Ruscha’s art schooling came in the 60s at the tail end of the Abstract Expressionist movement. For him, Abstract Expressionism was a beautiful form of painting whose artists had exhausted its ideas, leaving no room for further exploration. Ruscha wanted to wrestle with new ideas—his own ideas, even though they were not yet fully formulated. For inspiration, Ruscha looked to sig- nage in Los Angeles; signs were everywhere in L.A. and he became interested in the power they had.
Ruscha chose to render the L.A. he saw and the things that comprised it— gas stations, neighborhood stores, apartment buildings, hotels, and silent places— with dreamlike stillness, sans people. Composed dramatically on the diagonal, Ruscha’s compositions tell stories of West Coast life, forgoing detail for atmospheric simplicity. Images viewed one after another simulate driving around a city charged with energy and saturated with signage: “Telephone”, “Muffler”, “Upholster y”, “Flash”, “Smash” and “Noise”. Words conjure the unexpected and generate a flood of associations; if a picture is worth a thousand words, one of Ruscha’s words is a condensation of a thousand images.
In his work, the artist is drawn to literal and visual symbols and the alchemy they create when combined. Ruscha has remarked that words are made up of letters—twisted and contorted, wiggly and jagged, non-objective shapes. Letters can be sharp, overwhelming, blunt, and neutral. In combination, words are read left to right, rather like a landscape.
On display at the Norton Simon Museum is his masterful—albeit first— attempt at lithography, created in 1969. Lithography is a highly sophisticated form of printmaking; artists at the end of the eighteenth century discovered that they could apply waxed crayon, pencil, and ink to a slab of limestone and come up with an original format for creating art. Depending on the strength of the crayon or pencil, the print could be bold with strong, dark lines or gentle and washy, like a watercolor. Ruscha's start with lithography came under the guidance of the founder of Los Angeles’ Tamarind Lithography Workshop—the inimitable June Wayne—who woke up the West Coast art community to this dormant art form.
At the Tamarind, Ruscha created the series of 24 works, 15 of which are exhibited at the Norton Simon. In each application of ink or each pull of paper off stone, he attempted to discover and annotate original printmaking possibilities. Unlike abstract art, the printer’s art requires a defined step-by-step process. Its final image, seen in reverse, sits on paper instead of canvas and, in the end, affects the artistic mood differently. Coming from a commercial art background—where planning and precision are critical—Ruscha took to printmaking easily.
Ruscha chose diminutive but imaginative words, visible in City, Eye, and Air. He renders the words with great precision—often as if they are three-dimensional— with shaded silhouettes formed from ribbons, droplets of water, strips of paper, or carved out of the sky.
Also on display is the exhibition namesake, Ooo, which presents a simple composite of circular shapes. The letters “O-O-O” were meant to suggest rolled paper tubes, which grew out of Ruscha’s need to express elemental shapes with shading and tones through the complex lithographic process. And yet, Ooo looks like a foreign language, a secret code for us to decipher.
Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma. Growing up, he spent a lot of time reading and drawing comic strips and, when he later began searching for his artistic voice, it was the pictures that moved him as a child that would came back as images and words in his work. The visual choices that emerged as an adult, he observes, grew from images that were formed or he observed when he was young. He moved to Los Angeles in 1956 to become a commercial artist but several encounters with other artists radically changed his direction from commercial to studio art.
In 1960, Ruscha attended the renowned Chouinard Art Institute, now Cal Arts, to be groomed as an animator/illustrator for Disney. Simultaneously, he learned to paint on canvas in the abstract expressionist manner. But Ruscha was surrounded by future art stars like Jasper Johns who introduced him to ideas beyond Abstract Expressionism. Ruscha was drawn to Johns’ interest in media and began to bring influences from commercial art—brighter colors, commercial subjects, precision of execution—into fine art. In this way, Ruscha extended the visual boundaries of painting which was soon dubbed West Coast Pop.
Before Ruscha and other groundbreaking artists, Los Angeles in the 60s was considered a cultural wasteland. In many ways, Ruscha’s artistic vision, experimen- tation, and inventive pursuits in many media—as seen in the beautifully rendered lithographs on display at the Norton Simon—were instrumental in altering Los Angeles from a backwater to one of the most thriving artistic places on the planet. Through his ceaseless output—which today is as influential as ever—Ruscha has helped make the myth and magic of the city a reality.
Image: Ed Ruscha at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, 1969. Image courtesy of the Tamarind Institute Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries,The University of New Mexico, 574-0278.