively, that at some point those documents were going to become important for him. And they did. Because nine years later Ruscha decided to publish his first book of photographs, Twenty Gasoline Stations (1963), a very simple, diary style, small book, where he showed the solitary structures of those oasis-like buildings along the route between Oklahoma and Los Angeles. As he states in an interview with Michael Auping: “I wasn’t interested in writing a story. So, the gas stations as a set of factual pictures basically gave me an excuse to make a small book. They were more like fact-images I collected as I was driving”, which is a very similar exercise as the index of distances and prices, but made with images. This point out three relevant facts.
First of all, the importance of the photography as a testimony of a present moment that can illuminate us about the future. This, meaning that Ruscha was at the same time attracted to the characteristics of those isolated structures in the 60’s but, also, predicting how they might change in the upcoming years, due to the American development of the automobile industry and therefore the routes and infrastructures of The U.S., after World War II. For that reason, he continued, probably until today, to take pictures of other gas stations just like he did before publishing the book.
The second important fact of this work is the invisible presence of the car as a mode of transportation, as a point of view and as a travelling camera, which has been a major issue for Ruscha along his life and career. In many interviews and studio visits recorded by journalists, critics or artists interested in his work, the image of him driving around the city, or showing an old 1939 black Ford that he owns, always appear. That presence is so intense that you even imagine the window of a car as if it was the frame, or a mirror screen, of most of his images. This reminds me to the writings of the English art critic, essayist and novelist, John Berger, in particular, the ones about his fascination for motorcycles, which could be a good analogy to Ruscha visions –also represented in one of his other books, Royal Road Test (1967)–. “The air and the wind press directly on you. You are in the space through which you are travelling. Your contact with the outside world is more intimate. You’re more conscious of the road surface, its subtle variations, its potholes, whether it’s dry or damp, of mud or gravel… Every contour line on the map of the country you’re driving through means your axis of balance has changed…This perception is visual but also tactile and rhythmic. Often your body knows quicker than your mind”, explained Berger.
Finally, the third important fact that might be deduced from Twenty-Six Gas Stations, as well as the two documents that he saved from his first road trip, is his rational, methodic and organized way of working. Which is the wide difference with the character of Sal Paradise and with his contemporary colleagues from the abstract expressionism movement, the predominant style when he was a student at Chouinard (now California Institute of the Arts). As he stated to Dave Hickey in the early 80’s: “They would say, face the canvas and let it happen, follow your own gestures, let the painting create itself. But I’d always have to think something first. If I didn’t, it wasn’t art to me. Also, it looked really dumb. They wanted to collapse the whole art process into one act; I wanted to break it into stages, which is what I do now. First, whatever I’m going to do is completely premeditated, however off-the-wall it might be. Then it’s executed, you know, fabricated…”. This opposite attitude to the spirit of that moment was premonitory too, since CalArts became, two decades later, one of the educational institutions that defended the conceptual and theoretical approach to the visual arts practice. Besides that, there is an interesting relation between this process and the way filming is produced. I’m referring here to the different stages required for the realization of a movie –script, pre-production, production, filming, post-production and distribution–, which seems to fit the logic of Ruscha. The best example, or even a direct illustration of this, is his movie Miracle (1975) where he shows the routine of a mechanic that instead of getting dirty while he works on the engine of a Ford Mustang, actually gets gradually cleaner and sleeker. The same happens with the place itself which, by the end of the film, looks more similar to a science laboratory than a mechanic workshop. This is a direct critic to the procedures and mystification of the abstract expressionists, as well as a statement on the importance of planning, managing times and professionalizing the art practice without denying the inherent romanticism of the artist, very present in Ruscha’s philosophy of life. In a few words, his impulse comes from ideas of freedom, personal experiences and sensitive observations –similar to XIX century expeditioners in South America or a character like Christopher McCandless’s in the non-fiction chronicle Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer–, but mediated by a very rational methodology and a sharp sense of edition.
Established in Los Angeles since 1956, it is impossible not to tie Ed Ruscha’s practice to the evolution of this city, its landscape, economical grow and cultural characteristics –strongly tied to entertainment and film industry–. His own words reflect the positive impact of the first encounter: “I liked the aggressive architectural activity that was happening in Los Angeles at that time, modern, sleek things, you know, with ski jump roofs and things like that were very jazzy to me. The vegetation of it, and the ocean, and the sunsets, and the sunrises, and the desert… and even things that were manmade. And so that included the sort of crass commercial noise that happens in a big city”. He was so in love with his new city that it became a recurrent motif and a source for his ongoing ideas and projects.
The first work that we can take into consideration about this unbreakable relationship is a 299 ½ in. accordion, bound into a book and titled Every building on the Sunset Strip (1966), which literally shows a two-mile segment of the famous boulevard of Los Angeles, between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The long horizontal strip of black and white photographs, collaged to each other in a continuous view, shows the different kind of stores, buildings, apartments, cars, advertising panels, crossing streets and vegetation, that stand next to the sidewalk. There are no persons in all the composition. The way Ruscha managed to make this was starting very early in the morning and settling a small-format camera to the back of a truck while someone else was driving. The shots were made continuously, using a camera motor, in a similar way as we would do a stop-motion animation. This technique, or trick, is clearly borrowed from the film industry and reminds us the use of a dolly. At the same time, the result has the appearance of a film tape, photographic negatives or a flat recreation of the road, since the photographs are heading up and down with a blank space in the middle of the frieze-like layout. There is in the use of the word “strip” (in the title) an evident commentary on both the street and the film roll. In addition, according to an analysis on occasion of the exhibition Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles apartments in the Kupferstichkabinett Kunstmuseum Basel in 2013, this work is clearly related to pre-cinematic machines: “In 19th century Europe and later in the United States, it was the advent of the railroad that largely motivated the making of panorama pictures with views of special sights playing an increasingly larger role. Ruscha may well have been inspired by 19th century panoramas in books of comparable size with a foldout and presented in a slipcase.” This mechanism is close to the zoetrope that produces the illusion of motion by displaying a sequence of drawings or photographs showing progressive phases. Furthermore, Ruscha and his brother continued every three years until our days, to take pictures of the street, documenting all the changes and variations that the buildings have suffered. This ongoing archive was acquired by the Getty Research Center, which keeps receiving the latest takes. In those, we can notice the proliferation of signs, lights, screens and giant ads, in contraposition to the city’s trademark: the palm trees. His ongoing routine and observation of the mundane reminds me of the writing exercises of the French writer Georges Perec and also the work A Casing Shelved (1970), by Michael Snow.
While for many artists Los Angeles and its cool vibes, easy going lifestyle, warm weather and the cult of celebrities and entertainment can become a distraction, for Ed Ruscha, it was the opposite. He managed to find the sophisticated idiosyncrasy of that urban landscape and use it to his favor. I’m referring here to all the series of books on apartments, parking lots, signs, swimming pools, palm trees and streets but, especially, to a very particular fixation on the perspective and compositional structure of the light projections in Hollywood events and glamorous galas. This obsession can be better understood in one of his first paintings, View of the Big Picture (1963), in which he reproduces the logo of the film studio 20th Century Fox with a variation of its point of view. Instead of showing the traditional plunging angle with a slight rotation to the left, he builds a composition with one perspective point at the right bottom of the frame, resulting in a kind of projected logo, that then became recurrent in multiple other works such as the numerous Standard gasoline stations, Norm’s La Cienaga, Asphalt jungle, Western horizontal, Uphill driver, Bamboo Pole or Wonder Bread. What is thrilling about this treatment of the two-dimensional space is the reference to Hollywood, to a camera lens, to the use of a projector and to the classic scene of a train coming towards the camera. Hollywood industry is omnipresent and directly addressed in every Hollywood sign that Ruscha made, which is the obvious connection. But he went further and played with the crowded scenario of celebrity’s receptions, including the lights directed to the sky and the photographic angle of the cameras to make everybody looks bigger in the red carpet, that are embedded in many of his works. The same way it’s evident that he is exaggerating the perspective direction in a view that can only be generated by the mediation of a camera lens. These concurrent lines that he uses to draw a shadow, a building, or a sign, are timidly suggested in the gas stations shots as well as in the apartments series. But ironically, it is through the traditional medium of drawing and painting that he happens to reinforce that photographic sensation. On the other side, we can see how he is referring to the projection of light from a film projector, which was the main research of one of his contemporaries from New York, Anthony Mc Call, in his piece Line describing a cone (1973). This interest for light is also present, less metaphorically, in works like Uncertain frontier (1987) or previously, in Miracle (1977), which also cannot be separated from Edward Hopper's scenes with windows or a painting like Gas (1940). Finally, those compositions, if they were highly contrasted, will become exactly as the silhouette of a train that is coming directly into the camera, which is one of the foundational images of time-based works. This is explained by Ruscha in a conversation with Kerry Brougher back in 2015: “I’d like to see somebody make a study of that (locomotives rushing by in the film frame) and find the number of movies made where there’s a sequence with a passenger train or a freight train that comes from almost an invisible point in the distance and then just screams into the picture in the form of speed, with the locomotive creating a diagonal slash across the picture plane. It was usually tied into the story where a couple is going from one city to another. And there is a bridge, of course, and one simple little cinematic shot of a train crossing it, moving from one town to another. My initial interest in this rectangular format graduated to something more along the lines of a ‘Panavision’ panorama format”. Lumiere’s film, Arrival of a train at La Ciotat (1896), would be the most recognizable example of his description. In a few words, it is evident that Ruscha’s work, that has always been related to pop art, also responds to a sharp analysis of the city and its strong link to the film industry. Even if he wasn’t doing movies he could be placed along many artist and filmmakers that used the urban space as their big and extended studio, just as explains the critic Paul Arthur in his text The Redemption of the City.
At this point, we could say that Ruscha, highly influenced by cinema, structured a significant body of work mainly informed by his travels and the city that welcomed him. Nevertheless, there is a missing clue in the equation: the continuous use of words and language. Attracted to signs, titles, ads and many other short forms of popular culture copy’s, Ruscha’s has also been playing with text in three different ways that I would like to name titles/call to action, meta-messages and post-structural poems which all, for me, are other forms of closed captions.
Oof, gas, flash, ace, noise, Annie, damage or adios are part of the first group. Short words that vary between being an onomatopoeia, a name, a noun or a verb, painted over a flat and neutral surface of color with random objects or elements alongside –a magazine, an olive, a door or a fire flame–. If we think of this, in relation to cinema, we could say that they are like the titles or chapters of a movie. “The painting presents us with a syntactical joining of three disparate but roughly synonymous objects performing the same action in some kind of significant space, a situation that invites the viewer so inclined to make a sentential reading, to look beyond the objects for whatever meanings they might embody”, explains Anne Livet in her text Introduction: Collage and Beyond. It’s a similar approach to the famous painting by the surrealist artist René Magritte, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1928-1929), where the artist is opening a new dimension of meaning and ideas through the use of language, in contraposition to the image. If we try to imagine this same exercise in a movie what will happen is that the viewer has to choose whether concentrate in the text, the image or on both, as a whole. This mental procedure is similar to the cuts by opposition introduced by Sergei Einsenstein around the 20’s. I also think that there is a link to the works by Hollis Frampton Zorn’s Lemma (1970) or Baldessari’s Teaching a plant the alphabet (1972). While Frampton remembers us how those signs in the streets lose their linguistic meaning because of their context, Baldessari is making us imagining all the possible words that begin with each letter. Similarly, Ruscha is re-signifying each word.
The second group of words, that I call meta-messages, are the ones that make part of the subject represented in the image itself, such as the sign of the gas station Standard, Norm’s (The restaurant) as well as in the package of crackers in his second movie Premium (The crackers). While they are referring to the brands and popular identity of the 3 different products or services, which is the first reading of those pieces as examples of pop art, they also have a meaning, a hidden message. According to Dave Hickey in the first two words that I’m highlighting, there is an institutional critic related to a third piece, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965-68). What Ruscha is saying is that the Norms are also the rules, the bureaucracy, the procedures and Standard meaning the usual, the accepted, the regular ones. Strangely enough, the three places depicted in this works are on fire. “On my way back to the hotel I decided that no artist was so in love with Magritte that he would set a service station, a restaurant, and the Los Angeles County Museum on fire. Then I realized that the L.A. County was in the business of ‘norms and standards’ and that I had probably been wrong about the standard station. It wasn’t a standardized station but a station which dispensed standards, like a restaurant which served norms, or a museum which did both”. In this same direction, the film Premium, which has the structure of a Television ad, is reminding us the promises of advertising and how a cheap and insignificant product will, supposedly, benefit the consumer. The artist is revealing the absurdity and veiled signification of those words.
The last group is a more open game of longer sentences, slogans, loose ideas or weird humorous connections of words. I’m referring here to two series, one of them are usually made on paper, with a traditional material such as pastel but also with organic products like spinach, lettuce, ketchup, egg yolk, blueberries or blood (a reference to the salad in his film Premium?). The other one is a more recent body of work, mostly paintings, where the text is in front of vivid hyper-realistic snow peaks. While there are narrative or eloquent sentences like “Sure, baby, mañana. It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard –mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven” or “In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, A real luxury”, there are also other funny games or expressions with no clear meaning but with double sense, such as “Wash, then dance”, “She didn't have to do that”, “screaming in Spanish”, “Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped”, “God knows when” or “Honey…. I twisted through more damned traffic to get here”. In both cases, those phrases seem to be part of his mental notes, probably things he heard, things he read very fast from his car or ideas for future pieces. The typography of the older works is probably from the family of the Futura, a modern round typeface designed in 1927 while the new ones seem to be done in a contemporary font, with squared shapes, from neo sans family, which is also a good example of his interest in going forward and look into the future. Ruscha himself is also aware of the directionality and movement of the eyes when we read: “I also like the sort of left to right kind of thing, you know your eyes are like these (pointing his own eyes), we read like these and like landscapes are like this”. Which lead me to the work of James Benning North on Evers (1992) in which the captions, or diarist chronicles, becomes a mental reflection and not necessarily an explanation of the image. In other analogy with cinema, this use of words is very similar to subtitles or to a narrator’s voice-off. This has interested Ruscha since his early years. A proof of this is his first personal business card which, below his name and between parentheses, has the phonetic pronunciation of his name, EDWARD RUSCHA (ED-WERD REW - SHAY) YOUNG ARTIST, all, in capitals letters, like 99 percent of his pieces.
To sum up, Ed Ruscha, besides being one of the most celebrated American artist from the second half of the XX century, has been a faithful believer of his own particular voice and refined style. With a sensibility marked by the emotion of travelling, by his intimate relationship to Los Angeles development and by the use of language as a way to open meaning to a wider spectrum, he is arriving to The Absolute End (1982), The End (2003) or The Dead End (2014) of his long and unique journey. A long drive or movie that started in a car, got developed in the West coast and that is probably going to end up in that strange red afternoon of the desert, where all the dots and stars of the constellation seems to connect together. As absurd as it may sound, he had the ability to drift while trusting in his intuition and direct, stealthily but in the dark, like a filmmaker, the personal story of his life and career. Quoting himself, “It’s always cloudy out there. You have to more or less invent your own future and see how things work. Is a little like blind leading the blind. Or I mean, you never know what is happening out there. It’s a puzzling kind of thing. You can’t write your own history, you just have to go on blind faith and that seems to be what guides me”.
Allan, Ken. Ed Ruscha, Pop Art, and Spectatorship in 1960s Los Angeles. The Art Bulletin, Design & Architecture Collection. (September 2010)
Arthur, Paul. Line Of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965. Chapter: The Redemption of the City. Published by Minesotta Press. (2005)
Berger, John. How fast does it goes (1992)
Ed Ruscha and the Great American West. Karin Breuer Curator in Charge with Kerry Brougher and D.J. Waldie. Published by Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and University of California Press. (2016)
Ed Ruscha: Road Tested. With Texts by Michael Auping and Richard Princem and an interview with the artist. Organized by Michael Auping. Published by Modern Art Museum of For Worth. (2011)
Ed Ruscha, The Tension of Words and Images. TateShots interview (2013)
Ed Ruscha, Words Have No Size. Louisiana Channel interview (2016)
Hatch, Kevin. Something Else: Ed Ruscha's Photographic Books. Published by The MIT Press. (2005)
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Published by Viking Press (1957)
Mansoor, Jaleh. Ed Ruscha's One-Way Street. Published by MIT Press. (2005)
Müller, Christian. Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles Apartments. Published by Kunstmuseum
Basel and Steidl Publishers (2013)
North on Evers, a movie by James Benning (1992)
Premium, a movie by Ed Ruscha (1972).
The works of Edward Ruscha. Essays by Dave Hickey and Peter Plagens, Introduction by Anne Livet with a Foreword by Henry T. Hopkins. Published by Hudson Hills Press, New York, in Association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (1982)
Tomkins, Calvin. Ed Ruscha’s L.A., An artist in the right place. Published by The New Yorker. (July 1, 2013)
Zorn's Lemma, a movie by Hollis Frampton (1970)
 Auping, Michael. A Long Drive, Ed Ruscha: Road Tested catalogue (2011).
 Auping, Michael. Street talk with Ed Ruscha, Ed Ruscha: Road Tested catalogue (2011).
 Berger essay How Fast Does It Go? (1992)
 Interview with Dave Hickey. The Works of Edward Ruscha, publication for the homonym exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1982).
 Ed Ruscha Los Angeles Apartment catalogue (p.42)
 Interview with Kerry Brougher. Living in Hollywood backwards: a conversation with Ed Ruscha, Ed Ruscha and the great American West catalogue, Published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the University of California Press (2016).
 The Works of Edward Ruscha, publication for the homonym exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1982).
 The Works of Edward Ruscha, publication for the homonym exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1982).
 Interview with Ed Ruscha – The Tension of Words and Images | TateShots.
 Interview on Louisiana Channel by Marc-Christoph Wagner at his studio in Los Angeles, USA, January 2016.