TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1987

SWEET LOGOS

THE WORD “LOGOS” OF MY title caroms off at least three senses, each one of them lighting up in its turn, abuzz in the vicinity of Ed Ruscha’s work. The first, the elemental sense—old Greek for “word,” “thought,” “proportion,” and “ratio”—is quite a bundle in itself. Ruscha, it might be said, immerses words in graphic thought zones, the better to “read” the words’ true proportions. The mental size of a color plus the treatment of words as figures makes for an openness of logic. Ruscha is a field semiotician whose insistent method is “Try this.”

The second, biblical sense of “logos,” or “Logos” writ large, is, as Webster’s has it, “divine wisdom manifest,” alias “the Word made flesh.” This sense requires careful handling, but it’s definitely implicit in Ruscha’s scheme of words as appearances plumbing indefinite space. Enough writing lately has fed off the fact of Ruscha’s ex-Catholicism to provide indecorous heavy underscoring for this vector. But leave it that (to expand upon a line of Frank O’Hara’s) once a Jesuit has stared you down not only do you clink “for ever after,” but you are prepared inexorably for the numinous at every turn. If the Logos weren’t an inexhaustible blank very like the sweet nothings wafting across the page of an Ed Ruscha sunset, we wouldn’t revere it so. (It’s the confiding-whisper tones of those nothings, however, that seem so lapsarian.)

“Logos” in the third sense reads as more mundane and functional, even though it subsumes the other two: it’s the modest plural of “logo,” meaning identifying symbol or statement, a motto or device salient in a field. In practice, it’s usually words or letters set to an image. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the painted oculist’s name (“Doctor T. J. Eckleburg”) together with huge eyes in yellow spectacles perceived through the “powdery air” is one such device. So are most Ruschas, including even the new ones, conspicuously void as they appear to be in the words department.

Set a word plainly to any image and the eye will head straight for it. In most of his pictures so far, Ruscha has used words plainly as they exist, as physical facts, without leaning on their conceptual equivalents. One enjoys the pointless, exquisite fact that Satin, 1971, is rose petals rubbed on paper, the willful-child fact of the little space-out in Do ing, 1973, the romantic (illusory) fact of various words (Lisp, 1970, for instance) written in water. What Ruscha does is the obverse of writing. As a language painter, he conveys tones but neither voice nor tense, just minimal syntax and a flatness of epithet that defeats any rhythmic expectations. Also, unlike most West Coast art involving language, his rigorously avoids puns. (It accepts rhyme convulsively, however) Removed from gesture and absolutely commonplace as criticism, it could never get mistaken for picture-poetry or an an/language exercise. Maybe all this is why Ruscha draws literary associations like so many flies—looking at his new paintings, I kept “hearing” poetry in the room, for example John Ashbery’s stellar title “Into the Dusk-Charged Air.”

Ruscha gives language a specifically optical gloss. Each word or phrase blithely takes up its exact legible space on the picture surface, which tends to be otherwise abstract in design, rarely a composition but a literal fabric (moiré, taffeta, etc.) or an atmosphere painted as if out of nowhere. The letters have appropriate size and an ambient, contingent light. The whole is kept lucid, clean, and neat; otherwise, the humor wouldn’t work so well. (The new spray paintings have messy splotches and are somewhat less humorous.) Part of Ruscha’s humor comes from brief delays in recalling the meanings of ordinary words, delays due to the ways he sets them. The referents are around somewhere, or they’ll be right back. His broadside effects chortle like the barely tolerable joke you were told once, and resisted wholeheartedly, but it comes to be the only joke you know.

Ruscha maintains a more continuous, less deflatable surface light than that of any other Los Angeles artist. His pictures come into focus all at once and at just about any distance in a room. Close up, you can see that they’re not so assured technically, but the graphic conceptions and lettering are adroit. They feel like utterances as much as like pictures. They present themselves as if entranced, and you get the impression of them as oracles the artist might consult as avidly as any viewer. What at first look like public commentaries double back quickly to a private resonance. Some recall mirrors beautifully fogged with breath and marked with an impulsive notation on the spot. (“A notation of loving something,” as Ruscha once remarked.) The occasion for utterance being absent or unspoken, the source of language as expression is up for grabs; it could be language speaking itself in fragments, laconic yet complete, nudging our feelings for speech into areas parallel to common parlance. The accompanying spatial strains—like Jack Kerouac’s “long, long skies”—orchestrate the sense of an afterimage drift not quite of this world, though it is actual as anything. (It’s not just the air above L.A. but the whole enchilada of flat-out vision west of the Divide, where distances cancel out each other and relations are less accountable to the eye, can’t be parsed.)

Ruscha is our preeminent nostalgia artist, and a rapturous, epic one at that. The distances of even his dimmest works hum or blister regularly with declarations of yearning for some disjunct point. His latest pictures, with a new, darker poignancy, suggest nostalgia for both words and things as physically present. Words, where they figure at all, extrude in absentia, as cancellations, and things are shadows, pulverized versions of their former selves. Ruscha now proceeds at ground level, measuring forms of life on earth (what one 1983 drawing intimates to be “right here”). But this isn’t realism, and the forms he’s painted are logotypes—flattened, dusky hulks air-gunned within paler tinges that flare as dramatic backlighting. The views—of animals, houses, people, a car, a sailing ship at sea—are taken in a slightly up-from-under perspective that codifies “heroic” storybook scale. (In San Francisco, what with the fuzzed blacks of the figures and the silver-screen auras about them, the Fuller Goldeen gallery space fairly dimmed and flickered as you looked; where natural light intruded, it bleached the contours and made the images hard to see.)

Ruscha’s black paintings, all of them 1986, broadcast an overriding just-so travail. They tell variously of struggle, of aspiration, of what looks to be someone else’s (impossible-for-this-dude) idea of home. That just-so quality is funny; it takes the nonprofessional irony of the common sense in the face of so bluntly grandiose an image as the silhouette of an elephant (Jumbo) trudging up a grade, or a ghostly windjammer (Homeward Bound) heeling out of some oceanic adolescent dream. The absurdity is true, but Ruscha’s not kidding about exertions. The theme is gravity and has vista—and so the slopes, the crevices and bumps, the earthly rims these characters strive or perch upon. Each figural essence appears in its merest guise. In Uphill Driver, the person at the wheel of a Ranchero is suggested by the merest gray blur. (That low-slung heap will never make it to the top, you think.) There’s a Lilliputian grandeur to the wagon train pulling away in A Certain Trail; the image, an enlargement upon an ad, takes on the hokey immensity of a bank mural, a managerial anthem to upward-and-onward glory. Such images (like a lot of earlier Pop imagery) are blown up from no particular size, but they’re the first Ruschas in a long time (since the early “Hollywood” images, beginning in 1969) to have anything like real scale. Their grainy sheens are a little deafening, abrasive as wind on an open mike. Forgoing realism, the paintings approach sublimity from the far side (from a kind of forgetfulness), and illustrate points along its rim. With impeccable, gratuitous logic, the plump little chick in Chick Unit occupies its auspiciously level piece of ground while, high above, a white marker proclaims “CHICK.” Except there’s no word in the plain white space—only the size (in the digital pallor of a voice print) of the thought that word would fill, a thought, as Ruscha says, “blanked over,” suppressed. Nobody’s home in the boxy houses of Name, Address, Phone, but the white tags fasten on them anyway, blips of a certified, embodying vacancy.

The edges of that vacancy are delineated by an outland knowledge of signs that won’t light up. Ruscha implies that language bodies forth and shines only as an agency of the human spirit. His pictures sweeten the melancholy ethos that spirit has learned to inhabit. He is an angelologist of white language.

Bill Berkson is a poet who lives in Northern California. He writes regularly for Artforum.