Ed Ruscha and the ‘broken moments’ that shaped the early days of his practice

Ed Ruscha and the ‘broken moments’ that shaped the early days of his practice

There’s a curious wryness in the work of West Coast art patriarch Ed Ruscha, one that belies the superficial gloss of his adopted home city of Los Angeles. The painter and printmaker has lived and worked in LA since 1956, putting his own droll spin on Hollywood’s film industry, Southern Californian architecture and landscapes, gas stations, archetypal landscapes, and ordinary foodstuffs.

Four decades of Ruscha’s works are now on view at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, extracted from the UBS Art Collection. Taking its title from one of Ruscha’s so-called ‘word-pictures’, the exhibition ‘VERY’ spans his formative years up to the 1990s and includes studies for some of his most iconic paintings and artist books.

‘It appears as though this a seamless continuum of work – like it’s very smooth – but in actuality it’s a lot of broken moments that make these things,’ said the artist, in conversation at the museum with Mary Rozell, global head of the UBS Art Collection. ‘Suddenly I see these all side by side, and it’s a different experience for me.’

Perhaps most intriguing among the selection of 54 works are Ruscha’s earliest endeavours, showing a panache for experimental mediums such as gunpowder. The show also reveals his affinity for food: in a series of works, Ruscha experiments with using baked beans, strawberries, pie filling and salmon roe (among other ingredients) as alternative mediums. Measuring 4”x4”, Ruscha’s Spam Study is the exact size of a can of spam – no coincidence, noted the artist. ‘I lived off that stuff for months and months,’ he quipped. ‘The things I lived off of, I ended up making art out of.’

Spam Study, 1961-62, by Ed Ruscha, oil on canvas. UBS Art Collection. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha developed an interest in cartooning in his adolescent years. There’s a 1951 photograph of a then 13 or 14-year-old Ruscha drawing at a table, foretelling his future – though his path to the art world wasn’t picture-perfect. ‘Most of the artists I hung around with [at art school] were happy to make art for sport. We had no idea this thing could be changed into a vocation, where you just do this for life,’ he explained.

Ruscha dabbled in a number of careers, including as a sign painter and layout designer. He learned how to set type and worked for an advertising agency, an industrial supply company, and a printer – at the latter, he was exposed to books, which had a profound influence on his work. Comic books and ‘funny pictures’, he added, ‘leaked into my perception of the world’.

But inspiration is all around. ‘I hear things, sometimes on the radio or in a movie, or I hear people talking in a normal situation. I pick up these words and these combinations of words, and these somehow have a riveting meaning to me,’ reflected the artist. ‘The only way to make these words official is to make a work of art on them and then I can forget about them.’

At 80 years old, the pop pioneer shows no signs of slowing down. Ruscha’s take on the cyclical nature of civilisation and industry is on view at London’s National Gallery until 7 October; the Palm Springs Art Museum will open a show of his work in October, while another exhibition at Secession in Vienna follows in November. §

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