Jackie Wullschlager tries to make sense of Ed Ruscha’s work in the Financial Times on the occasion of his retrospective at the Heyward Gallery in London:
Cinema – its flat, word-inscribed screens, receding spaces, glossy celluloid colour – is to Ruscha’s canvases what photographs were to Andy Warhol or cartoons to Roy Lichtenstein: mass media assimilated to inject everyday banality into the high art of painting. Thus American pop art was born, with Ruscha its tortoise, working slowly and steadily out of the international limelight through the 1950s and 60s, when Los Angeles was “deeply away from the rest of the world: an isolated location”. Top New York gallerist Leo Castelli gave him his first show in 1973 but, according to another dealer, “Ruscha was always at the bottom of Castelli’s stable – simply because he was working in LA.” […]
Ruscha calls himself “an abstract artist who deals with subject matter”. He rejected art school’s abstract expressionist training as academic by the late 1950s, and describes his “atomic bomb” moment as his encounter with Jasper Johns’ “Target with Four Faces”, which exploded the pieties around abstraction and collapsed its gap with figurative painting.
Ruscha’s own great subject was, from the start, words. “Boss” (1961), a highlight of the Hayward’s opening room, spells out the word in velvety black capitals, the “O” leaning pertly to the left, against an impastoed muddy rectangle enclosed between strips of darker brown. The rich surface acknowledges gestural abstraction, connotations of authority are an Oedipal nod to Johns, but the mix of letters, painterly beauty – Ruscha found the curving round word “almost beautiful like a tulip would be beautiful” – and droll pop allusion (Boss is a clothing brand) is fresh and original.
In loud colour, “Noise”, “Scream” and “OOF” – evoking the exclamation of someone being punched in the stomach – continued his experiments with single words as a painting’s subject. He saw early how language would be challenged by the ubiquitous image overload of modern life.
Ed Ruscha’s Great Subject (Financial Times)