New York

Ed Ruscha

Castelli Graphics

One of the curious features of Ed Ruscha’s books is that in many cases the titles coincide with the moment of their conception, and precede their making on any level. Even in light of this, his drawings (1974–77) are somewhat bewildering, as they are the very titles of themselves before, during and after their execution. Similar to Bob Wilson’s scavenging of the environment (including T.V. and the papers) for lines to be used in his plays and much resembling Ruscha’s own photos, the “title” phrases are like snaps of expressions lifted from around him. As such, they are both unpretentious (familiar) and enigmatic (extracted from their original context). He isolates a detail from the regular flow of spoken and written language and expands (contorts, convolutes) its meaning by its very isolation as well as by pictorial means.

The scale of these everyday words blows up in size to standard drawing paper during their visual escapades. The impenetrable simultaneity of the words and their pictorial associations is a bit like concrete poetry—coupled with a certain Magrittian wit. Considering them in that genre they’d excel most in their onomatopoeic color coinage, imitating the words they describe.

Among the most retinally incongruous are Executive Pressures and Loss of Memory (in light yellow and white, a shimmering search and disappearance of the image); Pressurized Diabolics (in the vicious high pitch of pink and white); and They Called Her Styrine (in early technicolor pink and yellow). These are the most obviously hysterical statements, and if you have ever heard the screechy screams of London’s resident mulatto punk, Polly Styrine, you’d know exactly what I mean.

As any artist from L.A. would have it, there are plenty of references to the commuting culture: Cadillac (in majestic brand-name black and white), and Those of Us Who Have Double Parked (in black and white with equal doses of repentance, anger for penalty money and proud anti-heroism). Honey I Twisted Through More Damned Traffic Today was the punchline for me, since it could be authored by the same horrible collective protagonist who would equate Some Pretty Eyes and Some Electric Bills (in baby blue and white of course). He Enjoys the Co. of Women (in traffic-light green and with the corporate abbreviation) and he takes his Three Darvons and Two Valiums (in “late” red) to ease his Executive Pressures . . ., as you might remember from the beginning of this list.

These works are weird documentations of verbal idioms peculiar to the shiny-surface, rotten-core, leisure-class, but compulsively working, pleasure-seeking, Excedrin-ridden middle-class capitalist of Palm Tree Country. But there is a class difference implicit in Ruscha’s pronunciation of them, so he need not make further moral judgments. The pragmatic anti-metaphysical language cuts through the mentality of American English to the cultural idioms like a sharp knife. It is less Pop art in itself than it is an ironic biography of the connoisseurs of Pop art. As their sneaky portraitist, Ruscha is somewhere between what only Velasquez had the nerve to do (depict the Spanish Hapsburg royal family as a bunch of cretin dogs) and what that cynical super-sophistico Bob Colacello (editor of Interview) does (hints similarly at his feelings about the beautiful people). But Colacello is decadent and smart enough to know that he can’t possibly beat the life-style he disparages, so he might as well love it. What is possible between these two approaches? Ruscha’s voice as a sociological ventriloquist.

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