Ed Ruscha: “Any Art is an Odd Practice”
"Finally, any art is an odd practice that evades being explained or clarified. It lies in the realm of the ambiguous. Maybe that is where it belongs." Ed Ruscha in conversation with Monika Bayer-Wermuth.
Last year Museum Brandhorst celebrated its 10th anniversary. For us it was an occasion to showcase the museum’s collection – with a special focus on recent acquisitions – for a whole year in all rooms of the museum. We decided to use this period to not only think about the collection but also its future. In a way your painting Really Old became our plan to navigate the year. Brand New, Half-Way and Really Old: Where do we stand? That question accompanied us in many conversations. What I like about that painting is that its form expands from bottom to top; it is narrow where it says “brand new” and wide where it says “really old”. Somehow it is a promise that you don’t stop growing. But maybe I am overinterpreting here. Can you tell us a little bit about this work e.g. about the shape of its canvas, the font and the colors?
“Really Old” is a picture from a group of paintings that I called “Extremes and in-betweens”. I have always resisted any attraction to the idea of shaped canvases. I was never inspired by art made this way, but the forward motion of time opened up the idea of the megaphonic shape to create this statement and there you go, a shaped canvas! The font is like a reliable old friend that comes from a world devoid of style. It tells a story in a neutral way. The background: Raw Umber mixed with Plus White – this turned out as a complete and welcome surprise because it became a color that forgot it was a color – it approximated the sound of a neutral room tone and I was satisfied with its emptiness.
Words as images and the combination of words and images play a key role in your work. As a visual artist what are the qualities of words that made you interested in them?
Anything on a printed piece of paper had a nourishing value to me. As I would paint a picture of the letter “S”, let’s say, I would not forget that this letter was really invented and created by not me but someone earlier than myself. This always amused me as I was only delineating someone else’s invention.
Sometimes you use whole phrases and quotes that you set against an image background. Thus neither can the words be regarded purely as text nor the image purely as visual, they become an inseparable couple where the identity of each part depends on and influences its counterpart. At what point in your process do you decide that a word and an image go together?
This is where blind faith and impulse come together to require me to not think too much about what I’m doing – I only use forward motion.
Other times it is just a single word that you set against a monochrome background. They are short and simple words like “Smash”, “Boss” or “Eat”. Everyone can relate to these words in one way or another, so the selection of words feels quite democratic. Where do these words come from and what is it about them that attracts you?
Early on, I responded to words that suggested noise or impact such as monosyllabic words from the comics. Words as cartoons. Words lifted from somebody’s fantasies.
Another aspect is that the sound of the word becomes part of the work. To me I inevitably have the word in my mind constantly while standing in front of these paintings. They have power but they are also very open for projections of meaning – in that sense they are pretty abstract. Is this something you would agree with?
Since all calligraphy could be seen as abstract, these crazy shapes all have their own character. Then they all are lined up in such a way as to actually mean something. You could say it is a very simple miracle.
Our painting Not Only Securing the Last Letter But Damaging It as Well (Boss) from 1964 incorporates two screw clamps. It is not certain whether they are trying to undo the “s” from the canvas or fix it. The letter becomes physical, it appears to be made of a very soft fabric or a glossy film. It loses its flatness and becomes illusionistic. To me it also feels like a tongue-in-cheek way to state that this isn’t writing but painting. Is this something you had in mind? Can you tell us a little bit about this way of dealing with letters?
With this painting I recall searching for an alternative to a static picture. I was 26 years old when this was done and not old enough to judge my level of maturity. I may have felt that I needed the screw clamps to “aggravate” the theme.
Another work prominently featured in our current show is Psycho Spaghetti Western #14 (2013-14). It introduces a completely different scene – quite a surreal one: an abandoned landscape of discarded objects. And it also refers to cinema: Both the trash as well as the landscape look like perfectly, albeit unnaturally lit protagonists of a movie. The title is quite charged with the history of cinema as well. Can you tell us a little bit about the “Psycho Spaghetti Western” series?
This series was like picking ripe fruit off a tree except the subjects were discards off the highway. The objects are meant to be both heroic and tragic at the same time.
The landscape – whether an urban cityscape or endless highways – plays an ongoing role in your work. Also, many of your book projects, such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) or Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), are also concerned with landscape. The road seems to be a central motif in many of them. What do these roads mean to you?
Rolling and twisting ribbons animated and pulled flat to create a straight highway is what I think of when contemplating the open road, so I see the road as fantasy and reality wrapped into one beautiful package.
Some of your book projects are straightforwardly conceptual and undermine a narrative, such as Various Small Fires (1964) or A Few Palm Trees (1971). Others instead follow a quite playful narrative, like Crackers (1965), Royal Road Test (1967) or Hard Light (1978). In Crackers a handsome guy played by Larry Bell takes an attractive woman out on a date. Absurdly enough he seduces her into a freshly prepared salad bed (I can’t think of anything more seductive…). But then, in place of the expected sex scene, we see the gentleman contemplate the scenario from a distance, in a different home and bed alone in neat pajamas over a package of crackers. So instead of a playboy the guy turns out to be a prankster… I cracked up laughing at this one and I love its unexpected absurdity. But then it also leaves me puzzled. What can we learn about the person Ed Ruscha from this book and story?
You can learn that I borrowed my friend’s (Mason Williams) imaginative story as a quick excuse to make a movie that some people call a “shaggy dog”** story. Finally, any art is an odd practice that evades being explained or clarified. It lies in the realm of the ambiguous. Maybe that is where it belongs.
Thank you Ed Ruscha.
**a long, rambling story or joke, typically one that is amusing only because it is absurdly inconsequential or pointless.