New York

View of “Ed Ruscha,” 2018–19. From left: Honk [#2], 1964; Securing the Last Letter (Boss), 1964. Photo: Dan Bradica.

View of “Ed Ruscha,” 2018–19. From left: Honk [#2], 1964; Securing the Last Letter (Boss), 1964. Photo: Dan Bradica.

Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha has been using words as the subjects of his paintings, drawings, and prints since the early 1960s. Remarkably, none of his succinct verbalizations have been identified with the artist the way Ma jolie, 1911–12; L.H.O.O.Q., 1919; and The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, are associated, respectively, with Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and René Magritte. Focused on the years 1961 to 1964 and particularly on the artist’s use of the words ace, radio, honk, and boss, the exhibition at Craig F. Starr Gallery brought New Yorkers back to the Los Angeles–based artist’s origin story. That’s when Ruscha, in his early twenties, first began using language, rather than representational imagery or abstract forms, in his art.

From the outset, Ruscha depicted words with multiple associations, many of which relate to the senses, evoking sound, smell, taste, and touch. Take honk, which calls to mind a beeping car horn, a gaggle of geese shrieking, or a circus clown squeezing his nose. The word is not sensuous; it’s blunt, ungainly. Ruscha renders it as if he were some kind of social anthropologist, trying to understand its dimensions, its repercussions. Radio, however, is a bit more glamorous. We envision broadcasting stations that play music or offer round-the-clock news, a chic tabletop receiver, or a welcome distraction on a car’s dashboard.

Before determining how to compose his paintings, Ruscha made studies that focused on specific fonts, all tweaked by an assortment of visual effects. In the ink-on-paper drawing Radio [#3], 1963, for instance, the titular word was comprised of what looked to be sound waves. The broadband of letters behind the large oil-on-canvas Honk from 1961–62 appeared as though it was reverberating. Then there are works such as Honk [#2], 1964, and Ace [#2], 1962, illustrated as if they were plans for sculptural objects à la Robert Indiana, or figures lined up to march in a parade. As for the oil painting Securing the Last Letter (Boss), 1964, which resembled an austere movie poster, Ruscha added a touch of whimsy. To the last of the assertive orange letters silhouetted against a black backdrop, the artist painted a realistic-looking C-clamp, replete with shadows, squinching the top of the second s. In his excellent catalogue essay for the show, art historian Thomas Crow suggests that Ruscha may have been familiar with a San Francisco radio station called KYA, whose catchphrase was “Boss of the Bay.”

Across the top of Ace, 1961, a small oil-on-paper painting, Ruscha inscribed the place and date, paris aug. 1961, reminding us that the artist visited France while his art career was still in its formative stages. Consulting the artist’s catalogue raisonné, we learn that one of the earliest word paintings Ruscha created, Metropolitan [#1], 1961, was a representation of the ornate Art Nouveau letters from the signage outside the Paris subways. The rest, as they say, is art history.

Phyllis Tuchman