New York

Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha is a great visual wit. The black-and-white bluntness of A Heavy Shower of Screws, 1976, creates the effect of being caught under a downpour of tiny metallic objects, and the letters of Acting Silly, 1974, do seem to act silly, as their comical arrangement in parallel diagonals and funny coloring (reddish-brown stain on white-silk moiré) suggest. The words are visually enacted, as it were.

In this overview of the artist’s “language” works from the ’60s and ’70s, Ruscha offers a seemingly infinite range of typographies, set against moody, atmospheric fields—at times opaque, at times almost inwardly luminous—somewhere between the sublime expanses of Caspar David Friedrich and Mark Rothko. There is an unexpectedness to his phrases, whether familiar or zany, which is unnerving; they seem to come out of nowhere. Like figures in a de Chirico, the words appear as mysterious strangers in a surreal space. They acquire a real presence, even as they remain abstract. The achievement is conceptually unusual: These are not pictographs or hieroglyphs—images on the way to becoming words—but words experienced as images.

No doubt there is a bit of Hollywood in all this. The ground is a kind of screen on which the words, in various shapes and sizes, are projected like the text that accompanies a film. But the end result is more like concrete poetry: However readable and meaningful Ruscha’s words are, they exist for their own sweet sake. The letters have an almost sensuous appeal, and as they become expressive ends in themselves, their individual shape matters as much as the words they form; sometimes, as in Lawn, 1968, the letter is even emphasized at the expense of the word.

Ruscha’s delight in language and acute awareness of space is enhanced by his technique. There is a kind of wild charm to his use of gunpowder, blueberry extract, and castor oil in lieu of good old-fashioned paint, although there is plenty of that too, always handled with exquisite delicacy. There are also works in chalk, india ink, graphite, and pastel, indicating Ruscha’s great sensitivity to his means. The witty end, then, is not all: Despite the artist’s wish to be challenging and clever, he is a purist, an embarrassed connoisseur of form. Indeed, Six Pieces of Cheese, 1975, is an abstract painting in all but title, which shows the power of titles over meaning. Yet Ruscha also remains a painter of the American scene. Only in these works, instead of looking at vernacular sites of the LA landscape as he did in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963, he looks at bits and pieces of the American language, finding it to be as much a matter of strangely shaped fragments as the American landscape. Along the way he’s telling us something about the stresses and strains of modern life, as the title 3 Seconals 3 Darvons, 1976, suggests. In the end, however, Ruscha is fascinated by the power of words, making their inherent aesthetics manifest and implying that, beyond their ordinariness, they are fraught with enigmatic meaning.

Donald Kuspit