Ed Ruscha, Pop Art, and Spectatorship in 1960s Los Angeles

Article excerpt

Ed Ruscha first visited New York ( "in in 1961 . While staying .11 the Hotel Governor Clinton near Pennsylvania Station, he made a drawing of the Twentieth Century-Fox corporate logo in ballpoint pen on the hotel's stationery.' In this work, entitled Trademark Study. Ruscha exaggerates the perspective so thai the lettering dramatically extends from a point in the lowei righi corner into the leftside of the· long, rectangular space ol the image (Fig. 1). Accompanied b\ the text "Large Trademark Plus Eighl Spotlights" and another variation of the text, the drawing introduces the motif of the word as an object that would become central 10 Ruscha's ait throughoui his career. The major painting thai he- executed in the following year based on this tiny sketch is over eleven feel wide and five feet high, largei than anything he had done to dale (Fig. 2). The scale of this painting suggests thai Ruscha found something significant in this image that went beyond the Pop art gambit of importing the imagery of advertising, consumerism, or entertainment into die context of line an. Ruscha's manipulation of the Twentieth Century-Fox logo is an early example of the dramatic compositional strategies he began using in the 1960s, which noi only respond to the question of painting in the wake of Abstract Expressionism but also take up the issue ol spectatorship along with the importance of the viewer's encounter with the materiality and the spatial complexities of his work.

Ruscha's ait is often characterized as having a deadpan quality that projects a kind of cool indifference toward the viewer. ? closer examination of the way Ruscha addressed the nature and act of looking in the paintings and photographic books that launched his career, however, situates Ruscha's work beyond the Los Angeles context in which it is typically placed and connects ii to wider currents of ari discourse that were circulating during the 1960s. Bui this approach also asks us to lie more specific about the ways thai this archetypal "L.A. artist" (an oft-repeated cliche'· that obscures more than it explains) actually responded to the spatial experience of Los Angeles as a new an scene- emerged there early in the decade.

Trademark Study led to a rich creative territory lor Ruscha thai stretched over the media of painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. In a 1963 drawing based on spotlights and the dramatic perspective motif, lie depicted the tirsi of his influential series of photographic books. Twenlysix (*asoline Stations, in a form thai combined the dille rent lacets of his practice (Fig. 3). Photo Riot 400 Boohs can be read as an attempt to demonstrate the kind of visual impact and bodily encounter Ruscha described in a 1965 interview aboui his books: "I am noi trying to create a precious limited edition book, but a mass-prod need produci of the highest order. . . . It is alinosi worth the money to have the thrill of seeing 400 exactl) identical books stacker! in front of you."3 The "thrill" of such an experience· is evoked bv the seemingly infinite column of copies of Ruscha's book receding into die distance, while the spotlights surround the cover of Twentysix Gasoline Stations and turn this small-format book into a kind of monumental sculpture. Ruscha's remark about die goals of his book project is striking for his rejection of the tradition of die finely crafted artist's book. At the same lime, he effected a major shift in scale, as mass production transformed his small, nearly pocket-size books into a wholly different kind of object that, en masse, demands to be physically negotiated. In an interview from 1990, Ruscha reflected on how his books blurred such categories: "1 consider my books to be strictly visual materials. I even perceived them as bits of sculpture, in a wav. They were three-dimensional, the) were thick."4

In his paintings of this early 1960s moment, Ruscha was working through similar issues of size, scale, and the viewer's bodily encounter with his canvases. …