Ed Ruscha

[PAINTER]

“PEOPLE IN EUROPE MAY SAY I’M TRYING TO DISCUSS AMERICA, BUT I’M REALLY NOT. WHATEVER COMES OUT OF MY WORK IS BASED ON MY EXPOSURE TO THE DAMNED UNIVERSE.”
Guidelines for interpreting Ruscha’s art:
Those are not fires. Those are ideas of fires.
Political messages are unintentional, but not unwelcome.
Try not to rely on a feeling of nostalgia.
There is no single correct interpretation. Try many. Try forty.

Ed Ruscha is an L.A. artist. In fact, he’s the L.A. artist, although the sixty-eight-year-old has always been resistant to easy labels (“I don’t write those kinds of histories for myself,” he says in a deep, muscular voice that betrays a hint of the Oklahoma lilt of his upbringing). His crucial series of photographic books, where he shot, among other things, twenty-six gasoline stations (remember this number) and every building on Hollywood Boulevard (and repeated this project in 2004) elides the usual photographic sentimentality because the structures are recorded with the cold, detached focus of impassive scientific observation. Ruscha, though, is primarily known for his paintings, which are no less unnerving in their chilly, deceptive straightforwardness. His word paintings—perhaps his most famous works—often turn single nouns, adjectives, or verbs into jarring, confrontational environments set in uneasy color surrounds. What is desire doing written in a milky liquid studded with blueberries (Desire, 1969)? Why is the word dimple, served up in clean, even red letters, suddenly violated by a C-clamp crushing down on the final e (Dimple, 1964)? Why is space written in zooming yellow 3-D block letters, crammed up at the top of the canvas, while a solitary pencil at the bottom is allowed so much legroom (Talk About Space, 1963)? On these canvases, the elementary words fight against all of their multiple meanings—in physical, emotive, connotative, and denotative form. Nearly half a century later, the paintings still hold their disturbing visual-linguistic currency. Ruscha’s lexicon still aggravates (I was gasping for contact swirls over an orange spiral), humors (brave men run in my family is printed against a ship at sea), and mystifies (baby jet letters hover over snowcapped mountains)—because we’re still speaking his language. Most recently, Ruscha has continued work on a series of bare industrial buildings set against swirling acrylic skylines. Perhaps the one thing that connects all of his work is an ongoing interest in the unreal spectacle of public space, which belongs simultaneously to everyone and to no one.

Last November Ruscha met with me on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel, just before a series of paintings he’d created for the Venice Biennale were to make a second appearance at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ruscha drank tea and talked more about Los Angeles than perhaps he wanted.

—Christopher Bollen

*

THE BELIEVER: Has the way in which you cull words and phrases changed over the years? I’ll never forget brave men run in my family. I always read that as “get as far away as possible.” You’ve said you take text from songs, conversations, television…

ED RUSCHA: Not so much television. Radio, particularly the car radio, and isolated sightings of some hot word I’d see in a book or a magazine. I was never that affected by television. I didn’t even have a TV as a kid. I didn’t get one until I was seventeen. Our family just didn’t have it, so the TV Age skipped me. I rarely think about it as a vehicle, whereas other forms of mass communication, I do—radio, movies, even dreams. Words come to me in dreams. If I do remember sentences, I have to write them down instantly or they’re forgotten five seconds after I’m out of bed. I’m going to forget them unless I absolutely sit down and write them. There is some wicked truth behind dreams. They are so out of your control. They’re involuntary. There’s got to be some protein to them, something important happening in dreams—especially the words that come out of them. It’s a diabolical time. The fact that you would dream about someone you never cared about in grade school who suddenly appears in your dream, why would that ever happen?

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Christopher Bollen is a writer and critic in New York. He’s also the editor of V magazine and is working on his first novel—which was supposed to be about death but seems to be only, predictably, about love. He’s also taking Spanish classes and wants to go into hiding somewhere in South America.

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