When Ed Ruscha first showed in London in 1973, the invitations offered viewers a little guidance: “Ed-werd Rew-Shay” read the card created by the artist. Nearly 40 years later, Ruscha is still up to his old verbal tricks as two new shows in London—a retrospective at Hayward Gallery and an interpretation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at Gagosian—make plain.
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Born in Nebraska and growing up in Oklahoma, Ruscha’s key journey was west, when he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. He found himself inhabiting what he termed “the ultimate cardboard cut-out town.” Graduating from art school in 1960, it wasn’t until more than a decade later that he had his first solo show at New York’s Leo Castelli gallery. In the interim his earliest paid work was in the advertising industry (much like Andy Warhol, with whom he showed in Pasadena Art Museum’s famous 1962 show—a defining moment for Pop). The 71-year-old Ruscha’s sense of the world as a marketplace—both glossy and tarnished—has remained essential, and his is a success that spans decades while, like the best of the Pop generation, still feeling immediate. In the 1960s, as he points out, he painted simply for his friends. There was “no thought of dancing dollar signs, because there was no possibility of that happening… it was probably a good thing for me that I had about 20 years after school to develop what I was doing without anyone paying much attention.”
Perhaps that thoughtful spell explains the sense of continuity in the 50 years of canvases gathered in the Hayward’s extraordinary, and extensive, exhibition (running through January 10): the first retrospective to focus exclusively on Ruscha’s paintings.
• Dennis Hopper’s Sixties• Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignThe rooms collecting Ruscha’s work from the 1960s contain his almost gleeful sense of having found a vacuum to playfully inhabit. The space between the meaningful and the meaningless is endlessly re-made, from his brash orange Annie painting to Noise, Oof, Faith and Purity—great empty slogans (their power learnt by the ad-artist) promising everything and delivering a sense of nothingness that’s giddily evocative. His materials, as he has noted, are the detritus that nobody really wants but which surrounds us all—be it endless advertising or ugly buildings, or his ubiquitous Standard gas stations. While initially this might have seemed an overtly American landscape, the rest of the world has caught up, as he quips in fairytale language in another painting showing LA’s glinting progress, “faster than a beanstalk.” That vacuum has opened up, the more mechanized the world has become. In an interview in the catalogue, Ruscha talks of his “irritation” at iPhones and computers, and the fact that he doesn’t have either. Their hollow burble, though, has long been his prophecy.
As a result, he has become synonymous with an acute sense of the banal, of a world as shallow and flimsy as the famous white sign he depicted in his 1977 painting, The Back of Hollywood. The city's where he's made his working life, and his subject, he has said, is “illusions.” The sign’s huge block letters onto which a million hopes and fantasies are projected, are revealed to be nothing more than grubby wooden structures: letters on stilts. That sense of disillusion calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his sense of artifice as a great American subject) and of David Lynch, who has cited Ruscha a major influence. The Back of Hollywood also recalls the earlier Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights. Here, the 20th Century Fox logo is transformed from a glittering talisman of escapism to a common ruler-drawn child’s diagram.
While the prosaic and the kitsch are hard to escape (it’s why Ruscha seems such a prescient realist), they are not entirely at the exclusion of the poetic. Writing of his use of the cityscape the artist once said, “When I would fly into Los Angeles at night, the city was like a twinkling wonderland. It also held an answer to some fable or dream I was after.” In those paintings from the mid-1980s, the electrified city glitters like tinfoil, a mass of black and silver with scrawled handwriting running across the view. It’s the words that make the pictures so emotive as in the story of loss held in Wen Out for Cigrets N Never Came Back and in the loneliness of Talk Radio in which scrawled handwriting fights for space on the grid of the city, just as conversation fights to get heard above the din.
If language is what makes us human, then any exploration of its vulnerabilities is also an investigation of our own. The cityscapes and Silhouette paintings (with their blanks spaces for thoughts) might foreshadow that, but Ruscha’s slogans can also make you flinch. Witness Boss and Radio. The fonts are as plumply delicate as balloons or blisters, with one letter apiece being pinched by metal pegs, as if it is something alive that is being hurt. Upstairs at the Hayward, Words without Thoughts, is almost a concrete poem. The line itself is taken from Hamlet: “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Arranged in a circle, the font gets smaller and smaller until the letters disappear. The afterlife of words is Ruscha’s great obsession. As he has said, “At one time, I used to think that art was strictly visual, and you’re not supposed to go and dig deeper into messages. But now I believe it all has to do with tantalizing your memory. “
Just as disillusion depends on idealism, a sense of the meaningless can’t exist without a sense of the meaningful. It seems apt that the Hayward retrospective should coincide with Ruscha’s most overtly wordy project to date: producing and finding photographs for one of his favorite novels, Kerouac’s On the Road. The edition has been done for Gagosian, which is also showing the illustrated pages as an exhibition (through November 28). As in Ruscha’s paintings, life, as strung between the poles of the mechanical and the instinctive is a constant. A girl made out of metal splashed with oil and bolted together haunts, as does a shot of Kerouac’s beloved apple pie and ice cream, which he as he recalled, was ‘practically all I ate all the way across the country.’
Apparently Ruscha tried to use real ice cream to take his photograph, before, giving in to the classic photographer’s lie of mashed potatoes. If Ruscha responding to Kerouac seems to flesh out his sometimes sparse world view, that seems one final illusion. All that pulsing life lurks just out of view in his paintings, but entirely within their emotional range.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View , will be published this fall.