Text book Mountains
February 11, 2004
The official description of a 2000 Ed Ruscha retrospective notes that, early in his career, the artist made a “revelatory trip” to Europe. Ruscha ” pronounced roo-SHAY ” did indeed travel to Europe in 1961, a year after finishing his studies at Los Angeles’ Chouinard Art Institute. And his time in Europe was, in its way, influential on Ruscha’s art. But “revelatory” hardly seems the most apt description of the trip.
“I went to Europe early on and tried to delve into that world. And I didn’t find much to offer myself with those traditional things,” said the 66-year-old Ruscha. “It was kind of overwhelming. It was, ‘Here’s the history of the world.'”
It was in the States that the Nebraska-born, Oklahoma-raised, longtime angeleno experienced the real revelation. Back home, surrounded by modern skyscrapers and endless highways, corporate logos and cars, Ruscha found he was moved by the landscape that is the American city.
“I took the things that impressed me, and I found I preferred urban American experiences,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get back to that. The flavors and reality of American life had more harmony. It was: This is for me and that is for them.”
Completing his break with traditionalism, Ruscha discovered that he had no romantic notions of paint itself. “I’m just not one of those painters who likes to be up to his arms in smeared paint,” he said. “I like the end result rather than the means to the end.”
Oftentimes, even the end results achieved by the great painters have been lost on Ruscha. “I’m more of an information-age artist,” he said. “The ideas that come through are information. Photography, movies, print media seemed to affect me quite a bit. I was more moved by discovering reproductions than seeing paintings in a museum.”
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More than mountains
Armed with his preferences, Ruscha embarked on his career. He took inspiration from such disciplines as cinema, graphic design, typography and cartoons, and used the imagery of the emerging Southern California culture of cars, apartment houses and parking lots. And Ruscha also cleared his own path: Many of his works from the late 1960s and early ’70s had food products ” salad dressing, bacon grease, berries, egg yolks ” as their medium. Most notable was “Chocolate Room,” a work for the 1970 Vienna Biennale that consisted of 360 sheets of paper silk-screened with chocolate.
Despite the occasional oddity of his materials, Ruscha’s imagery was instantly accessible. There have always been landscapes ” of Los Angeles neighborhoods, gas stations, roads and more. And there have always been words, a longtime signature of Ruscha’s art.
“Mountain Paintings,” a series begun in 1997, combines Ruscha’s affinity for landscapes and words. The acrylic-on-canvas paintings are monumental renderings of majestic mountains, accompanied by text in the foreground. The text doesn’t have much narrative; the words aren’t meant to make much of a point in themselves. One piece, “Artesia,” features the names of Los Angeles streets in varying sizes. Several others ” “Level As A Level” and “Sex At Noon Taxes” ” are noteworthy for their palindromic form, not their literal meaning. One asks the humdrum question, “How do you do?”
Eleven of the large-scale mountain-and-word landscapes are featured in the Aspen Art Museum exhibit Ed Ruscha: Mountain Paintings, opening with a reception on Thursday, Feb. 12, at 6 p.m. Preceding the opening, Ruscha will give a free public lecture at 5 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium.
As is customary with Ruscha, the “Mountain Paintings” are short on romance. While the mountains themselves are grand and glorious, the text tends to give them a different sort of existence; some could easily pass for those vaguely spiritual Aspen Skiing Company ads from a few years back. While Ruscha calls himself a “nature boy” ” and notes with pride that he has climbed Mt. Whitney, a fourteener in the Sierra Nevadas north of Los Angeles ” as a painter, he is not a naturalist.
“The specifics of these are not like Albert Bierstadt, communing with nature and painting a particular place,” said Ruscha, noting that his images are often composites of different mountains, often painted from a combination of photographs. “Mine is the idea of mountains rather than mountains.”
The mountains in the “Mountain Paintings” may, in fact, be secondary to the words. Ruscha, who studied typography and worked for a printer in the early ’60s, has been painting text far longer and more extensively than he has mountains.
“I’m not trying to say something about the mountains, or mountainize the sayings,” he explained. “I’m creating an all-purposeness. It’s like the image of a velvet curtain in a theater ” the mountains are like backdrops, and the words dance across and are independent in their way. The triumphant quality of the mountains themselves has not a message, but a presence.”
A way with words
Ruscha says he is generally not motivated by the meaning of a particular word or words. He is rarely looking to the words to say anything. When he came across the phrase “Carpet Tones,” he decided to use it because of the vague suggestion of an advertisement. “It’s two words that don’t really take you anywhere, except maybe they come from advertising. I said, ‘There’s a good excuse for a painting,'” he noted.
Rather, it is the physical dimension of words, their shapes and sizes and arrangements, that attracts Ruscha. He likes that a word ” unlike, say, an apple ” doesn’t have a prescribed size, so he is free to play with size. In the way words stretch, horizonlike, across a page, he sees a landscape.
Finally, words are inextricably linked to another of Ruscha’s favorite subjects ” books. Though he has a longtime passion for poetry and is currently into technical subjects like geology and has discovered a recent fondness for Gertrude Stein, Ruscha claims not to be a voracious reader. Still, he finds in his work a strong link to books as physical objects.
“All my paintings are like books and always have been,” said Ruscha, who has made photography books of his work, and has designed book covers. “In a sense, the palindromes are like books ” if you open a book, it’s a palindrome, a symmetrical formation.” Many of Ruscha’s word paintings have featured the word not only on the front of the canvas, but also along the sides ” “like a book jacket cover … in the zone of a book cover,” he said.
Among Ruscha’s upcoming projects is an oversized special edition of “On the Road,” with photos used to illustrate Kerouac’s Beat classic. “I read it a few times and got particularly connected to that book,” explained Ruscha.
“Maybe I’m completely vulnerable to print media.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org