New York

Edward Ruscha

Lemmy Caution passes by a slot machine. He drops in change where a sign says, “Place coin here.” Suddenly out shoots a card on which is printed, “Thank you.” Dumbfounded, he flings the card in the air.

The scene is from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a movie that stresses language as a system of social control and the way idiosyncratic images resist the computer because the computer programs out all traces of ambiguity, valorizing communication as an end in itself. Poetic visions as the refugees of homo sapiens become the radical opponents to this technocracy.

Ed Ruscha’s work freezes fragments of gross (versus net) vocabulary to redeem the verbiage that we traffic in as just so many daily items. In it uncharted and anarchic aspects of cultural murmurings “glance back.” Each phrase speaks from vernacular milieus; none can be traced to an author, yet all have been spoken. Ruscha takes them out of the airwaves, authenticating them by his attention. He invents a new genre, that of words—a play of words, a genre painting in which the phrases perform, acting out their visual antics on the canvas as theatrical proscenium, even imbedding themselves in our very responses, as in Pure Ecstasy.

The Ruscha exhibit resembled a large-scale silent picture show. Silent films, with their exaggerated, stylized, larger-than-life gestures, are interrupted by title cards; the arch-mimetic heart-throbbings of a ’20s vamp may be succeeded by “Don’t shoot me!” A Ruscha work, Two Sheets Stained with Blood, 1973, hovers in a void with the label explaining “gunpower and blood on paper.” Here and in silent films we see an arresting image whose flamboyance is collapsed by the trivial and factual interruption of the work’s label or the written dialogue. The label throws the image out of sync at the same time as it explains its genesis. Pictures are essentially silent. They have no voice. Pinnacles of visuality in words, Ruscha’s pictures are laden with involuntary sound articulations. He presents the words like the piano player in a nickelodeon accompanying the silent episodes.

Shaped poems such as Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrams could only be vanguard after poets had begun to use the typewriter and had a mechanical succession of units to subvert. Without typewriting shaped poems would be mere drawing. Handwriting is always imagistic and idiosyncratic. Ruscha cultivates this on a large scale and aggrandizes it with synesthetic frills.

Ruscha will always opt for visually establishing a theme or mood rather than conveying mere linguistic plots, as if his work was about not words but their latent visual content. Images endure a circulation in culture and become laden with meanings not originally intended as their content; so it is with words. Ruscha renders the kinetic, moving element of language arrested, static, spatial. He foregrounds words in visual glorification.

Fragrances as color, emotions as size, harmonies and rhythms as pictorialization, meanings as visual events; Ruscha humors the absolute similarity of everything, of mimicries on all levels. Salmon eggs, caviar, axle grease, cranberry juice, egg yolk, and gunpowder are among the substances he uses as stains. All are expected to deteriorate but they hug the paper and do not fade. Technique itself is over-applied, pictorialized as a conscious subject matter of the painting.

For someone as elated with graphic and visual skills as Ruscha, some of his early pieces (Dublin, 1960, Box Smashed Flat, 1960–61, Actual Size, 1962) seem at this point awkward in terms of scale, composition, paint, and touch, In 1961 they might have looked great in light of doing the right thing at the right time in the right place. “The way I produce art is the same way as the media, to sort of go with the rhythm . . . that is why I don’t do twelve books a year, because people are not ready for it and neither am I” (Avalanche magazine, 1973). He’s saying that there’s a digestive time for art consumption. I am a fan of Ruscha on the basis of his early exhibitions, which have always preserved the aphoristic, zinging character of his work. Well I say, “I don’t want a retrospective.” A retrospective is like a feast after Woodstock; here it’s like being served seven courses of catnip.

This exhibition had an acoustic problem, innate to how the work functions is space for reverberation; too many together creates a homogenized static which diminishes their potency.

Perhaps the one virtue of seeing his work together was the exposure of the wealth of allusion to drugs and sex: Painkillers, Tranquilizers, Olive, 1969, Vaseline, 1967, Sand in the Vaseline, 1974, Pussy, 1966, Three Darvons and Two Valiums, 1975, Valiums, Splinters, 1973, etc. These little nags at perversion mar Ruscha’s cool, clean, modern image. So does the gloomy, prophetic air of his color fields, which contain both liquid and fire, like volcanic magma squinched between two plates of glass. The magma then becomes a spectrograph, a prismatic inventory of its own contents. These geological smears are cosmically agoraphobic in their minute attention to gradation, and eventually induce an overdose of aerial perspective heavy on horizons. Phrases that hover in space, and their mundane idioms of desire, are condensed by the emptiness into which they are thrown. Two spaces take place, these large painterly infinities and the linear perspectives of the lettering; the words possess a space independent of the one they float in, In other versions the letters carry illusionistic perspective (as in 20–20–20, 1972). The work 20–20–20 evokes 20-20 vision, yet the additional “20” shows how three-dimensional Ruscha’s vision is. Besides, his atmospheric washes don’t necessarily refer to meteorological effects, but resemble retinal afterimages, as if one had pressed the eyes and let the phosphorescence remain.

Both Ruscha and Neil Jenney are obsessed with stratospheres and meteorological conditions. Both have always been progenitors and both have produced in their recent work paintings of extreme horizontal shape that deal with atmospheres and global perspectives along with the use of words. Jenney has quite prominently displayed the titles on the frames of his pictures and Ruscha has also integrated subject matter and title, both artists complicating the distinction between title and content.

Here in New York our unfamiliarity with billboards leaves us perplexed with Ruscha’s transformation of content through scale. A minor, commonplace idea is blown out of proportion into something large and arresting; or a highly significant idea becomes diminished by its isolation from context, as in a year’s date hovering in a void. Word and thing or figure and referent no longer possess their usual identity.

In computer technology front, back, and side views (data) can generate a full-bodied 360-degree animated representation of a character. Ruscha’s words predate computer graphics; they are arcane monuments to present and future manipulations. As Jules Verne is to subsequent science fictions, so his hand-fashioned, poetic mirages of perspective are to the work of the electronic technicians.

One final note. The best part of this show, curated by Anne Livet and originating at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was the exquisite catalogue. Ruscha designed it and was involved in its production; many believe that his major contribution is his work in artists’ books. Dave Hickey, who wrote one of the essays, can be credited with some of the most unusual and intriguing writing on art in recent years. It’s a match to its topic.

Edit DeAk