Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors:
The Drawings of Ed Ruscha
Whitney Museum of American Art
Through September 26
In "Standard, Figueroa, Los Angeles" (1962), from Ed Ruscha’s well-known Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), the gas station lights smolder in the late-night dark, the pumps barely visible in the foreground. "Mobil, Kingman, Arizona" (1962), by contrast, is set in the hard, dusty, mid-day light, powerlines cutting through the frame and receding out into bleak desert; and the station in "Texaco, Vega, Texas" (1962) is positively dilapidated, a ghost-town gas station, the blackened shapes of oil wells in the background. When Ruscha paints Standard stations in bright colors on monumental canvases, as in "Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas" (1963), they have the sleek glamour of a culture that is all about combustion and speed and freedom (one can almost see the empty highways unfurling), but the images in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, all shot on Highway 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City, are lonely and abandoned: there isn’t a single attendant or car in any of the images. Ruscha’s gasoline stations invite comparison with Edward Hopper’s late night urban diners, or the sinister roadside outposts in film noirs like Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1949). But where Hopper’s and Ray’s work is full of inward angst and alienation, Ruscha’s photographs are depersonalized, reduced to their own existence.
On view in the small first floor gallery of the Whitney Museum and serving as a brief but illuminating preface to Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha upstairs, Ruscha’s photographs, which he typically assembles into carefully designed books, are concerned with the irreducible, deadpan fact. For Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), for instance, Ruscha cruised around residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles and photographed the fronts of apartment buildings, always from across the street, as though he did not want to even get close enough to see inside the lobby. Like the images in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the thirty-four photographs that comprise Some Los Angeles Apartments are perfectly devoid of any signs of human life; there isn’t so much as a toy or a bicycle or a piece of garbage visible. This absence gives them an air of unreality, like stage sets in a studio back lot. Many of them are oppressive and kitschy, like "1018 S. Atlantic Boulevard" (1962) with its almost Soviet style windowless concrete block facade absurdly surrounded by tall palm trees, or "708 S. Barrington Ave." (1965), the word "Dolphin" spelled in stylish slanting cursive on its thickly textured stucco wall, a sculpture of a leaping dolphin out front. But then the tone of these images is at once dumpy, sad, and striving: they evoke the failed dream of a swinging California life.
The pictures in Thirtyfour Parking Lots In Los Angeles (1967), shot by Art Alanis from a helicopter early on a Sunday morning when the parking lots were empty, address the statistical side of L.A. sprawl, a city which even then was dominated by wide freeways and endless asphalt parking lots. In interviews compiled in Leave Any Information At The Signal (MIT Press, 2002), Ruscha repeatedly comments that he was less interested in the formal properties of the parking lots than in the patterns of oil stains, evidence of which slots were most frequently used. All of Ruscha’s best photographic series imply constant, restless movements, and are about the physical nodes and conduits of movement. Even the apartment buildings are less like places to enter than places to pass by or pull away from.
It is appropriate, then, that the first drawing in Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors is "’39 Ford" (1960), a smoky ink and crayon rendering of the car, chrome grill bearing down on the viewer on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. Ruscha has always insisted that his principal early influence was Jasper Johns, whose work he initially saw in reproduction, and the drawing in "’39 Ford" bears this out: in a combination of tactile immediacy and cool remoteness familiar from Johns, the car itself becomes not so much an American icon, dripping nostalgia, as a stripped down, elemental instrument. Ruscha’s work has of course never aspired to the rarefied formalism of Johns’s great letter and number paintings and drawings, but his early word drawings seem less interested in words as signifiers than as basic artifacts in a highly artificial cultural landscape, alongside cars, gasoline stations, apartments, and canned food. In "Honk" (1964), the letters stream backwards in beaming headlights on an invisible highway, as though noise, word, car, road, and landscape are interchangeable.
Many of Ruscha’s drawings implicitly pose the question of the difference between the illusion of a thing and a word. This issue is especially present in the wonderful oil sketch "Pencil, Broken Pencil" (1963), in which a standard yellow No. 2 pencil floats beside an identical pencil that has been snapped in two: the pencil, a classic object on which to act out writerly frustration, precedes but also somehow contains the word "pencil." The drawings are, however, often more materially concrete and emotionally potent than the closely related paintings executed at the same time. In the huge oil on canvas "Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western" (1963), the word "noise" in block red letters streams white light and streaks toward the upper corner of the canvas, on one side of the canvas’s mid-point is a thin pencil and on the other side a broken pencil, while floating toward the bottom edge is a dime store western, all against a flat, saturated black ground. "Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western" works by its elliptical and even surreal juxtapositions. In the drawings, by contrast, both words and objects remain themselves, functional but stripped of overt associations.
Concurrent with the publication of Some Los Angeles Apartments, Ruscha also made a number of highly finished graphite drawings of apartment buildings based on his photographs. Ruscha was clearly fascinated by the relationship between the generic simplicity of the pencil and the fabrication of illusion. In a painting from 1963 entitled "Talk About Space," the word "space" is spelled out in goofy but monumental yellow letters at the top of a canvas painted a radiant blue, and at the bottom is a pencil balanced on its sharpened point. The pencil is partly a measure of scale, tiny beneath the huge letters and against the pulsating blue, but it is also crucially an instrument—for writing, calculating, and drawing. Ruscha’s pencil drawings of apartment buildings are, however, of less interest than the original photographs. Whereas the photographs make the buildings appear mysterious and impenetrable, charged with narratives that can never so much as get started, the clean virtuosity of the drawings makes the buildings look like model architectural designs. Ruscha’s word drawings in gunpowder on paper, which were inspired by (and in some instances directly taken from) the names on the sides of apartment buildings he photographed are, however, more compelling. The most obvious of these is "Bronson Tropics" (1965) with its ribboning, cutout letters, while the lettering on many of Ruscha’s drawings from the middle of the 1960s mimics the same self-consciously awkward style. In "Flow" (1967), for instance, jagged, asymmetrical letters are balanced on a horizon, and in "Pee Pee" (1967) the letters have a forced, cursive ornateness: both of these drawings seem like designs for the names of buildings or products.
The graphic names emblazoned on the sides of Los Angeles apartment buildings were a powerful resource for Ruscha in part because they ooze tawdry fantasies, and Ruscha was able to ambivalently push into that form words that are morally and politically charged, like "Respect" (1966) and "Self" (1967). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Ruscha moved toward language that is more broadly vernacular, more explicit self-referentiality; and more reliant on clever visual puns. These works are of mixed quality, and the best ones rely on a kind of charged ambiguity. "Pool" (1968), for example, its letters puddles of liquid which seem to have been splashed onto the deck from a swimming pool, is simply too obvious. "Kooks" (1970), though the word itself is too self-consciously quirky, is stronger, its letters like shriveled bits of paper trailing back toward a red pastel sunset. In "Worm" (1970), the letters are small and folded against an intense blue ground, and in the slightly earlier "Automatic" (1967), the letters are tiny slivers staggered on a horizon line across the paper.
The epic visionary nineteenth-century American landscapes of Bierstadt, Church, and Cole often seem to haunt Ruscha’s work: think of the backwards Hollywood sign against a blazing sunset in "The Back of Hollywood" (1977) or the endless flaming empty horizon in "Eternal Amnesia" (1982). In the drawings, one senses that Ruscha is projecting stray but strangely forceful words—"Ding" (1971), "Pud" (1971)—out into a panoramic and sublime narrative. The drawings are successful when their discrepancies and discontinuities are subtle, humorous, and disorienting. Words, as Ruscha remarked in an interview, don’t have a size or a scale.
One of the highlights of Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors is the group of drawings of stained books and sheets of paper. In "Blank Book With Coffee Stain" (1973), there is a book suspended in mid-air, its blank, open page stained with real coffee. In "Two Sheets Stained With Blood" (1973), drawings of two sheets of paper float in the middle of the page, mottled with now darkened blood stains, and again in "Accordion Fold With Vaseline Stains" (1973), Ruscha drew an image of a folded sheet of paper set on its edge and lightly smeared it with Vaseline. Over the years Ruscha has experimented extensively, both in his drawings and prints, with the use of various organic materials, like lettuce and onion juice, but in these drawings the organic substances are more than just experiments. Blood, coffee, and Vaseline are substances which are, in different ways, part of daily functioning, and the stains on the book and sheets of paper seem to stand in place of words, are perhaps the material traces of words. Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that words are tools, and that we need to think of them as playing a specific and active role in life, and in that sense they are continuous with things like pencils, pills, blood, food, and Vaseline.
The drawings from the 1980s and 1990s included in the Whitney exhibit are both attractive and weak. In many of these pieces, Ruscha uses stock phrases instead of carefully selected individual words. Since these phrases have to be glossed semantically, the words themselves lose their strangeness, ambiguity, and weight: in other words, they become freighted with much more specific cultural references, as in "One Night Stand Forever" (1985), "Despair and Disgust" (1985), and "Brave Men Run in My Family" (1996). In addition, these phrases are no longer anchored in implied landscapes, but float over polished, blurry atmospheres, making the words accompanying emblems rather than integral objects. The recent watercolors on view at the uptown Gagosian Gallery, like "Tulsa Slut" (2003) and "Level as a Level" (2003) at least have the virtue of placing the words back into the landscape. The watery green palindromes, read back and forth along the horizon, seem like fragile hallucinations.
New York artists in the early 1960s like Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and even Robert Rauschenberg tapped into popular culture—newspaper clippings, magazine photographs, cartoons, cars, fast foods—as a way of intervening in, and exploiting, an evolving mass cultural narrative. These are, in a way, very human stories, full of actresses and politicians and cartoon characters; the cars have drivers, the words have speakers, the stories are fleshed out. On the rare occasions when Ruscha has introduced people into his work—notably in the photographic books "Crackers" (1969) and "Hard Light" (1978)—the work loses its strangeness and falls flat. Because Ruscha’s finest work is not really about popular culture; it’s about the specific objects that make culture function. He looks at these objects from a hard, bewildered distance, stripping them of context, placing them in an indeterminate landscape. Ruscha’s best pieces imply what the poet John Ashbery called a "field of endless narrative possibilities," but they are narratives one can never quite insert oneself into. What I love about the backwards Hollywood sign, for instance, is that there seems to be no city beyond it, just a massive sunset, as though the sign were somehow there in advance of the city and we have just arrived, unsure what to do with it.