The Painted Whirred: Ed Ruscha’s Spin on Language

Words, and the letters they’re made from, are a personal matter to Ed Ruscha, who has come to be regarded as one of the most influential artists to have emerged in the 1960s. More than any artist of his generation, or any other generation, for that matter, he has staked out the suggestive territory where language and art intersect, and his presentation of the visual conversation between them has been variously wacky, wicked and wry.

One of his earliest paintings to contain letters also includes his surname: *E. Ruscha*, an oil on canvas from 1959. It shows evidence, in the agitated background brushwork, of a residual engagement with gestural abstraction, but what is most noticeable are the letters that run from one edge of the composition to the other. Ruscha is already having his way with language. The conceit in the work is that the artist has forgotten to plan ahead; he begins to spell his surname and runs out of space, obliging him to reposition the "H" and the "A," so that they end up forming a stand-alone, comic exhalation. The first four letters are rendered monumentally, the "R," "U" and "S" in black, and the "C" in red, while a black arrow directs our attention to the truncated "H" and "A." Ha! The joke, then, is on no one and for everyone; generous, playful, even a bit goofy.   

BORDER CROSSINGS: What was it about the Jasper Johns that was so transfixing? You talk about his work as an atomic bomb that went off inside your head when you saw it.*
The context was important. It was in a magazine and it was a small black and white reproduction. I was in art school, basically studying Abstract Expressionism, which was considered at that time the only real way to approach painting. Johns’s work was absolutely counter to that and, curiously, it was mostly condemned by the instructors who didn’t understand why you would ever paint a picture of an American flag. Why would anyone do such a thing, especially deadpan? They would say, “You can paint that, but it’s a symmetrical thing in the middle of the canvas. Why would you do that when you can off-centre it and make it more interesting?”

BC: Were you serious when you said that seeing that piece made you want to become an artist?
ER: That’s right. It was enough to help me see something completely different; it absolutely, 100 percent, grabbed my attention. The combination of those little faces and body parts, all done in that magic box method, made it really toxic.
BC:**** Toxic to your Abstract Expressionist tendencies, which you obviously left behind? Because in 1961 you do Boss, which looks like an homage to Jasper Johns.
It probably was, with the impasto, having things lift off the surface, and making something that wasn’t flat. It had a loving impasto look to it that I look back on and see as something that can even be considered old-fashioned.
BC: There is a certain nostalgia about it. And it is so well painted. You told the art writer Willoughby Sharpe that you were dead serious about everything you’d made and it’s clear that one of the things you were dead serious about was that homage. *

ER: That wasn’t a specific homage, although I did do some to us cities. When I was 15 years old, I hitchhiked all over the country and I would come to places like Sweetwater, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Dublin, Georgia–and eventually I began to make pictures out of the words of those cities. Chattanooga was another one. The word “boss” also had dual meaning. First of all, it was a label for farmer’s work clothes, really blue-collar worker’s uniforms. I think the company is defunct now. But it also had that meaning of hot, or “boss.” We used to say, “That’s so boss.” It was the early form of “awesome.”

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