"Sometimes I wonder whether I am painting pictures of words or whether I’m painting pictures with words."
Ed Ruscha’s body of work has influenced graphic design, architectural theory, cinema and, perhaps most profoundly, the art of the book as it has been practiced over the past fifty years. He came of age as an artist in the late 1950s with collages similar to those of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and early in his career he was associated with Pop Art. He quickly established his own métier, however, and became known for his paintings of words and phrases. While he has returned repeatedly to the book form throughout his career he has never been confined to it as a medium of artistic expression; his recent exhibition at the Kunsthaus Bregenz (which moved later to Gagosian in New York), entitled Reading Ed Ruscha, included acrylic and oil paintings, drawings on paper, watercolors on vellum, photographs, and altered books which were framed as sculptural objects.
Ruscha’s books for some reason mystify art critics who find it hard to categorize. Kevin Hatch, writing in October in 2005, said “[the books] do not fit anywhere very comfortably,” and Margaret Iverson, writing in Art History in 2009, said “Ed Ruscha’s books are puzzling.” The word “protophotoconceptualism” often comes up in describing his books and they have definitely spawned many often humorous riffs by younger artists on the design, typography, and themes. A couple of examples:
Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ed Ruscha 1966 //// None of the Buildings on the Sunset Strip, Jonathan Monk 2002
Various Small Fires, Ed Ruscha 1964 //// Various Minuteman Missile Silos, Jeff Bouws 2011
Ruscha’s first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, is a classic work from 1962 that depicts everyday objects, in this case buildings, in a way that suggests a relationship among words (the trade names on the signs), things (the stations themselves), and ideas (the cultural landscape on the highway between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City). Through this work Ruscha presaged the conceptual art movement in three important ways: by identifying the vernacular as the fundamental referent for the work, by using the prosaic representational medium of photography to record and memorialize the referent, and by employing a low cost method of presentation and distribution, in the form of the trade paperback, to convey his message.
Ruscha was born in 1937 in Omaha and studied at what is now Cal Arts. His first solo show was in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery. He has had major one-artist exhibitions at, among other museums, the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris 1989), the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington 2000), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York 2004). He was the United States’ representative to the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005.