Magazine article The Spectator

Word Pictures

Magazine article The Spectator

Word Pictures

Article excerpt

Edruscha: Fifty Years of Painting

Hayward Gallery, until 10 January 2010

Apparently, Ed Ruscha (born 1937 and pronounced Rew-shay) is widely considered one of the world's most influential living artists. American, he has been based in Los Angeles all his working life, and is much indebted to the strategies and formal devices of filmmaking. Reference books tend to call him a Pop artist, in recognition of his interest in popular culture, and his exploitation of branding and presentation. (An early painting features one of those distinctive red boxes of raisins smashed flat to the picture plane. ) His admirers want to distance him now from the Pop label and talk about conceptual art and surrealism. Ruscha sees himself as 'a combination of abstract artist and someone who deals with subject matter'.

He is one of those artists whose work reproduces supremely well, so much so that the principal reason to experience his paintings in the flesh is to gain an idea of their size, which is usually on the scale of the billboard or cinema screen. Once that basic fact has been registered, there are few more painterly pleasures to be absorbed from these large, bland pictures. In some ways, you get the measure and excitement of Ruscha's work best from books and catalogues. I wondered why we had never seen a big show of his work here (though there was a Serpentine retrospective in 1990), and now I know.

Walking round the cavernous, art-inhospitable spaces of the Hayward, I particularly enjoyed his early paintings. His beginnings in impasto and collage were soon swapped for the unaccented 'brush-less' surface, and the work became dominated by his lifelong passion for typography and the print media. It's evident that his greatest theme is words, though he's good on petrol stations and quite keen on mountains. A quintessential early painting is 'Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights' (1962), a homage to 20th Century Fox and the diagonal, and a new take on sign-writing. It still looks good, as indeed do the burning gas stations, but the viewer is not exactly delayed by a plethora of painterly qualities, of surface or mark, densities of pigment or subtleties of colour. These paintings are largely uninflected, the lettering supplying the chief incident or event in an otherwise quietly painted and schematic composition.

The world of advertising is ever-present.

What looks like a pied wagtail with a pencil shoved up its butt, sharp end first, becomes a drawing implement for sick-humoured birders, titled 'Give Him Anything and He'll Sign It'. Elsewhere trompe l'oeil inflatable lettering is squeezed by clamps and LA County Museum is depicted from an oblique aerial perspective that Ruscha evidently found more intriguing than the fact that fire seems almost incidentally to be engulfing the back of its main building. (What is it about this artist and fire? ) It's clear that Ruscha is drawn to the classical statement, but determined to be deadpan and ironic in its employment. A series of small canvases at this point demonstrates just how good he is at painting the flat, frozen moment. He takes as subject a broken glass of milk presumably because he wants to paint a stylised splash and fragments of flying glass. Very effective, too.

There's a touch of the Magrittes in 'No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk' (1977), which depicts a roaring fire with brick surround in a shadowy, uninhabited space, and the nifty sloganising for which Ruscha is celebrated really gets under way. …

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