June 19, 2017
In the mid-1970s, when the art dealer Leo Castelli began to exhibit Ed Ruscha’s drawings and paintings, his main gallery occupied the second floor of a townhouse at 4 East 77th Street, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Ruscha presented his first solo show of drawings with Castelli in 1973. Around that time, his drawings that related to letters and words were beginning to shed some of their earlier figurative skin, as well as their overt allegiance to Pop art. Gone were the brightly lit Standard Oil gas station and the iconic Twentieth Century Fox banner. Ruscha was moving towards a more open-ended, conceptual evocation of disembodied phrases. These were words that might be overheard through the cracked window of a moving car, or wafting across the grass of a baseball park, or chiseled into the side of a passing school, or even issuing from the lips of a friend, who, apparently once said to Ruscha, “Let me putty your window panes.”
In the carefully considered selection of thirty-one works on paper currently on view at Gagosian uptown—all of which have been loaned from private collectors and museums—Ruscha seems to be teasing out what happens when everyday phrases excised from their original context are then stenciled—or in this case reverse stenciled—onto a field of color.
In curating the show, Bob Monk worked with Lisa Turvey, the editor of the ongoing catalogue raisonné of Ruscha’s works on paper. He planned it out in great detail, down to the gray walls that seem to recede behind the drawings, enabling the letters in the spot-lit artworks to stand out like billboards. The effect also dramatically accents Ruscha’s groundbreaking stenciling technique: he outlined the words and phrases in adhesive tape, then applied washy pastel color, dry pigment, or even watered-down spinach (or lettuce, or carrot juice), using household tools like Q-tips and cotton balls (or wipes, rags, and sponges). When the letters are removed, the surrounding space creates the letters, recalling the way that, once signage letters are removed from a building, their ghostly after-image lingers on in their absence. Ruscha’s dislocated colored backgrounds amplify this effect, hovering suggestively, like ephemeral yet permanent backdrops. All the works are horizontal. Together, they suggest a panoramic landscape of sentences and fragments—of misread billboards and conversation snippets—half emerging out of the Los Angeles smog as if seen in a cinematographer’s slow pan.
Many of Ruscha’s phrases appear open-ended, a strategy which, apart from inviting multiple interpretations, helps generate a wry sense of timelessness. Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today was made in 1977, but it’s easy to imagine an exasperated driver on a backed-up California freeway saying those same words today on a cell phone to a significant someone they are late to meet. And An Extremely Hostile Individual, also from 1977, feels like a precursor to the term “road rage,” which emerged in the mid-1980s in response to shootings on those same freeways.
Some of the drawings feel charged with innuendo and veiled drama. In They Did It on Several Occasions, a drawing from 1984, the words are framed by the shadowy window of what one may assume is a bedroom, whose latch charges the image with a frisson of secrecy.
There are also works that appeal to multiple senses. Thick Blocks of Musical Fudge (1976) presents words in what could be perceived as a thick brown batter, suggesting a cocoa smell, while somehow also conjuring music. (Fittingly, this multi-sensory swirl was purchased by Robert Rauschenberg, the godfather of Pop, and given to the Museum of Modern Art.
Even with the potentially innocuous phrases in Algebra of the Sky (1982), in which letters appear embedded in midnight blue pigment, or Find Contact Lens at Bottom of Swimming Pool (1976), in which the print shimmers in a dappled blue-green pastel surface, possible meanings radiate like ripples.
Ruscha’s immortalization of phrases that seem tossed off like random candy-wrappers only serves to elevate their significance. In looking, the viewer becomes privy to a netherworld where what could easily be dismissed as banal becomes something to consider and savor. Nice, Hot Vegetables (1976) combines a misty red and green of fresh-cooked produce so vivid you can almost smell and feel the steam. With each drawing we are invited to take our time, to fill in our own dots, to soak in a subtle alchemy of smell, touch, sight, sound, and—this being LA—temperature.
The drawings in this exhibit also offer a tantalizing preview of the second volume of the catalogue raisonné of Ruscha’s drawings, covering the years 1977–1997, which will be published in the fall of next year. Devotees of Ruscha’s drawings may also be interested to know that an exhibit of new works on paper from his mountain series is on view at the Peter Lund Gallery, in Oslo, Norway, through September 9.
“Ed Ruscha: Custom-Built Intrigue: Drawings 1974–1984” is on view at Gagosian Madison Avenue, New York through Friday, June 30, 2017.