Ed Ruscha sees words as still-lifes and mixes text and image in surprising ways. Sarah Greenberg meets the influential artist in his LA studio as he prepares for his display at the Royal Academy
When I met Ed Ruscha at his studio in Venice Beach on a sunny day last spring, I was struck by his friendliness. Given his current superstar status in the art world – he is representing the US at the Venice Biennale this summer, shows of his work are travelling around the world and, of course, he is presenting his work at the RA’s Summer Exhibition this year (in a room curated by his old friend Allen Jones RA) – I expected a bit more attitude. Instead I was met by down-to-earth guy, floppy dogs in tow, happy to potter about his vast warehouse space of a studio, showing off his vintage record collection, the Model T Ford he is restoring, the piles of clippings and random ephemera topping every table – not to mention the stacks of paintings leaning against several walls. When I asked if he was working hard to meet his deadlines, he shrugged. The artist takes the high demand for his work in his stride. Perhaps he is able to keep his cool because fame has come to him late. Despite his boyish looks, Ruscha is now 67 and has been following his own path in Los Angeles, where he moved as an art student, since the early 1960s. For much of this time he was patronised by the New York art establishment as a Los Angeles painter, not quite in the mainstream. Now he has proven himself as much more than the Pop artist he started out as four decades ago. His art – whether photography or drawing, printmaking or painting – often incorporates deadpan images of LA and mixes words and images in provocative ways. Ruscha says he sees words ‘as still-lifes’ and his paintings as ‘the fictitious titles of books’; his art is by turns cool and clever and mixes LA’s sunshine with a touch of film noir. He began probing the meanings of soundbites and spin decades before these words came into common usage, but now his work seems to resonate more than ever.
Sarah Greenberg My eyes are in overdrive. It’s hard to know where to look first in your studio.
Ed Ruscha Sometimes that happens to me too. I love my studio; sometimes I’m here every day of the week for weeks on end without producing anything, but I’m still working or shifting into position. There’s never any golden master plan.
SG Can you show me some of the work you are bringing to the RA Summer Exhibition?
ER I’m showing lunettes from a commission I did for the Dade County Library in Miami, Florida, called Words without thoughts – from the line in Hamlet ‘Words without thoughts never to heaven go’. I arranged the quotation inside a rotunda so people entering the library would be met with the word ‘words’, which seemed to me appropriate for a library, and then they would rotate their heads and slowly finish reading the quotation.
I’m also showing the ‘Cityscapes’ that I did, starting about 1996. These are works that to me resemble ransom notes or censorship because the words have been bleached out and you can only read them in the titles, like ‘Trouble your way if you insist on ratting’ or ‘You talk, you get killed’. Some of these are made up and some are real, like things you find in police files, but I just came across these lines. I like the illiteracy of ransom notes and the fact that some of them are placed stupidly across an image. I respond to language in that way and sometimes even misspelt words attract me. ‘Stickup, don’t move, smile’ [right] was a note left at a bank in LA in 1933. I choose the colours of the linen and then bleach out the spots where the words would have been.
SG It looks like the bleach has eaten away at now invisible words that were once painted on the linen base; they have an aggressive feeling.
ER I like the nasty undertone. The language takes you into the world of criminality.
SG What comes first in your work, the words or the pictures?
ER Words usually come first. I don’t have a real image in mind before I begin something and usually a word or combination of words will trigger it and become the automatic excuse for making the work.
SG How do the words come to you?
ER I might be driving, looking, listening to the radio, seeing things in advertisements, billboards, reading newspapers – I read three a day. I don’t watch TV but occasionally something in a movie inspires me, any snippet of life where I hear something that causes a reaction. That’s where it starts.
SG It just triggers an idea and then you ruminate about it?
ER Yeah, ruminate about it and sometimes it goes on the back burner and sits there but to me it’s still potent and somehow finds its ugly way into my work.
SG Walking around your studio, I notice that you are surrounded with everything under the sun, from a wet suit, to tables overflowing with newspaper and magazine clippings, a collection of classic records, dictionaries, a Model T Ford that you’re restoring, art supplies. I’m curious about how all of this fits into your work.
ER These are all green stuff, fertile stuff. They all appeal to me and might be the beginning of a painting. I have a lot of false starts and jump-starts. I make little baby steps to producing something. It’s not as though I have a timetable and have to sit down in front of a canvas at 9am. I don’t have a strict painter’s mentality that says ‘Gotta shut the phone off and paint’. Sometimes I’ll be here all day long, for days. But then again there’s so much to do and so little time.
SG Are you referring to your impending deadlines for the Venice Biennale?
ER Yes, but I’m really looking forward to it.
SG It’s your second time there, right?
ER Yes, I showed work there in 1970 which was a spin-off from things I was doing in London, when I spent time there working at Editions Alecto. It was exhilarating. I had never done printmaking like that before. And for Venice I did a work called Chocolate Room, which grew out of the silkscreening I was doing at Alecto, using organic materials like daffodils, tomato sauce, caviar, axle grease and so on.
SG Can you explain how chocolate and silkscreening connect?
ER The Chocolate Room was in the American pavilion, a Palladian-style building, very symmetrical. And I lined the walls with sheets of paper, almost like shingles that were printed with chocolate. It was one of those spontaneous gestures that comes about in a moment of panic. There was a silkscreen process I was working on at the time and this was a kind of instant gesture.
SG And 35 years later, what are you thinking about doing?
ER It will all be painting, some new, some borrowed. I suppose in the work I’m just airing my doubts about progress in the world. The Venice show is allowing me to put my world under investigation.
SG How did you get involved with the RA?
ER I was notified last year that I had been selected to be Honorary Academician and found that easy to accept. I didn’t really know what the RA was, but one of my favourite artists was Bertelli, who made that futurist bust of Mussolini at the Imperial War Museum, and the labels on his work always said ‘Bertelli RA’.
SG Do printmaking and multiples appeal to you particularly, given the work you’ve done in this field?
ER I’ve consistently done editions of etchings and photographs, so that is key to my work, although now I spend most of my time painting.
SG I notice in looking at your work that you seem to like repeated images, series of things like swimming pools, gas stations, parking lots, all the buildings on the Sunset Strip…
ER I like the idea of an unlimited edition – to me unlimited was around 400 copies. My entry into the world of multiples came through my books of photographs. I mostly gave them away in the beginning, but then I went on to make about fifteen books of photos. Somehow books have always been a focal point. I love them as objects and try to see new ways to exploit the good old book.
SG It’s encouraging to hear a defence of the book at a time when artists are flocking to new media.
ER Books as reading objects appeal to me less than books as objects to do things with, to paint the covers of, for example. I always had this notion in the back of my mind that my paintings were really book covers. So if I painted a picture of the word ‘hog’ or ‘boss’, then in my mind that could be a fictitious title of a book.
SG Why are words so crucial to your art? You play around with their typography and printing until they reach a point where they don’t mean what they seem to mean. You seem to disembody them of their original meaning.
ER I’ve always liked the idea that if you stare at a word long enough it begins to lose its meaning and this is a part of my work, especially when I do a picture of a single word like the word ‘the’ – if you look at it long enough it begins to look funny. It begins to toy with your mind.
SG Yes, your word paintings remind me of fragments of text one comes across in archaeological ruins, somehow removed from their original context and taking on a meaning of their own.
ER I like the idea that it’s just a fragment of a thought. A word by itself can be relished for its own sake, but I also like combinations of them. Some of them come to me through random thoughts or dreams. Like the phrase ‘the study of friction and wear on mating surfaces’. I like that. Is seems so scientific to me. It’s almost like a book title but it’s made up.
SG You seem very detached about your work. But do you ever see the wordplay in your art as a comment about people taking words for granted, about the vacuous soundbites and spin that seem to engulf American society?
ER Well I like it all. I want to encompass it all. I love the stuff I hate and hate the stuff I love.
SG That sounds like one of your works.
ER I see words as objects; I am painting pictures of objects. Giorgio Morandi comes to mind – he painted endless still-lifes of bottles. I paint objects too but mine are words.
SG So words are your still-lifes?
ER Yes. My twisted way of making things official in my life is that if I see and appreciate the word ‘hog’, for example, painting a picture of it is my way of etching it in stone, making it absolutely official and then putting it to rest. Almost like a stone-carver would carve a word in stone, almost like an epitaph.
SG But what appeals to you about the particular word, like ‘hog’?
ER I love the absurdity of it. There are lots of words that are absurd. I have this blind faith in things that occur to me. Overnight I will have a clear succession of words come to me in a dream and I wake up in the middle of the night and have to write these things down. For example, my painting of the phrase that I dreamt: ‘He walks into a union hall full of workers and yells out “OK, what is it you guys want? Pontiac Catalinas?”’ There is some logic to it, when you think about unions and what workers want. Maybe that’s all you want – a car – and that’s a sort of happiness. And happiness can be through a car, so why not a Pontiac Catalina? It’s an absurd dream and yet I almost feel I have a responsibility to seize on that absurdity and make it official. That’s how it comes to be a painting.
SG It’s interesting that you dream about cars. They seem essential to your work.
ER They are. I see the automobile as part of the fabric of everything I know about. In that respect I have a real affinity to the Western US, where I’m from, and the sights that you see there, travelling by car across country.
SG Do you mean the gas stations, parking lots, billboards – the landscape of the highway that you photograph in your books? Are images like ‘Pools’ [see page 39], for example, meant to reflect the popular image of California?
ER I never intended to promote a so-called ‘Pop’ idea that Hollywood is paved with pools. Pools are more like little sparklers in a desert landscape. Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass was created by choosing a subject that was plentiful as an excuse to make photographs and, ultimately, a book.
SG So you’re interested in looking at drive-by images, places so common that we both see and don’t see them as we pass them on the highway, like your images of gas stations.
ER I love gas stations. They are there because they are necessary, not because of folly. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t be driving. So to me they’re integral to the concept of travelling. But that’s not why they appeal to me. I like their architecture, their utilitarian approach. I’ve often dreamt of living in a gas station. It’s got the perfect layout – a roof to cut out the sun, pull your car under the roof, live inside.
SG Not entirely unlike your studio, which looks like a very big garage, especially since you’re restoring a car here.
ER Yes. Somehow it all fits together. I like driving and listening to music in a car because it’s like a soundtrack which you’re seeing and it just adds another dimension to travelling. The idea of driving is central to me. It’s the way I see everything in LA. I see things as a moving, panoramic landscape, maybe in the same way you might see a movie. It also reflects back on the way words are printed on a page in succession. Words and characters are really landscapes and they’re as panoramic as you want to make them. So over a period I was doing long, skinny paintings and I felt that they were words
in a landscape.
SG You also see landscapes where others might see emptiness, as in your parking lot photographs, taken from the air, that from a distance seem like archaeological remains of the modern world.
ER I began to look at cities from the sky, simple patterns that remind me of where I am or where I’ve come from. One of the early pictures that kicked this off was the painting LA County Museum of Art on Fire. Believe it or not, that was inspired by the Tate’s Ophelia.
SG Why does Millais’s painting of a drowning girl remind you of a museum in flames?
ER I like the idea that this misfortune is happening in such a calm atmosphere. It also reminds me of a work I love by the British artist Richard Eurich of the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is an aerial view of a quiet,
pastoral scene that is full of bombs – things are blowing up but it looks so tranquil.
SG You find inspiration in eclectic imagery from around the world but somehow recast it as LA. The city remains your trademark subject, like Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire or Morandi’s bottles. Why does LA inspire you so?
ER I suppose the concept of urban hopelessness offers an artist like myself something to tackle. Since LA is the city I found myself living in, I observe it’s decadence on a daily basis. There are other grander cities: London, New York. San Francisco is more beautiful. It is much the same as when I visited as a child, whereas people come to LA and they say ‘God – that used to be a field out there!’ There’s no history here. And in many cases this is an ugly city.
SG Does LA’s lack of history affect your work, even become a subject of it?
ER Yes, but I also hate change. It’s part of my life and maybe I’m painting change. LA is not a story-book village. Its buildings and streets echo a kind of franchising society filtered out of the rest of America. The Spanish colonial references of LA are all that is left of the original style. I simply observe the cruelty of progress and make pictures of that.
SG Has your work evolved from the first books of photos without words to your word paintings without images?
ER No. My work is never meant to be instructive. It just explores what I’m about. I think that’s what artists have to do – listen to themselves and make something out of that and express it.
• Ed Ruscha’s work is in Gallery 8 at this year’s Summer Exhibition. Films by Ruscha will be screened at the RA on 17 June. Ruscha is the United States’ representative for this year’s Venice Biennale.
©RA Magazine 2005.
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