New York

Edward Ruscha

Iolas Gallery

My idea on receiving the announcement to Edward Ruscha’s exhibition of gunpowder drawings bore no relation to the exhibition itself. I imagined from the title a kind of process art derived in part from Yves Klein’s flame pictures and from the current cultural weighing in favor of process and method (as distinct from object). Thus, naively, I entered the gallery to discover that Ruscha uses his powder dry. In his hands it takes on an elaborate and delicately deployed range of tonal modulation—greys as fine as aquatint. But there is no ignition and one regrets the flame.

This careful method, for all its virtuoso aeration, is employed in connection with a peculiar and troublesome imagery—words, a connection made more eccentric by a curious vein of nostalgia. During the palmy days of Hollywood Moderne a favorite graphic convention was that of intertwining alphabets into ribbon work. The graphic artist was aided in his delicate and tricky conceit by the widespread adoption of the airbrush—the last vestiges of which New York subway riders still encounter in swan song Wrigley’s chewing gum advertisements. The ribbon letter often aimed at a cool Rococo evocation. In addition to this, Ruscha has also revived the once equally ubiquitous letter form which appears to be constructed in paper sheet—scored, folded and curved into space—which establishes a refined and undulating surface in turn modulated by a highly conceptualized light flow. A I’etat pur, this kind of nostalgia lies at the heart of Roy Lichtenstein’s latest work, and Frank Stella’s recent canvases, especially those based on compass forms which also conjure up models from a halcyon thirties. In Lichtenstein and Stella, however, nothing gets in the way, and the nostalgia does not argue with the abstraction. But there is a clogging in Ruscha, and of a serious kind. No matter how much one tries not to see it, these slick and undulating surfaces are spelling out words. The coolest English reader, for all his detachment, is unable to get through, for example, the literary implications of Eye Infection despite Ruscha’s vitally projected warp and weave of the letter form and no matter how classicistically diagrammatic the play of recessions and projections therein disclosed. Imagine trying to read while a song is being sung. If in English, it is difficult because one listens to the words—whereas it is in some measure possible if the lyrics are foreign. Something of this experience occurs when viewing Ruscha’s drawings—it is difficult to get through them because the meaning of the words gets in the way. Ruscha himself is aware of this conflict and he plays a collusive game. The weakest pieces are those which convey simple typographical puns. Even at their wittiest they fall below the artist’s real talents. In Uncle a big “U” protects the gaggle of “ncle”; the “O” of Soda effervesces like a tumbler filled with seltzer to which it forms the aperture. Still the dexterousness of Ruscha is startling. The fly which crawls away from the sticky spill of Juice would honor the petals of a Jan Van Huy-sum carnation.

Robert Pincus-Witten