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Ed BuscIa and lIe Language TIal He Used

AulIov|s) Lisa FasquavieIIo


Bevieved vovI|s)
Souvce OcloIev, VoI. 111 |Winlev, 2005), pp. 81-106
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Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used*
LISA
PASQUARIELLO
The first
images
seen
by
visitors to the
Whitney
Museum of American Art's
recent exhibition Ed Ruscha and
Photography
were a set of six
photographs
taken in
1961 and shown for the first time in 2003.1 Each Product Still
Life
features a
single
con-
sumer
item-Oxydol
bleach,
Sherwin-Williams
turpentine,
Wax Seal car
polish-on
what
appears
to be a
shelf,
shot
frontally
in black and white
against
a solid
backdrop.
As
exhibited,
these works foretold the
photographic practice
treated in the rest of
the small show: Ruscha went on to use such artless
viewpoints
to
picture
vernacular
subjects, stripped
of
affect,
in artist's books such as
Twentysix
Gasoline Stations
(1962)
and Some Los
Angeles Apartments (1965).
The books are
rightly regarded
as beachheads
in the
genealogy
of
Conceptual
art,
but a
pair
of the
single-object photographs
evoke
instead Ruscha's first
allegiance,
to
Pop.2
(A
charter
membership
in two movements
that are in
many ways
anathema
only begins
to
suggest
his art-historical
elusiveness.)
For two of Ruscha's
early photographic subjects,
a box of Sun Maid Raisins and a tin
of
Spam, reappear
in
paintings
executed in tandem with or
shortly
after the
photos,
Box Smashed Flat
(1960-61)
and Actual Size
(1962),
paintings
that established the
reputation
of "Ed-werd
Rew-shay, Young
Artist" as an avatar of West Coast
Pop.3
The assessment was sensible
enough:
with their
sign-like
vibrance,
depiction
of
mass-produced
commercial
items,
and allusion to the
strategies
of
advertising
(picturing
a
product
in its "actual
size"),
the
paintings
feature several of the markers
*
Parts of this
essay
are taken from a
chapter
of
my
dissertation,
"'Good
Reading':
The Work of Ed
Ruscha,
1958-1970"
(Ph.D. diss.,
Stanford
University, 2004).
For her
help
and
insight
on that
project,
I
am indebted to Pamela
Lee;
thanks as well to Scott
Bukatman,
Wanda
Corn,
and
Bryan
Wolf. I am
very
grateful
to Yve-Alain
Bois,
Johanna
Burton,
Hal
Foster,
Rosalind
Krauss,
and Malcolm
Turvey
for their
comments and
suggestions
on this version.
1. The Product Still
Lifes
were first exhibited at the
Gagosian Gallery
in Los
Angeles
in
spring
2003.
2. Ruscha is
wary
of art-historical labels but does
acknowledge
his
Pop sensibility:
"I have more of an
affinity
to the
Pop
artists and their
general
attitude than to
anything
else.... You couldn't call me a card-
carrying
member of
it,
but
my
attitudes were more similar to
Pop
artists than
any
other"
(Ruscha
in
Joe
Goode,
Jeny
McMillan,
Edward
Ruscha,
exh. cat.
[Oklahoma
City:
Oklahoma
City
Art
Museum, 1989],
p. 84).
3. So read the business cards Ruscha made for himself
upon graduating
from Chouinard Art Institute
in 1960. Box Smashed
Flat
and Actual Size were included in Walter
Hopps's
New
Painting of
Common
Objects
exhibition
(Pasadena
Art
Museum, 1962);
Box Smashed Flat was the first work Ruscha sold and Actual Size
the first
acquired by
a museum.
OCTOBER
111,
Winter
2005,
pp.
81-106. ? 2005 October
Magazine,
Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute
of Technology.
OCTOBER
A
Ed Ruscha.
Left:
Sun-Maid Raisins. 1961.
Right: Spam.
1961.
All
images courtesy
the artist and
Gagosian Gallery.
that
stylistically
characterized
Pop
in both its
early
flush and
subsequent
historiciza-
tion. Present too are the
parodic rejoinders
to Abstract
Expressionism
that several
critics saw in
Pop
(Ruscha,
then a recent
graduate
of Chouinard Art
Institute,
was
trained to
paint
in an Abstract
Expressionist
manner,
against
his
inclinations).
The
title Box Smashed lat is
perhaps
the most
pithy summary
of
Greenbergian
modernism
yet,
and the
streaky
run-off in the lower half of Actual Size so
regular
it could
have been
applied
with a
ruler;
both
paintings testify
to the
reception
of
Abstract
Expressionism's
once-unencumbered,
indexical marks as
shopworn
and
stylized-indeed packaged
and
packable-by
the
early
1960s.
What is
conspicuously
not
Pop
about these
paintings,
however,
is the
impor-
tance Ruscha accords to the
single
item and its
qualities
as an
object.
The
Pop subject
was
typically pictured
as uniform and
exchangeable,
whatever
distinguishing proper-
ties it
might possess eclipsed by
the
growing power
of the mass-cultural
sign,
and its
multiplicity
reiterated in the
Pop
artist's imitation or direct use of
techniques
of
mechanical
reproduction.
While
Pop representations
of commercial
products usually
show exterior
packaging (Andy
Warhol and Tom Wesselmann's Coca-Cola
bottles,
Mel Ramos's Velveeta Cheese
boxes),
Ruscha shows interior
substance,
indicating
crushed raisins with a
smeary
blot of brown
paint
below the lid of the Sun Maid box.
Pop's
most iconic
subjects
are serial
(Warhol's
rows of
Campbell's Soup
and Coke
cans),
while Ruscha
depicts
a
single
item with lavish
trompe
l'oeil care. And we learn
from the Product Still
Lifes
that,
unlike Warhol
culling
his
imagery
from
daily newspa-
pers,
or
James Rosenquist clipping
from old
magazines,
Ruscha based his
early
paintings
on actual
objects.
The sources of his first
subjects
were a
single
can of
processed
meat and a box of raisins he
photographed
in his
studio,
and Ruscha's
care-what he calls a "reverence"-for the substance of his
subjects,
his concern to
82
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
?R
f',"i
Box? Smahe ...0
Ruscha.
Left:
Box Smashed Flat. 1960-61.
Right:
Actual Size. 1962.
present
them as
palpable things
with
tactility, weight,
and even
velocity,
hallmarks his
polymathic practice.4
This
engagement
with
materiality
can,
I would
argue,
be traced
through
most
of Ruscha's
production
of the
past forty-five years-in renderings
of both words
and
images;
in work in
painting, drawing,
editions;
and even in his
photographic
books,
thought
to
augur Conceptual
art's
antagonism
for the work of art as
physical
object.
The
project
of the
following
is narrower: to use the notion of
linguistic
opacity-of
the word as a
nontransparent sign,
whose
materiality may
be tied to its
meaning-to
chart some consistencies in Ruscha's word choices
during
his first
decade of work. His notebooks indicate that he
depicted
more than four hundred
words between 1960 and
1972,
and there have been hundreds more since. Yet the
acknowledgement
of Ruscha as a
pacemaker
in the use of text in and as
image,
and
his
subsequent
influence on
any
number of artists with
language-centered practices,
has been
unaccompanied by
an account of the
particular
kinds of words he
repre-
sents. These words are less
Pop's transparent signs
of
something
else
(mass culture,
the
popular
media,
mechanical
reproduction)
than
self-referential,
obdurately
physical
matter. Ruscha's
practice, perhaps
the slowest burn in
twentieth-century
American art
history,
has
long
merited a sustained formal
reckoning,
and to
4. Ruscha in Paul
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward Ruscha in His Western
Avenue,
Hollywood
Studio"
(1980-81),
in
Ruscha,
Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal: Writings,
Interviews, Bits,
Pages,
ed.
Alexandra Schwartz
(Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT
Press, 2002),
p.
185. Ruscha remarked on the
objects
in the
Product Still
Lifes: "They
were not in
perfect
condition ...
they're ratty
around the
edges,
and
they've
been
kicked
around,
and wrinkled. I liked them for that"
(Ruscha
in
Sylvia
Wolf,
"Nostalgia
and New Editions: A
Conversation with Ed
Ruscha,"
in Ed Ruscha and
Photography,
exh. cat.
[New
York:
Whitney
Museum of
American
Art, 2004],
p. 263). Compare
to
Lucy Lippard's primer
Pop
Art:
"Pop objects decidedly forgo
the
uniqueness acquired by
time.
They
are not
yet
worn or left over"
(New
York:
Praeger, 1966), p.
78.
83
OCTOBER
demonstrate a
pattern
of choices based on
linguistic opacity,
in which words
possess
a
material
density
and form is often motivated
by meaning, may complicate
received wisdom about
signification
in
Pop
at the moment the movement itself is
ripe
for critical reexamination.
Ruscha's textual
choices-mostly single
words for the first decade of his
practice,
then
longer phrases
and sentences from the
early
1970s on-are
gener-
ally regarded
as humorous
one-liners,
lightweight piffle
and self-evident
snippets
drawn
seemingly
at random from Los
Angelean highway
and movie culture:
Paramount. Gas. Western.
Honey,
I Twisted
Through
More Damn
Traffic Today.
When
critics do mention his
particular
selections,
most do so
only nominally, noting
that,
like
many Pop
artists,
Ruscha
represents
brand-name
products,
or that
names such as
"Hollywood"
and "20th
Century
Fox"
conjure
the local color of his
adopted
hometown;
or in bemused
passing, wondering
if
painting
the word
"adios" to look as if formed of beans
might
be some sort of a
joke.
This semantic
lip
service follows from conventional notions of
signifying
in
Pop:
its words and
images
were (and
are)
mainly
considered
straightforward,
if
oversized,
inventories
of an
increasingly pervasive,
mass-media-driven American
popular
culture. The
issues of
interest,
then and
now,
were the level of
critique
intended
(did
these
everyday subjects signal
a cheerful
acceptance
or the
grim
ascent of the culture
industry?)
and the
question
of what
picturing
the
commodity
in a work of art
entailed in terms of its own status as a
commodity;
the
signs
themselves were
taken to be
obvious,
even
transparent,
vehicles of
meaning.
"The authentic
Pop
image
exists
independent
of
any interpretations,"
wrote one critic. "It is
simple,
direct,
and
immediately comprehensible."5
These
presumptions
of
simplicity
were
understandable:
Pop's
new
imagery-demotic,
commercial, urban,
sexual-
though startling,
was at least
recognizable
after
nearly
two decades of
abstraction,
and
fast-changing
conditions of artistic
production
and
reception
seemed to call
out for what Leo
Steinberg
would
memorably
term "other criteria" to
gauge
the
work. To evaluate the matter of Ruscha's
words,
and consider the relation of that
matter to
meaning,
is an
unabashedly
formalist
project,
and
Pop,
as
Steinberg
suggested
in
1963,
had
"pushed subject
matter to such
prominence
that formal or
aesthetic considerations are
temporarily
masked out."6
5. John Russell and Suzi
Gablik,
Pop
Art
Redefined (New
York:
Praeger,
1969),
p.
9. Even while
attempt-
ing
to "redefine" the
reception
of
Pop,
Gablik does not
depart
from initial
assumptions
about the
straight-
forwardness of its
signs.
6. Leo
Steinberg
in "A
Symposium
on
Pop
Art,"
Arts 37
(April 1963), p.
39.
Steinberg's
recommenda-
tion in "Other Criteria"
(1972)
that art criticism abandon formalism had
already
been realized in much of
the earliest criticism on
Pop.
Most
early
reviewers saw little formal
significance
in
it:Jules Langsner,
review-
ing
The New
Paintings of Common
Objects, pronounced
the work "insufficient
esthetically," declaring,
"the
lack of interest
generated by
these works resides in the
poverty
of visual
invention";
John Coplans, writing
about the 1963
Pop
Art-USA show he
organized
at the Oakland
Museum, noted,
"For these
artists,
the
Abstract
Expressionist
concern with
gesture,
with the
expressive possibilities
of sheer
materials,
is out ...
sophisticated
concern with
compositional techniques,
formal
analysis
or
drawing,
is also out"
(Langsner,
"Los
Angeles
Letter,"
Art International
[September
1962],
p.
49;
Coplans, "Pop
Art-USA," Artforum
51
84
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
Most criticism on Ruscha fuses the observation that he turns words into
objects
with the
assumption
that those
words,
in
turn,
relinquish
whatever immanent or
referential
signifying
capacities they might possess; bypassed
is the
potential
of the
rendered word to be both
physical thing
and
conveyor
of
meaning,
at once
pictorial
object
and bearer of
linguistic
resonance and association.7 Yet it is the
possibility
of
picturing
this
simultaneity
that animates Ruscha's
practice:
his material is
language,
but that
language
is
material,
and in
giving
size to
things
that "exist in a world of no-
size,"
he tends to
portray
words as
signs
that can be motivated and linked to their
materiality.8
He loves
words,
picks
them
carefully
("whatever
I do now is
completely
premeditated"),
and often
represents
text as
mimetically
as his
scrupulous trompe
l'oeil
figures object.9
Ruscha's words thicken and
perplex
their assumed
transparency
by foregrounding
their substantive
physicality
and
by reproducing
the
look,
shape,
sound,
and
meaning
of their
referents,
and it is this refusal of the
transparency
attrib-
uted to the
sign by
historians of
Pop
that unites the various
linguistic categories
recurrent in his
early practice.10
[October 1963],
p. 28). Many
artists concurred:
"Pop
seems to be all
subject
matter,"
Lichtenstein
said,"whereas
Abstract
Expressionism,
for
example,
seems to be all esthetic"
(Lichtenstein
in G. R.
Swenson,
"What Is
Pop
Art?,"
Art News
[November 1963],
p.
26).
See Russell
Ferguson,
ed.,
Hand-Painted
Pop:
American Art in Transition
1955-62,
exh. cat.
(Los
Angeles:
Museum of
Contemporary
Art, 1993),
for a
reconsideration of the formal
relationships
between Abstract
Expressionism
and
Pop.
7. Yve-Alain Bois's work on Ruscha is an
important exception;
he writes that Ruscha
"clearly
knows
that one cannot
escape signification.
He knows that however
empty
(that is,
noisy)
the
message
he will
retrieve from the
semiological profusion
of social
refuse,
it will
always
bounce back full of
meaning" (Bois,
"Thermometers Should Last
Forever,"
in Edward Ruscha: Romance with
Liquids, Paintings
1966-1969,
exh.
cat.
[NewYork:
Gagosian Gallery,
1993],
p.
20;
reprinted
in this
volume,
pp.
60-80).
8. Ruscha in Patricia
Failing,
"Ed
Ruscha,
Young
Artist: Dead Serious About
Being
Nonsensical,"
Art
News
81,
pt.
4
(April 1982), p.
78;
reprinted
in Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal, pp.
225-37.
9.
Ibid.,
p.
77. Ruscha
keeps
notebooks in which he lists words and
phrases
that strike
him,
from con-
versations, dreams, music,
and
books,
and he writes these down even while
driving.
One interviewer asked
about the
inspirations
for certain works: "Slobberin 'Drunk at the Palomino: 'That's from a Frank
Zappa song.'
Mysterious Voltage Drop:
'I read it in an electric manual.' Malibu =
Sliding
Glass Doors: 'That whoosh
they
make sounds like the ocean.' Talk Real:
'My
kid said that once to me when he was small.' Hello I Must Be
Going:
'A Groucho Marx
quote.'
He Busts into a Union Hall Full
of
Workers and Yells
Out, 'O.K.,
What Is It You
Guys
Want,
Pontiac Catalinas?': It came to me in a dream"
(ibid., p.
81).
10. To
say
that
language signifies transparently suggests
that a word's
physical
features do not affect
perception
of
meaning,
that words do not mean
by
virtue of their
materiality.
"The wonderful
thing
about
language
is that it
promotes
its own
oblivion,"
wrote Maurice
Merleau-Ponty: "My eyes
follow the lines on
the
paper,
and from the moment I am
caught up
in their
meaning,
I lose
sight
of them. The
paper,
the let-
ters on
it,
my eyes
and
body
are
only
there as the minimum
setting
of some invisible
operation. Expression
fades before what is
expressed,
and this is
why
its
mediating
role
may pass
unnoticed"
(Merleau-Ponty,
The
Phenomenology of Perception
[1962],
trans. Colin Smith
[London:
Routledge,
1989],
p.
401).
Some
suggest
that Ruscha's interest in the
materiality
of the word
may
stem,
however unconscious-
ly,
from his Catholic
upbringing,
from
years
of catechism classes on how "the Word became flesh."
Although
Ruscha
equated
his move to California in 1956 with his abandonment of the
church,
he has
acknowledged
the influence: "I kind of
spring
from Catholicism .... Some of
my
work comes out of a
quasi-religious thing" (Ruscha
in Amei
Wallach,
"The Restless American: On Ed Ruscha's
Royal
Road,"
New York
Times,
June
24, 2001,
p. 33).
It is
easy enough
to trace a
religious
theme in his
work,
from the
sym-
bolism
suggested by
the "birds and fish"
paintings
to word choices such as
Sin,
The Catholic
Church,
Devil or
Angel,
Miracle,
The
Chapel
Window,
She Sure Knew Her
Devotionals,
and Bible. The
utility
of these connect-the-
dots
biographic analyses
seems limited at
best, however,
and is at
any
rate
beyond
the
scope
of this
essay.
85
OCTOBER
Harold
Rosenberg, writing
in 1964 on the
contemporary proliferation
of "art
books,"
diagnosed
the character of recent
reception
as marked
by
a "coalescence of
art and comment."ll The market boom that occurred in
lockstep
with the
burgeon-
ing
of
Pop
art
precipitated
a
growing
interest in new work on the
part
of the mass
media that
Pop
often took as
subject,
an enhanced cultural
standing
for the
critic,
and a
rapidly expanding
art
press. Many
did not view these
developments
as
salutary; Rosenberg
lamented that
painting
had "become
nothing
else than what is
said about
it,"
and Brian
O'Doherty complained
that art was
being "overinterpreted,
overcriticized,
and overdocumented in a
strangling undergrowth
of verbal redun-
dancies."12 New roles for the word also
emerged
in the
register
of
production,
in a
variety
of
practices
that
supplanted
the Abstract
Expressionist
focus on the
(how-
ever
unrecognizable) image
with an attention to
language.
This
linguistic
turn in
practice
would reach its
apogee
in the
text-only
work,
efflorescence of artists' writ-
ings,
and theoretical
apparatuses
of Minimalism and
Conceptualism,
but much
Pop,
too,
featured
language prominently:
its most iconic
works,
Warhol's
soup
cans and
Roy
Lichtenstein's comic
frames,
contain
words,
and even the
labeling
of
Rosenquist's
work
(usually
devoid of
language)
as "billboard
painting"
hints at a text
behind the
image.
Together
with the
implosion
of
medium-specific practices
and the
dismantling
of
"high-low"
boundaries in the
1960s,
this
"eruption
of
language
into the field of the
visual
arts,"
as
Craig
Owens
wrote,
was "coincident
with,
if not the definitive index
of,
the
emergence
of
postmodemism."13 Although
Abstract
Expressionism's
artists and
art works were
hardly
as nonverbal as the
myths
about their moment make them out
to
be,
high
modernist
practice
and criticism had been
decidedly antilinguistic,
the
putative opticality, autonomy,
and
immediacy
of the
image privileged
over the narra-
tive,
referentiality,
and
temporality spawned by language.14
"All
pictures
of
quality
ask
to be looked at rather than
read,"
Clement
Greenberg
wrote,
and he
inaugurated
the crusade to establish
avant-garde painting
as "dominant"
by taking up
the mantle
11. Harold
Rosenberg,
"Art
Books,
Book
Art, Art,"
in his The Anxious
Object (Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press, 1964),
pp.
199-200.
12. Ibid.,
p.
199;
Brian
O'Doherty, "Criticizing
Criticism"
(1963),
in his
Object
and Idea: An Art Critic's
Journal
1961-1967
(New
York: Simon &
Schuster, 1967), p.
193.
13.
Craig
Owens, "Earthwords,"
October 10
(Fall 1979),
pp.
122,
126.
14. As W.
J.
T. Mitchell notes: "Modern
painting
... while it has
ostensibly sought
to create
nothing
more than the
'pure' image-abstract,
nonverbal,
free of
representation,
reference, narrative,
and even
the contamination of a verbal title-has in fact become more
dependent
on an elaborate verbal
apologet-
ics,
the ersatz
metaphysics
of 'art
theory"' (Mitchell, ed.,
The
Language of Images [Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press, 1974],
p.
1).
And Rosalind Krauss
argues:
"The
messenger
who came
rushing
into the art
world,
as into the
discipline
of art
history,
some
thirty years ago
[in
the
mid-1960s],
bringing
news of the
recent invasion of the 'textual' into the domain of the visual, could have saved his
[sic]
breath. The visual
arts have
always
battled the
onslaught
of a verbal
production-from ekphrasis
to
allegory;
from ut
pictura
poesis
to
iconography-that
modernist art
managed, briefly,
to stun but never
totally
to silence"
(Krauss,
"Welcome to the Cultural
Revolution,"
October 77
[Summer 1996],
p.
83).
See also Ann
Gibson,
"Abstract
Expressionism's
Evasion of
Language,"
Art
Journal
47,
no. 3
(Fall 1988),
pp.
208-14.
86
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
of G. E.
Lessing's
1766 attack on ut
pictura poesis.15
Abstraction,
Greenberg
main-
tained,
would best demarcate and
purify
the limits of the
medium,
best serve the
modernist
painter's
crucible of
eliminating
"from the
specific
effects of each art
any
and
every
effect that
might conceivably
be borrowed from or
by
the medium of
any
other art."16 Foremost
among
the worst of such
borrowings
were the "effects" of
words,
and the flat
picture plane's
renunciation of
perspectival
illusionism meant
that the
avant-garde painter
could
get
"rid of imitation-and with
it,
'literature.'"17
Although
the
early reception
of
Pop
art was
mixed,
its critics
split
as to
whether the new work
signaled
a treacherous overthrow of the Abstract
Expressionist
ethos or the next
logical stage
in the
organically
successive march of
art
history,
most concurred that
Pop
artists were (in contrast to their New York
School
predecessors) "eminently
write-able
about,"
as Thomas Hess
put
it,
responsi-
ble for
ushering
in what Barbara Rose called a "verbal feast" for criticism.18 This new
care for
language
about art did not
extend, however,
to the
very
words
depicted
in
Pop; early
critics remained
largely
uninterested in what the
signs
of
"sign
art" actu-
ally
said or
meant,
and instead
effectively
viewed text in
Pop
as more or less
pure
pictorial
matter.19 "Most of them have
nothing
at all to
say," charged
Peter Selz
about the works.20
Except
for the
interpretations
that
representing
a
mass-produced
item with
techniques
often cribbed from industrial
production foregrounded
the
force of
postwar
American
consumerism,
and that such
representations begged
the
question
of the extent to which the work of art itself had become a
commodity,
the
extent to which its
meaning
was its
commodity
status,
analyses
of
Pop mainly grew
out of
assumptions
that its words and
images
were
possessed by
what Roland Barthes
would later call "the obtuse and matte stubbornness of a fact."21 Barthes's reflections
on what he termed
Pop's "facticity"-how
its
subjects
are
"stripped
of
any symbol"
and
"signify
that
they signify nothing,"
how the work itself denies that "it
possesses
a
profound
or
proximate space through
which its
appearance
can
propagate
vibrations
15. Clement
Greenberg,
Barnett Newman: First
Retrospective
Exhibition
(Bennington,
Vt.:
Bennington
College, 1958), n.p.
16. Clement
Greenberg,
"Modernist
Painting" (1960),
in Clement
Greenberg:
The Collected
Essays
and
Criticism,
vol.
4,
Modernism with a
Vengeance,
1957-1969,
ed.
John
O'Brian
(Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press, 1986),
p.
86.
17. Clement
Greenberg,
"Towards a Newer Laocoon"
(1940),
in Clement
Greenberg:
The Collected
Essays
and
Criticism,
vol.
1,
Perceptions andJudgments,
1939-1944,
ed.
John
O'Brian
(Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press, 1986), p.
34.
18. Thomas
Hess,
"New
Realists,"
Art News
(Summer 1963),
p.
41;
Barbara
Rose,
"Pop
in
Perspective,"
Encounter25,
no. 2
(August 1965),
p.
63.
19. Johanna Drucker is one of few scholars to note this omission: "With the advent of
Pop
art,
the
use of
language
as a visual form resurfaces in the visual
arts,
but the
challenge
to the boundaries of
sig-
nifying practice
are overwhelmed
by
other issues in its consideration"
(Drucker,
The Visible Word:
Experimental Typography
and Modern Art
[Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press, 1994],
p.
227).
An
impor-
tant recent
exception
is Michael Lobel's careful attention to the words in Lichtenstein's comic
bubbles;
see his
Image Duplicator: Roy
Lichtenstein and the
Emergence of
Pop
Art
(New
Haven: Yale
University
Press,
2002),
esp. chaps.
1, 3,
5.
20. Peter
Selz,
"The Flaccid
Art,"
Partisan Review
(Summer 1963),
p.
313.
21. Roland
Barthes,
"That Old
Thing,
Art . ."
(1980),
in
Pop
Art: A Critical
History,
ed. Steven
Henry
Madoff
(Berkeley: University
of California
Press, 1997), p.
372.
87
OCTOBER
of
meaning"-are elegant,
but we need not look
only
to
poststructuralism
for such
appraisals.22
Gene Swenson wrote much the same
thing
in an
early
review
("an
image
from a
sign
... is
stripped
of its
original signification"),
and Dore Ashton accused the
Pop
artist of
having
decided to "banish
metaphor."23
Such disavowals of
Pop's
intrinsic
signifying power
indicate how
long
the criti-
cal
hangover
of
high
modernist formalism
lasted;
Michael
Fried,
for
example,
in a
1962 review of Robert Indiana's
work, wrote,
"Paintings
such as these could work
only
if the words could be bled
dry,
if
they
could be
deprived
of all their force as bearers
of
meaning."24
Critics of Ruscha's first decade of
work,
while
mainly laudatory,
not
only
avoid
analyses
of his
particular
word choices but seem to want to
ignore
his use
of
language altogether.
"No matter how much one tries not to see
it,
these slick and
undulating
surfaces are
spelling
out
words,"
Robert Pincus-Witten wrote in
1968;
"it is
difficult to
get through
them because the
meaning
of the words
gets
in the
way."25
David Bourdon stated that Ruscha was not
"making literary
or intellectual allusions"
and even that "a
knowledge
of the
English language
is not a
prerequisite
to the
enjoy-
ment of Ruscha's work."26 Ruscha's association with an
emergent group
of Los
Angeles-based
"finish fetish" artists
only amplified
such
interpretations:
from
Larry
Bell's mirror-coated
glass
cubes to Robert Irwin's
opalescent
white
discs,
from
Billy
Al
Bengston's glossy spray paint
to
Craig
Kauffman's
Plexiglas, "object sculpture"
stressed
the
quality
and
specificity
of material and surface to the exclusion of what those
prop-
erties
might signify.27 Apprehending
Ruscha's words as so
many
"L.A. Look"
objects
in
space
necessitated the mutual exclusion of
physicality
and
linguistic
resonance: "His
deceptively
bland and succulent
pastel
surfaces can trick one into
taking
him as an
aberrant formalist-but then there is his
perversely explicit literary
content."28
(The
tenable
objection
to be raised here is that Ruscha's words elicit less a
Pop
framework than a
Conceptual
one. But this context is also
flawed,
and not
simply
because much of the work treated in the
following predates
the coalescence of
Conceptual
art in 1965-66.
Although
Ruscha's
depiction
of words without accom-
panying imagery might
seem to realize the
Conceptualist proposal
that
language,
and
language
alone,
could be the matter and
subject
of an art
work,
this realization
22. Ibid.
23. G. R.
Swenson,
"The New American
'Sign
Painters,"'
Art News
(September
1962),
p.
46;
Dore
Ashton in
"Symposium
on
Pop
Art,"
p.
38. Ashton
acknowledges
that such a decision is "delusive": "Not an
overcoat,
not a bottle
dryer,
not a Coca-Cola bottle can resist the
onslaught
of the
imagination. Metaphor
is as natural to the
imagination
as saliva to the
tongue" (ibid.).
24. Michael
Fried,
"NewYork
Letter,"
Art International
6,
no. 9
(November 25, 1962), p.
55.
25. Robert
Pincus-Witten,
"Ed
Ruscha,"
Artforum (February 1968), p.
49. "Ed Ruscha is either a
very
serious
young
man or has an excellent sense of
humor,"
wrote another
early
critic. "Let us
hope
the latter
is more
likely
and that it is
only
the critics who
ponder
his
productions
with
grim
determination,
probing
for
Significance, trying
to bare an Existentialism or intricate
system
of semantics beneath the external real-
ity
of his canvases" (Judith
Applegate,
"Galerie Alexandre
Iolas,"
Art International 14
[May
20, 1970],
p. 67).
26. David
Bourdon,
"A
Heap
of Words About Ed
Ruscha,"
Art International 20
(November 1971),
p.
26.
27. On
Bengston's
work,
for
example, Philip
Leider wrote: "It warns the viewer
away
from
seeking
in
this work the kind of
ambiguous, murky,
but
meaning-charged 'sign'
for which the Abstract
Expressionists
so
diligently
searched"
(Leider,
"The Cool
School," Artforum 2,
no. 12 [Summer 1964],
p. 47).
28. Elizabeth C.
Baker,
"Los
Angeles,
1971," Art News
70,
no. 5
(September
1971), p.
33.
88
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
took
place
in Ruscha's work on
canvas,
in
painting;
he
developed
a
language-
centered
practice
in the
very
medium
rejected by many Conceptualists.
["I
still
remain a conservative easel
painter."]
Furthermore,
Ruscha does
not,
as in
Benjamin
Buchloh's formulation of
Conceptual
art,
"replace
the
object
of
spatial
and
perceptual experience by linguistic
definition
alone";
his method is more one
of
conjunction
than
replacement,
his words
eminently spatial.29 Conceptualism
prized
words as neutral and
unambiguous,
able to communicate
independently
of
their aural or visual
manifestations;
the
linguistic sensibility driving
Ruscha's work is
opposite
the
Conceptualist
idea of
language
as described
by Joseph
Kosuth:
"very
neuter... as a medium it becomes
invisible.")30
The
linguistic
turn taken
by
the
discipline
of art
history
in the late 1970s also
failed to
provide
an
adequate
scaffold for
understanding
Ruscha's
particular
word
choices: the
project
of
treating
the
image,
like other arenas of social
practice,
as a
text
proved
unsuited to
images
that were
(mostly)
texts.
Structuralism,
following
Saussure,
posits
an
arbitrary
relation between words and their
referents,
between
things
and
names,
and
thereby marginalizes
motivated
signifiers. Linguistic meaning
is,
in Saussure's
account,
the
product
of a
system (langue)
of
"contrastive,
opposi-
tional,
and
negative" relationships
between
signifiers-language
a
"form,
and not a
substance"31-and the Saussurean theoretical
legacy
is ill
equipped
to evaluate the
word choices of an artist who
declares,
"what I'm interested in is
illustrating
ideas."32
(On
one of his wordless black-and-white "silhouette
paintings"
from the late
1980s,
Ruscha
offered,
"It's like a
painting
of an idea about a
ship,"
and on a recent series
of
photorealist mountainscapes, "They
are
paintings
of ideas of
mountains.")33
The
poststructuralist
radicalization of Saussurean tenets
proved
an
equally inadequate
method for
assessing
Ruscha's
selections;
meaning
(as
the
product
of unstable
oppositional relationships)
remains elusive and
inapproximate,
and within
every
act
of
signification
inheres the
potential
for communicative failure. Critics
writing
about Ruscha in the 1980s and
'90s,
maintaining
that his word works
epitomized
such
failures,
rehearsed deconstruction's most
general
claims-that a
speaker
or
writer is
always
at a remove
(if
not
totally
absent)
from his own
meanings,
that no
text is ever
determinate,
no
message
final. As if
taking
a cue from the title of his
1977
painting
No End to the
Things
Made out
of
Human
Talk,
reviewers wrote that
Ruscha's word
pictures figured
"the
inadequacy
of
language
and the
faulty progress
of human
communication,"
bespoke
"the
drifting
order of
open signification"
in
29.
Benjamin
H. D.
Buchloh,
"Conceptual
Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to
the
Critique
of
Institutions,"
October 55
(Winter 1990),
p.
107. Several
Conceptual
artists later acknowl-
edged
what Ruscha's work had demonstrated since the
early
1960s: that
language always
has a
physical
aspect,
and that
parsing
words from their
visual, aural,
or referential
components
is difficult if not
impossible.
Mel Bochner's declaration was
especially
direct:
"Language
is not
transparent."
30. Kosuth in Lawrence Weiner
(London: Phaidon, 1998), p.
98.
31. Ferdinand de
Saussure,
Course in General
Linguistics (1907-11; Peru,
Ill.:
Open
Court Trade and
Academic
Books, 1972),
pp.
117,120.
32. Ruscha in Edward
Ruscha,
exh. cat.
(Buffalo: Albright
Knox
Gallery, 1976),
p.
4.
33. Ruscha in
Jan Estep,
"Devil
Coming
Down the Road: An Interview with Ed
Ruscha,"
New Art
Examiner28,
pt.
6
(March 2001),
p.
39.
89
OCTOBER
which "closure in
meaning
does not occur."34 Ruscha's
project
is "to
liquidate signifi-
cation,"
Donald
Kuspit
went so far as to
say:
In Ruscha's
pictures,
words have become
comatose,
vegetated,
as
though
from some horrific accidental encounter with
reality,
which left them
brain-damaged,
"mindless": one feels him in the
wings, waiting
to
pull
the
last
life-support system
of
signification
from them.
They
are at best memo-
ry
traces,
signaling
a kind of
glorious meaning
that has been lost forever.35
Ruscha
acknowledges
that he is
"working
with two
things
that don't even ask to
understand each
other,"
but to
say
that one intends to "illustrate ideas"36 is to work
against,
not
exemplify,
the
position
that,
in Foucault's
phrase,
"word and
object
do not tend to constitute a
single figure";
a career
spent giving language weight,
texture,
and
body
does not
square
with the
poststructuralist
dismissal of the
plenary
sign
as
illusory
or with its
certainty
that
language
is bound to fall short in
approxi-
mating reality
or
mediating any nonlinguistic object.37
Ruscha remains
cannily guarded
about his intentions vis-a-vis
linguistic signi-
fication: "Whether or not the work communicates
anything
to
anyone
is not
important
to me."38 When asked
directly,
"What was more
important
to
you
when
you
were
painting
words: the
way
it looked or what it meant?" he
responds
that his
work is "a
flip-flop
between those two
things."39
Those who maintain that Ruscha's
words
picture
the
potholes
of
signifying
need
only
turn for
support
to interviews
in which he discusses how words can lose
meaning
or fail to mean: "Sometimes I
don't care about the definition of the
word,"
he has
said,
and "sometimes
you
can
study
a
word,
like the word
'the,'
and
looking
at that word
long enough,
it
just
begins
to lose its
meaning."40
But his
description
of his method as one of "waste
retrieval" discloses an intent to
lay
claim to
meaning
before its
dispersal
into
poly-
valence. Certain words attract
him,
he
says,
34. Eleanor
Heartney,
"Ed Ruscha at Robert Miller and
Castelli,"
Art in America
(February 1988), p.
137;
Dan
Cameron,
"Love in
Ruins,"
in Edward
Ruscha,
Paintings/Schilderijen,
exh. cat.
(Rotterdam:
Museum
Boymans-van Beuningen, 1990),
pp.
17,
14. These deconstruction-inflected
analyses persist:
Peter
Schjeldahl
concluded a recent review
by mentioning
"the
prevalence
of our failures to
communicate,"
and
Lynne
Cooke writes that in Ruscha's
work,
"meaning
is more often
suspended
than
dissected, filleted,
and
laid
open
to forensic
scrutiny.
In
denying
closure,
deferral sustains desire"
(Schjeldahl, "Seeing
and
Reading:
Ed Ruscha at the
Whitney,"
The New Yorker
80,
no. 20
[uly
26, 2004],
p.
95; Cooke,
"Washington
and
Chicago:
Ed
Ruscha,"
Burlington Magazine
142,
no. 1172
[November 2000],
p. 722).
35. Donald
Kuspit, "Signs
in
Suspense:
Ed Ruscha's
Liquidation
of
Meaning,"
Arts
65,
pt.
8
(April
1991), p.
58.
36. Ruscha in Bernard
Blistene,
"Conversation with Ed
Ruscha,"
in Edward Ruscha
Paintings/Schilderijen,
p.
130;
reprinted
in Leave
Any
Information
at the
Signal, pp.
300-08.
37. Michel
Foucault,
This is Not a Pipe (1973),
trans. and ed.
James
Harkness
(Berkeley: University
of
California
Press, 1983),
p.
42.
38. Ruscha in Jana Sterbak,
"Premeditated: An Interview with Ed Ruscha"
(1985); reprinted
in Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal, pp.
252-56.
39. Ruscha in Thomas
Beller,
"Ed
Ruscha," (1989);
reprinted
in Leave Any
Information
at the
Signal, pp.
281-85.
40. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
192;
and
Joan
Quinn,
"L.A.R.T.: Edward
Ruscha,"
Interview
(March 1984),
p.
81;
reprinted
in Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal, pp.
247-49.
90
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
Because I love the
language.
Words have
temperatures
to me. When
they
reach a certain
point
and become hot
words,
then
they appeal
to
me.... Sometimes I have a dream that if a word
gets
too hot and too
appealing,
it will boil
apart,
and I won't be able to read or think of it.
Usually
I catch them before
they get
too hot.41
To be unable "to read or think of" a word would mean that the word had lost its
purchase
on
reality
or
meaning.
It
may
be,
as Yve-Alain Bois's
essay
on the
entropy
of the
"liquid
word"
paintings suggests,
that
meaning
is sensed most
potently
at the
moment of
linguistic decay
or
dissolution-yet
this is a moment Ruscha
attempts
to
forestall,
not create or
prolong.42
"When I see a word or
phrase,
or hear one (on the
radio or in the
street),
I have to
capture
it
immediately,"
he
explains.
"Otherwise it
will
slip away
from
me,
disappear."43
His sense of
language
as
something
one can
"catch" or
"capture" betrays
a
conception
of words as
tangible
matter,
matter that
might
indeed
signify
in concert with
meaning:
"I'm not
trying
to divorce what the
word means from what I use it as
visually."44
Perhaps
the most succinct statement of Ruscha's
project
comes from a line in
Shakespeare's
Hamlet he has
depicted multiple
times: "Words without
thoughts
never to heaven
go."
The
guilty King
Claudius mutters this while
praying;
Hamlet,
secretly observing,
decides not to kill
him,
fearing
he will
go
to heaven. But Claudius
knows his
prayers
are
ingenuous
("without
thoughts"),
for he is remorseless and has
no
plans
to
relinquish
the effects of
murdering
Hamlet's father
(crown
and
queen).
The
implication
for
Claudius,
and for Ruscha
too,
is that "words without
thoughts"
do not
matter,
have no
efficacy,
that unless
they
connect to an idea or
object
beyond
the
words-to,
in Ruscha's
phrase,
"the
thought
behind
them"-they
will,
as
Claudius
laments,
"fly up."45
Ruscha
attempts
to
conjoin,
not
sever,
semantic sense
and
physical
form,
and we can trace these
attempts
in his
renderings
of
single
words
and
objects
and in his sustained attraction to those
linguistic categories
(ono-
matopoeia, rhymes, puns)
that
challenge
the
independence
of
meaning
from its
material
representation.
41. Ruscha in Howardena
Pindell,
"Words with
Ruscha,"
Print Collector's Newsletter
3,
no. 6
(January-February 1973), p.
126;
reprinted
in Leave Any
Information
at the
Signal, pp.
55-63.
42. See
Bois,
"Thermometers Should Last
Forever,"
this
volume,
pp.
60-80.
43. Ruscha in
Margit
Rowell,
"Cotton
Puffs,
Q-Tips,
Smoke and Mirrors: The
Drawings
of Ed
Ruscha,"
in Cotton
Puffs, Q-Tips,
Smoke and Mirrors: The
Drawings of
Ed
Ruscha,
exh. cat.
(New
York:
Whitney
Museum
of American
Art, 2004),
p.
15.
44. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
153.
45. Ruscha
explains
his choice: "That
quote
was from
Shakespeare's
Hamlet. It was in Act
3,
Scene 3:
'My
words
fly
out
[sic], my thoughts
remain below. Words Without
Thoughts
Never to Heaven Go.'
There's a base of
profundity
to that-the idea of words without
thoughts.
I
might
be
engaged
in the
act of
making
words without
thoughts
... but in the
strict,
public
sense this
phrase,
'words without
thoughts
never to heaven
go,'
is a
way
of
saying
words are
important,
and
they're
never
gonna go
to
heaven without
thoughts,
without the
thought
behind them"
(Ruscha
in
Estep,
"Devil
Coming
Down
the
Road," p. 42).
91
OCTOBER
The balloon
lettering
of Ruscha's Annie
(1962)
is
instantly
familiar as cartoonist
Harold
Gray's
1924 title for the "Little
Orphan
Annie" comic
strip,
a few frames of
which Ruscha had
already incorporated
into his
collage
Dublin
(1959)
and then
painted
in a
pendant
work of the same name the
following year.
The absence of
image
in this work seems to
exemplify
the
surpassing
of the
object by
the
sign
in
Pop,
whereby
the substance of the
commodity
item was of
secondary importance
to its
name,
and those
particular
names,
in
turn,
less
consequential
than the
products'
sta-
tus as tokens of a
pervasive
mass
culture,
one disseminated
by
the technical and
industrial
processes
used or imitated in
Pop.
"In
Andy
Warhol,"
Max Kozloff wrote in
1963, "the
subject
is not the
Campbell's soup
can-which doesn't exist-but rather
the commercial
technique
for
representing
it."46 But however much Ruscha's meticu-
lously copied typeface
here seems to have
displaced
the
images
its
logo might
conjure,
the
physical particularity
of his Annie
painting
is
impossible
to
disregard,
not least of all due to its
72-by-67-inch
size. Close
looking
reveals not a
strokeless,
gleaming Pop
surface devoid of traces of the artist's
hand,
but fastidious brush-
work,
swirling, heavily wrought layers
of
primary paint,
and small
patches
of
exposed
canvas: Annie
ultimately
evokes less
processes
of mechanical
reproduction
or the
easy exchangeability
of the
pop
cultural artifact than the comic
strip's origin
in a hand-lettered
drawing
and its own
crafted,
man-made
singularity.47
Swenson commented in 1962 on the
significance
of the
Pop subject's
immedi-
ate
recognizability:
"Our awareness is not so much of a Coca-Cola billboard as of the
46. Max
Kozloff,
"A Letter to the
Editor,"
Art International (une
1963), p.
93.
47. Thanks to Scott Bukatman for his
thoughts
on this work. A 1966
rendering
of Annie is even more
emphatically
material: this one is
"poured
from
maple syrup."
Ruscha. Annie. 1962.
92
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
shrunken size of the world we
occupy."48
Ruscha's choice to render the Standard Oil
filling
station has been
interpreted accordingly,
as a clever
acknowledgment
of the
consumer
product
as standardized and
standardizing
in a
culturally
"shrunken,"
increasingly homogeneous postwar
United States. Standard
Station, Amarillo,
Texas
(1963)
derives from a
photo
in Ruscha's first artist's book. The artist claims he chose
the
snapshots
in
Twentysix
Gasoline Stations from a
crop
of
fifty
or
sixty photos
taken
while
driving
between L.A. and Oklahoma
City,
and that "the eccentric ones were
the first ones I threw out."49 In
assimilating
Ruscha's books to the
critiques
of
Conceptual
art,
critics write that
they "explore
the
uniformity
of our late
capitalist
age"
and
propose
that "we learn
nothing
more from
twenty-six gasoline
stations...
than from
one,"50
failing
to attend to the subtle variation in the
photographed
stations: no two are
identical,
even those of the same
franchise,
and the book records
a
range
of
gasoline pumps
and
building types, canopies
and
signage.51
Even if Ruscha
is to be believed that he selected the most
commonplace
stations,
they
are not
(yet)
uniform or conventional-standard-and nor is Ruscha's
painting,
however schema-
tized it first
appears.
He has dramatized the
perspectival angle
of the
photo,
depicted
the
midnight sky
behind in thick
expressionistic
whorls,
and hand lettered
the tallies (all different
amounts)
on the
pumps.
And what would
prove
to be a fertile
component
of Ruscha's
production, printmaking, began
with an invitation from a
collector to make a
print
based on Standard Station. The choice seems
fitting:
what
better
subject
for an edition than one
already
"standard"? Yet in
diffusing
the
image
across
multiple
formats,
Ruscha
consistently subjects
it to
idiosyncratic permutation,
usually
indicated in the
screenprints'
titles: Double Standard [Minus White],
Mocha
Standard,
Cheese Mold Standard with Olive.
Though
the
painting's plunging upper-left-
to-lower-right diagonal
is
reprised,
each iteration is
markedly
distinct,
and Ruscha
says,
furthermore,
that his favorite
aspects
of
printmaking
are those
irruptions
of
materiality-technical
mistakes,
color
irregularities, unanticipated
effects-that
48.
Swenson,
"The New American
'Sign
Painters,"'
p.
46.
49. Ruscha in
Douglas
M.
Davis,
"From Common
Scenes,
Mr. Ruscha Evokes Art"
(1969),
in Leave
Any
Information
at the
Signal, p.
28.
50.
Bois,
"Thermometers Should Last
Forever,"
this
volume, p. 67;
Phyllis Rosenzweig,
"Sixteen (and
Counting):
Ed Ruscha's
Books,"
in Ed
Ruscha,
exh. cat.
(Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution, 2000),
p.
185.
51. Ruscha includes several
photographs
of
mom-and-pop gas
stations,
then well on their
way
to
extinction-Bob's Service in
L.A.,
Whiting
Brothers near
Ludlow, California,
and Beeline Gas near
Holbrook,
Arizona. The
larger
commercial
stations, furthermore,
rarely
resemble one another: the Mobil
station in
Williams,
Arizona is called
"Mobilgas,"
while the one in
Shamrock, Texas,
bears an
updated
"Mobil"
sign.
One Texaco station stands
alone,
while another is combined with a
restaurant,
and one
Conoco
sign
is attached to a
building,
while another is
freestanding.
A few critics have
suggested
that the
last
photograph
in the
book,
of a Fina station in
Groom, Texas,
is a self-referential
pun
about its conclu-
sion. Given Ruscha's
proclivity
for visual and aural
wordplay,
the
placement
of Fina as final was
likely
inten-
tional,
but few have remarked on the
importance
of a second
sign
in this
image: "Say
Fina.
Exactly
as
good
as the best!" This is the
language
of
commodity
standardization in the
early
1960s,
as consumer
products
became
increasingly exchangeable:
one "as
good
as"
another,
each as
good
as "the
best,"
and all subsum-
able under the
sign
of the brand name. The subtle but insistent
materiality
of,
and differences
between,
Ruscha's
gasoline
stations
(or swimming pools,
or
apartment buildings), betray
an ambivalence toward-
not an
example
of-the standardization of the
commodity
in
postwar
America.
93
OCTOBER
disturb the
uniformity
of mechanical
reproduction. Though
America's
highway gas
stations
were,
by
the
mid-1960s,
well on their
way
to
becoming
the
strip
mall look-
alikes of the
present,
Ruscha's selection of the Standard brand name
verges
on the
wry,
not
the
literal:
taken
together,
his
stations
are
precisely
not
standard.
Much recent
scholarship
on
Pop emphasizes
what its first reviewers did-the
techniques
of
representing
the mass-cultural
commodity,
and the relation of such
techniques
to the
mounting
commodification of the work of art itself-rather than
the
possible specificity
of the
Pop subject. By picturing
commercial
products
in mul-
tiple,
and
showing package
and surface rather than matter and
interior,
Pop's
best-known
images
thematize the almost
imperceptible
elision between name and
thing
that characterizes a successful brand. "The more we live in an
'age
of advertise-
ment and
publicity,"'
Lawrence
Alloway
wrote,
"the more chances there are to
become aware of the
deceptiveness
of
signs
and the
solidity
of
symbols
that obscure
their
original
referents."52 Marketers and admen in the
early
1960s aimed to
develop
brands
indistinguishable
from the substance of their
products by unhinging
language
and
image
from
expected
contexts and
recombining
them in
ways
that
often had little to do with the actual item
being
advertised,
systematically "manipu-
lating
brand
personalities
divorced from the material attributes of
products,"
as one
recent
semiotic
analysis
of American
advertising
notes.53 Ruscha's
singular paintings
of
mass-produced
commercial items
operate differently, by distinguishing
the name
of the
product
from the actual
product
and
by picturing specific
and
tangible
ties
between word and
thing.
The
splatter
of
paint indicating
crushed raisins in Box
Smashed Flat is a
particularly
visceral
instance,
but
Falling
But Frozen and Actual Size
(both 1962)
also show
product alongside product
name. The
growing
force of the
brand is
implied by
the
outsizing
of a small tire and can of meat substitute
by
the
words "Fisk" and
"Spam,"
but the full
eclipse
of the
commodity by
the
commodity
name that was
coming
to characterize
postwar
American consumerism and advertis-
ing
is not
depicted; although
these words have no
significance apart
from the
products they
name,
the
paintings'
distinction between name and
thing
underscores
the brand's basis in an actual material
object.
Ruscha in fact borrows from the rhetoric of
branding
in
discussing
his
place
of residence since 1956:
"'Hollywood'
is like a verb to me. It's
something you
can do
to
any subject
or
any thing.
You can take
something
in Grand
Rapids, Michigan,
and
Hollywoodize
it."54
As he
knows,
the word
"Hollywood" possesses
considerable
52. Lawrence
Alloway,
American
Pop
Art
(New
York: Collier
Books, 1974), p.
47.
53. Robert Goldman and
Stephen Papson, Sign
Wars:
The Cluttered
Landscape of Advertising (New
York:
Guilford
Press, 1996), p.
22.
54. Ruscha
quoted
in L.A.
Suggested by
the Art
of
Edward
Ruscha,
produced
and directed
by Gary
Conklin
(Mystic
Fire
Video, 1981); transcript reprinted
in
Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal, pp.
220-24. Ruscha's
remark about
mutating "Hollywood"'s grammatical
function
proposes
the word-turned from noun to
verb-as a
shifter,
those words
that,
because their
meaning
is
contingent
on use
by
interlocutors in
specific
linguistic
situations,
possess
some measure of semiotic motivation. In a 1970
drawing
Ruscha in fact
pic-
tures two shifters named
by
C. S. Peirce in his definition of the
term,
This and
That,
and the
pronominal
and
temporal ambiguities
of several works from the 1970s
(Now
Then As I Was About to
Say;
We're This and
We're That,
Aren't
We;
She Didn't Have to do
iHAT)
evoke the
logic
of the shifter.
94
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
Ruscha.
Falling
But Frozen. 1962.
connotative
vigor:
it is the
sign
for the town and the name of the
neighborhood,
but
also summons cultures of
film,
power,
and
glamour
with
inexplicable
machinations.55
("It
can be
understood, too,
but
only dimly
and in
flashes,"
F. Scott
Fitzgerald's
Cecilia
Brady
muses about
Hollywood
in The Last
Tycoon,
and Thomas
Pynchon's
fictional suburb in The
Crying of
Lot 49, "like
many
named
places
in
L.A.,"
is "less an
identifiable
city
than a
grouping
of
concepts.")56
Ruscha's
multiple renderings
of the
Hollywood sign
do call
up
these
larger-than-life
associations in their Technicolor-
spectrum backgrounds
and
impossible
vistas
(the
sign's
letters
appear perched
on
the crest of Mount Lee rather than set within
it).
But his
Hollywoods
do not so
much
encourage contemplation
of the fabular
quality
of the
place
or
prompt
reflections on Tinseltown as
they foreground
the material stuff of their letters.
Ruscha was
initially
interested in the landmark as a barometric
object:
the Western
Avenue studio he moved to in 1965 afforded a view of
it,
and he
predicted
a
day's
weather based on how visible the
sign
was
through
the
smog.
And
though
he talks
about the
city
as "full of illusions" and remembers that in
deciding
to move west
from Oklahoma he was "attracted to the
concept
of
Hollywood,"
Ruscha's various
depictions
of the
sign emphasize
the substance behind the
concept.57
In one 1968
study,
the letters are cut out and
collaged
onto the
surface,
braced
by
bold
pencil
55. As one historian writes about the
sign:
"Constituted
only
of
air,
light,
barren
earth,
and the name of
a
desire,
it has come to
represent
not a subdivision nor even an
industry
but an
idea,
and for that reason
people
want to touch
it,
as if to touch the essence of L.A."
(William
Alexander
McClung, Landscapes oJ
Desire:
Anglo Mythologies
of
Los
Angeles [Berkeley: University
of California
Press, 2000],
p. 184).
56. F. Scott
Fitzgerald,
The Last 7ycoon
(1941;
New York: Simon & Schuster,
1993),
p.
4;
Thomas
Pynchon,
7he
Crying of
Lot 49
(New
York:
Bantam, 1966), p.
12.
57. Ruscha in
John Pashdag,
"A Conversation with Edward
Ruscha,"
in
Outrageous
L.A.
(San
Francisco:
Chronicle
Books, 1984),
p.
9;
reprinted
in Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal,
pp.
242-45;
Ruscha in
Suzanne
Muchnic,
"Getting
a Read on Ed
Ruscha,"
Los
Angeles
7imes,
December
9, 1990,
p.
3
(Calendar);
reprinted
in Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal, pp.
309-11.
95
OCTOBER
lines of
support-behind-the-scenes
architecture
rarely pictured
in other
images
of
the
four-story-high
landmark and reminders that it
is,
in Ruscha's
words,
"a real
thing."58
Another fanciful work
pictures
the
sign's lop-cornered
letters as if viewed
from
behind,
representing "Hollywood"
not as an
amorphic
abstraction but as a
word
composed
of
tangible
letters whose
legibility depends
on their
left-to-right
orientation.
(Ruscha
makes the
point explicit
in the
drawing
Holloween
[1977]:
stylistically
akin to the
Hollywood
works,
the
neologism
is seen from a
rearview,
and we
realize on a doubletake that it doesn't
say
what we
expect
it
to.)
In a 1968 screen-
print,
the
sign repeats
the
gently gradated
hues of the sunset-washed
landscape
behind,
as if its two-ton steel letters are
pliable
matter affected
by changes
of
light
and time. "I like the idea of a word
becoming
a
picture,
almost
leaving
its
body,
then
coming
back and
becoming
a word
again,"
Ruscha
remarked,
and his
pictures
of the word for the
city
of
pictures-a
word whose allusive force
sponsors
its disem-
bodiment-concretize this
process.59
Like
"Hollywood,"
another of Ruscha's best-known
subjects,
the 20th
Century
Fox
trademark,
has more connotative
power-cinematic
culture,
big
studios,
a whole host of
images
the
company
has
produced-than any specific
material resonance. The
sign
is most familiar
projected
flat,
filtered
through particles
of
light
onto movie screens. Ruscha endows his
Large
Trademark with
Eight Spotlights
(1962), however,
with a near-comic
weight
and
presence.
"It's all
substance,"
he said
about the
sign,
and
relays
a sense of its three-dimensional heft with a
crane-shot,
58. Ruscha in
Quinn,
"Art: L.A.R.T.: Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
82.
59.
Ruscha,
conversation with
author,
Los
Angeles,July
20, 2003.
Ruscha.
Top: Hollywood Study
#8. 1968.
Bottom:
Hollywood.
1968.
96
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
one-point vantage
and
prominent perspective
lines.60
(One
preparatory study
describes the number "20" from various
angles,
as if a
bodily object rotating
in
space.)
More than eleven feet
wide,
the
painting
itself is of
CinemaScope propor-
tions,
its 20th
Century
Fox trademark so concrete
that,
unlike most
images
of the
logo
in which
light
beams seem to
interpenetrate
its
letters,
the
klieg light rays
behind are broken and obscured
by
the
sign
itself.
On the
question
of whether he intends to
picture
a connection between a
written
sign
and its
possible meaning,
Ruscha is
characteristically equivocal:
"I
find that the
pictorial
look of
something
almost
always stays
close to the word that
represents
it,"
he has
said,
but has also
declared,
"I am careful not to be literal, not to offer this
other
option
to
anyone.
If I
paint
a
picture
of
the word 'coot,' I don't use a lot of blue or
other cool colors; instead, I find
myself
deliber-
ately taking
another route."61 But several
early
works contain what Bois terms Ruscha's
"figura-
tive words," words that do "offer this other
option"
of
viewing
the material embodiment of
linguistic meaning.62
These
calligrammatic
paintings
recall Ruscha's
training
in
graphic
design:
the color
gradations
of Electric
(1963)
darken
evenly
from
bright yellow
to rust
orange,
evoking thermodynamic processes;
the
opacity
of
the letters in Scream
(1962) splinters
into thin
diagonal slices; three versions of
Dimple (1964)
show individual letters indented
by
vise
clamps.
Ruscha's various
depictions
of fire, too, and
fire's
physical trace, smoke, are also of a mimetic
sort, one
explored multiply
in
Damage (1964):
to
paint
a word on a canvas is to
"damage" any pictor-
ial
pretension
of window-on-the-world
deep space,
and the block
type
of the word itself is
"damaged"
by
flames. The
usually separate
activities of read-
ing
and
looking converge
further in the
liquid
word series, begun
in 1966. Bois
puts
forth these
works as an instantiation of the
informe:
their letters
(painted
to look as if
poured,
dripped,
and
spilled
onto the
canvas) appear
on the
verge
of
entropic
retreat into
the
spatially
indeterminate reaches of their neutral
backgrounds.
But Ruscha is able
60. Ruscha in
Conklin,
L.A.
Suggested
by
the Art
of
Edward Ruscha.
61. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
150;
Ruscha in
Blistene,
"Conversation
with Ed
Ruscha,"
p.
136.
62. Yve-Alain
Bois,
"Intelligence
Generator,"
in Edward
Ruscha, Catalogue Raisonne
of
the
Paintings,
Volume
1,
1958-1970
(New
York:
Gagosian Gallery, 2004),
p.
8.
Ruscha.
Top:
Electric. 1963.
Bottom:
Damage.
1964.
97
OCTOBER
to "catch" them
(the
notion is
his)
before word and the matter that form it dissoci-
ate: Jelly and
Ruby
look as if made of the substances named, and
Slug
is
spelled
out
in brown
slug-like
masses. Air is
bubbly
and sheer, the horizontal swaths of the
thinly painted
canvas below visible
through
its
outline, while the letters of Pool
have darkened outer
edges,
as if formed of
puddled liquid.
These mimetic inclinations are not limited to words; Ruscha's
images
of
trompe
l'oeil
pencils
both recollect a
painting's origin
in
preparatory
studies
and
guide
the direction of our
gaze by pointing. Indexicality
is
figured explicitly
in a
study
for the mid-sixties "birds, fish, and
offspring" series, which shows the
index
finger
of a sketched hand
mutating
into a
pencil.
The
pencil
in Talk
About
Space (1962) points
to the lower
edge
of the
canvas, limning
the actual
confines of its
pictorial "space" (and
thus
enabling
us to "talk" about
it),
while
the list-like title
Noise, Pencil,
Broken
Pencil, Cheap
Western
(1963)
seconds the
activity
of
pointing by proposing
an order in which to behold its four
objects,
positioned midway
on each side of the canvas. The
drawing Bull,
Pencil
(1964)
pictures
a causal link between
depicted
form-the word "bull"-and the tool
used to render it, overtly figuring
the
pencil
as material cause for the
drawing's
being.
In his late 1960s
"gunpowder drawings"
series Ruscha moves from
picturing
the
implements
an artist uses on a surface to
representing
those surfaces as sub-
ject.
These
ribbony
words counter
drawing's
usual functions to bound
form,
outline
object,
and
separate figure
from
ground; they
look as if formed of the
same stuff as the
ground
on which
they appear. Self,
for
example,
is drawn on the
very
material out of which its "self" looks to have been made. Here too Ruscha's
depictions
of his
linguistic
selections
point suggestively
to their
meanings:
the
crisp
ovals of the middle two letters in Pool
presage
the
shapes
of the Las
Vegas
swimming pools
he would
photograph
for his Nine
Swimming
Pools book the follow-
ing year (as
if to confirm the
aquatic reference, small
trompe
l'oeil
droplets
of
water dot the lower half of the
page),
and most works in this series realize
Ruscha's
aspiration
of
"leading
the viewer of
my
work into what the definition of
Ruscha.
Left:
Hand-Pencil-Bird. 1964.
Right:
Self. 1967.
98
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
the word I've used is."63 The soft
granular
surround of
Dusty
looks
dusty;
the uni-
formly
modulated
background
of Flaw is itself "flawed"
by
a small
photorealistic
bubble; Strip
is drawn as if formed of a
strip;
and the semblance of
pictorial
space
created
by
what
appear
to be three-dimensional letter forms is an effect of
Optics.
Discovering gunpowder
as a medium was an
accident,
Ruscha
maintains,
and he
regrets
his decision to
acknowledge
the material: "If I could do it all over
again,
I would not tell
anybody
it was made of
gunpowder,
because
people
sus-
pected
some kind of stunt."64 Our
knowledge
of his medium is of interest less for
its
suggestion
of a
possible prank
than as a material whose
very
name
imparts
a
hint of
sonority
to the
presumably
silent
space
of the
painting
or
drawing.
"I
guess
the idea of
noise,
of visual
noise,
somehow meant
something
to
me,"
Ruscha
said,
and discusses art works that influenced him in sonic
metaphors:
Renato Bertelli's
Continuous
Profile
(Head
of
Mussolini) (1933)
"broke the sound barrier for me" and
Walker Evans's Main
Street,
Saratoga Springs,
New York
(1931)
"somehow evokes ...
an aural sensation."65 The
spotlights
in his own
Large
Trademark "connote
something
as farfetched as
trumpet
sounds,"
and what he
sought
in Actual Size was "some audi-
ble
response
from the
painting,
almost like when
you go
to a butcher store and
order a
pound
of bacon and the butcher
slaps
it down on the counter."66 Ruscha
seems
especially
drawn to words about
sound, music,
and
speaking,
and these
attempts
to
conjure,
as he
put
it,
"noise in a
painting
without
any
noise"
flag
63. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
191. As is often the case with
Ruscha,
how-
ever,
this
seeming
affirmation of his interest in the connection between word and
meaning
is followed
by
its contradiction: "A lot of times the words are
unimportant,
their definitions are
unimportant. They
become almost abstract
objects" (ibid.).
64. Ruscha in
Bourdon,
"A
Heap
of
Words,"
p.
27.
Gunpowder
is 80
percent
charcoal
plus
sulfur and
potassium
nitrate.
65. Ruscha in
Blistene,
"Conversation with Ed
Ruscha,"
p.
128; Ruscha,
"Ten
Things
That
Impressed
Me,"
www.sfmoma.org/membership/formembers.
66. Ruscha in
Wolf,
"Nostalgia
and New
Editions,"
p.
264; Ruscha,"Ten
Things
That
Impressed
Me"
(ibid.).
Ruscha.
Left: Bull,
Pencil. 1964.
Right:
Strip.
1967.
99
OCTOBER
another
aspect
of his
especially
material mode of
signification.67
He
paints
the word
"noise" several times in the first decade of his
practice,
and draws
Opera,
Opera
Singer,
Stardust, Music,
and
Jazz
in short succession in the late 1960s.
By imbuing
words about
sound-language
that denotes the
inherently nonrepresentational-
with substantive
materiality,
Ruscha lends
body,
form,
and
permanence
to the
immaterial, inarticulate,
and
temporary: Slap,
Oof, Smash,
Scream. The halated white
letters of Honk in three 1964 works cast
sharply
described shadows on soft back-
grounds,
as if the word's
very suggestion
of noise has
imparted
a
tangibility
to its
form.
Ruscha
explains
that he was attracted to what he calls "loud words" for their
communicative rawness:
When I first started
painting
it became an exercise in
using,
oh,
guttural
utterings, monosyllabic explorations
of
words,
like
"smash," "boss,"
"won't." I've noticed when I look back on
my
work that most of
my
early
works had less of a fascination with the
English language
than
they
did with
just trying
to imitate
monosyllabic
words like
"smash,"
"oof."
They
all were
power
words like that.... I think that I could have been
involved in
painting
an environment for what the word sounded like and
looked like at the same time.68
An
emphasis
on
"guttural utterings"-the
assonance of Ruscha's
phrase betrays
the
very poetic sensibility
he is
quick
to disavow-was described
by
Russian formalist
theory
as one function of
poetry.
Bois writes
persuasively
on the
utility
of Russian
formalism for
evaluating
the
liquid
word
series,
and Ruscha's
preference
for
"power
words" indeed recalls V. I. Shklovskii's
argument
that in
poetry
"the
articulatory
67. Ed
Ruscha,
"Ruscha on Ruscha"
(lecture presented
at the Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture
Garden,
Washington, D.C.,June
29, 2000).
The best
essay
on sound and sense in Ruscha is Dave
Hickey,
"Wacky
Moliere Lines: A Listener's Guide to Ed-werd
Rew-shay,"
Parkett 18
(December 1988), pp.
28-35.
68. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
191.
Ruscha. Honk. 1964.
100
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
aspect
of
speech
is
undoubtedly important.
Perhaps generally
a
great part
of the
delight
of
poetry
consists in
pronunciation,
in the
indepen-
dent dance of the
organs
of
speech."69 Meaning
is not distinct from articulation-the
very
utter-
ance "oof' is its
meaning-and
the more
physical
work
required
for
enunciation,
the more force-
fully
is
linguistic palpability
communicated
by
speaker
and sensed
by
listener. Ruscha
hopes
viewers of his work
experience
this:
"They've
made a test with instruments in
people's
throats and in their mouths with their
tongues,
testing
the
pronunciation
of words when
they
read. I
guess everyone
tends to move their
tongue slightly
towards the back of their head
when
they're reading softly
to themselves.... I
would like to think that
people looking
at the
painting
will not
pronounce
it out
loud,
but will
get
this kind of throat motion."70 This "throat
motion" is stimulated
by
Ruscha's distinct
prefer-
ence for words
beginning
with
plosive (p,
d)
and
fricative
(f
s) consonants,
which
produce
audible
noises when sounded and
require greater physi-
cal effort on the
part
of the
speaker
than do
softer
phonemes.
Bois notes Ruscha's sustained
engagement
with
"everything
that makes it
[language]
into
matter,"
and an interest in
linguistic corporeality
links the word works
Gag,
Chaw,
Lisp,
Tooth,
Dimple,
Voice, Air,
Fatlip,
Cut
Lip,
Gush,
and
Lips.71
A sense of letters as
palpable
matter also
emerges
in the
orthographic rearrangements
of Ruscha's "satin" and
"stain,"
"war"
and
"raw,"
"lisp"
and
"lips." "Lisp,"
in addition to
being
an
anagram
of the
organ
with which one
lisps,
is
onomatopoeic: pronouncing
it causes one to
lisp.
From the
Greek for "word
making,"
the term refers
broadly
to some fitness between a word's
sound and
definition,
and in
rendering onomatopes,
Ruscha
again
calls attention to
those instances of semantic
opacity
when verbal sound is imitative of
meaning,
or
69. Shklovskii in Boris
Eichenbaum,
"The
Theory
of the 'Formal
Method,"'
in Russian Formalist
Criticism: Four
Essays,
trans. and with an introduction
by
Lee T. Lemon and Marion
J.
Reis
(Lincoln:
University
of
Nebraska, 1965),
p.
109.
70. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
193.
71. Yve-Alain
Bois,
"Liquid
Words,"
in Bois and Rosalind
Krauss,
Formless: A User's Guide
(New
York:
Zone
Books, 1997), p.
127.
Ruscha.
Top: Gag.
1965. Bottom:
Lisp.
1966.
101
OCTOBER
when ties between the two
collapse.72
(Like Lichtenstein,
his
inspiration
here was
the
comics, and,
more
generally,
the "Zonk! Pow! Blam!" tactics of 1960s
advertising;
Pop
itself is an
onomatopoeic
label.)73
Some of Ruscha's choices are
onomatopes
in
the strictest sense:
Lisp,
Honk,
Ding,
and
Chop nearly
mimic the sounds to which
they
refer,
while others are
onomatopes by
association,
their sounds linked to
meaning
by resemblance-Squirt
and
Gush,
Flash and
Smash,
Gag
and
Slap.
Still others
operate
at a final
onomatopoeic
remove:
"exemplary" onomatopoeia
occurs,
one
linguist
explains,
"if a word
conventionally
denotes a
sound,"
because a listener or reader is
"predisposed
to become aware of
any
acoustical
properties
of the word which resem-
ble the
sound,
however minimal that resemblance
might
be."74 Nonlexical
onomatopes,
the sonic connotations of these words nonetheless imbue them with a
sort of
onomatopoeic
aura-Noise, Scream, Radio,
Explosion, Voltage,
Volume.
Onomatopoeia
is a
relatively
rare
linguistic phenomenon;
more common
relations of resemblance between
signifiers
are found in
rhymes,
and Ruscha's
rhythmic proclivities
manifest an additional
sensitivity
to
language
as,
and as a
source
of,
material.
"Rhyming
words,"
he
said,
"seemed to have some
power
that I
felt needed to be
pictorialized."75
This
"power"
resides in the
very pictoriality
of
these words: the
urge
to
represent
the
rhyme
derives from the
dependence
for its
function on the look (and
sound)
of the word. As Ruscha had not
yet begun
to
combine words in
phrases
and
sentences,
single
words
represented
in the first
decade of his
practice
form
phonetic
chains,
creating strings
of echoes across that
body
of work: Smash and Flash; Ice and Ace and
Age
and
Space;
Great and
Grapes
and
Hey;
Boss and Loss and
Sauce;
Foil and
Royal
and Spoil
and Soil.
And,
over the course
of a few
years,
Su, Foo, Pool, Rooster, Ooo, Zoo, Music, Dew,
Soup,
Kooks,
and Fuel.
72. Saussure
relegated
such motivated ties between "sound
pattern"
and
"concept"
to the
margins
of
language;
he dismissed
onomatopes along
with exclamations as
exceptional,
"of
comparatively
little or no
importance": "Onomatopoeic
words
might
be held to show that a choice of
signal
is not
always arbitrary.
But such words are never
organic
elements of a
linguistic
system. Moreover,
they
are far fewer than is
gen-
erally
believed"
(Saussure,
Course,
p. 69). Jonathan
Culler offers a
compelling reappraisal,
and reversal,
of
Saussure's insistence on the arbitrariness of the
sign:
"When Saussure defends the
principle
of the arbi-
trary
nature of the
sign against
motivation,
the sentence in which he dismisses
onomatopoeia
as a
delusory
appearance displays
remarkable effects of
motivation,
suggesting
that discourse
may
be
deviously
driven
by precisely
the sort of
phenomena
he wishes to exclude from
language.
'Words such as
fouet ['whip']
and
glas ['knell'],'
he
writes,
'may
strike
[peuventfrapper]
some ears as
having
a certain suggestive
sonority;
but
to see that this is in no
way
intrinsic to the words
themselves,
it suffices to look at their Latin
origins.'
Fouet
and glas both strike the
ear,
perhaps,
because
whips
and bells strike: the term for what words do as
they
make a noise seems
punningly generated by
the
examples,
or the choice of
examples
is
generated by
what
words are said to do to the ear. This
sentence,
working
to remotivate and thus link
together supposedly
arbitrary signs, displays
a
principle by
which discourse
frequently operates
and
suggests
that
arbitrary signs
of the
linguistic system may
be
part
of a
larger
discursive
system
in which effects of
motivation,
demotiva-
tion,
and remotivation are
always occurring.
Relations between
signifiers
or between
signifiers
and
signi-
fieds can
always produce
effects,
whether conscious or
unconscious,
and this cannot be set aside as irrele-
vant to
language" (Culler,
"The Call of the
Phoneme,"
in On
Puns,
ed. Culler
[Oxford:
Basil
Blackwell,
1988],
pp. 12-13).
73. Peter
Benchley, "Special Report:
The
Story
of
Pop,"
Newsweek
(April
25, 1966),
pp.
58-59.
74. I borrow these
categories
from
Hugh
Bredin,
"Onomatopoeia
as a
Figure
and a
Linguistic
Principle,"
New
Literary History: AJournal of
Theory and Interpretation 27,
no. 3
(Summer 1996), p.
557.
75. Ruscha in Ed Ruscha and
Photography, p.
268.
102
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
Ruscha is
equally gifted
with
rhymes
that look like
rhymes
(Raw, Chaw, Flaw),
and
those that must be sounded for effect
(from
a sketchbook
page,
"waters" and
"daughters").
His
rhymes,
he
notes,
usually "present
us with a set of
clashing
sub-
jects
and
imagery,"76
but some words
partake
of semantic as well as
phonetic
resemblance: the ribbon words Tee
Tee,
Wee
Wee,
and Pee
Pee,
for
example,
or
Dusty,
Gush, Trust, Tulsa,
and Rustic
Pines,
which
bring
to mind the
pastorality
of Ruscha's
native Oklahoma.
Rhyme's sibling,
or
perhaps
its
offspring,
is the
pun.
Both
feature,
in
Geoffrey
Hartman's
equation,
"two
meanings competing
for the same
phonemic space
or as
one sound
bringing
forth semantic twins."77 A
conjunction
of two different but
similar-sounding
words,
the
pun
demonstrates,
like the index and the
onomatope,
that "there is
meaning
in the coincidence of the
signifier,
and
[that]
an absolute
separation
between the functions of the
signifier
and
signified
is
impossible."78
The
impulse
to motivate
implicit
in the
pun
is evident
early
on in Ruscha: his 1962
holiday
card,
showing
two
dancing
chefs,
reads "Have a
Soup
Super
Season!" and
he was
likely
aware of the
pun
involved in
naming
two
very
similar works Dublin.
Others are more
explicit:
the cover of the
trompe
l'oeil
pulp
novel
pictured
in
Noise, Pencil,
Broken
Pencil,
Cheap
Western features
"Complete Quick-Trigger
Stories,"
such as "Son of a
Gunman,"
by
writers named "Gunnison Steele" and
76. Ibid.
77.
Geoffrey
Hartman,
"The Voice of the Shuttle:
Language
from the Point of View of
Literature,"
in
his
Beyond
Formalism:
Literary
Essays
1958-1970
(New
Haven: Yale
University
Press, 1970),
p.
347.
78. Derek
Attridge, "Unpacking
the
Portmanteau,
or Who's Afraid of
Finnegans
Wake?" in On
Puns,
pp.
143-44. See also Culler's introduction to this volume
(pp.
1-16):
"What the
functioning
of
puns
reveals
about
language
is, first,
the
importance
of the
urge
to
motivate,
which comes to seem a
powerful
mecha-
nism of
language
rather than a
corruption
that
might
be excluded.
Precisely
because the
linguistic sign
is
arbitrary,
discourse works
incessantly, deviously
to motivate"
(p. 11).
'
/lu
.p
.
-
J^ .:'V^
;'
V^ f
/-
? p'7'5
PRSAWx-r,
y: v 1't
1
: Qv.4 S
:
CR'^
'
X :
.; * S
leStS
:
L-r
:
X=a;
, f
.
-x
IW~
t
,, k r
'
-
i
{1
F
1: 11^
'
.
-v"' ..4e I
Ruscha.
'
:"<-i
:
Studio
notebook,
.--------- 1967.
103
OCTOBER
"Tom Gun."
Trompe
l'oeil is itself a sort of visual
pun,
in the
illusionistically
ren-
dered
object's pretense
of
occupying
the same
perceptual space
as an actual
object,
as are the
bird-pencil, hand-pencil,
and
worm-pencil transmogrifications
in the
birds, fish,
and
offspring
series.
(Dave Hickey, having
observed,
as Ruscha
likely
did,
that "worm" is
just
a letter
away
from
"word,"
writes: "I've
always
sus-
pected
... the
early
bird
paintings
to be the
product
of some
rhyming slang,
like
'birds + worms
=
words,'
creating
not real birds but birds as words who
'sign'
rather than
'sing."')79
In the
liquid
word
series,
Ruscha
paints
both
Eye (1968)
and U
(1969),
a
pairing
which evokes the
homophones
"I" and
"you,"
while the
1970
prints
Mews and Dues echo his earlier
depictions
of Music and Dew. Once
we become aware of Ruscha's lambent
punning sensibility,
it is hard not to
notice how
many
of his words have not
only protean meanings
and
parts
of
speech
but also alternate
spellings-Great,
Steel, Hey, Air,
Sure
(the
list is
long).
Here
again
the artist is evasive about his
objectives, claiming
no
pun
intended.
"Sometimes I'll
accidentally
let
something slip,
but I've never
consciously
tried
to do a
pun,"
he
said,
"except
for the word
'damage'
on fire."80 Ruscha does concede
that he
may
be
punning unintentionally:
"Some of these
things
are
actually
done
by
me
unconsciously.
Other
people
have come
along
and
pointed
out various
things
that have
surprised
me,
so then I think that
they maybe
are
really
a
part
of
my
whole
working
habit."81 His citation of dreams as the
impetus
for several
works,
finally,
recollects Freud's connection between the dream's skewed
logic
of indirect
representation,
condensation,
and
displacement
and the mecha-
nisms of the
joke.82
*
To conclude an
analysis
of
linguistic opacity
in Ruscha's work in 1970 is at
once
fitting
and
arbitrary.
Frustrated with "the idea of
putting
a skin on a can-
vas," he
stopped painting
for more than a
year,
and the
early
1970s saw several
new directions for his art: the use of
organic
materials as
medium,
the
beginning
of extensive work in
prints
and other editioned
formats,
and the shift from
79.
Hickey, "Wacky
Moliere
Lines,"
p.
33.
80. Ruscha in Dave
Hickey,
"Available
Light,"
in The Works
of
Edward
Ruscha,
exh. cat.
(New
York and
San Francisco: Hudson Hills Press and San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art, 1982),
p.
29. This disavowal
contradicts what Ruscha's brother Paul writes about their
family's
attraction to
puns:
"From the blood-Irish
influence of her love of words and
poetry,
and her
great
sense of
humor,
Mother left a
legacy
of our feast-
ing
on the sounds
of,
and often
enough,
the
double-meanings
of words.
Adding
to
that,
we
always
suffered
the frustrations of not
quite paying
attention
through
some
distraction,
or of
hearing
each other incor-
rectly; yet
after our initial
confusion,
we would
madly laugh
at
repeating
what we
thought
we had heard. I
feel those
early
trompe l'oreille,
fool-the-ear miscommunications are still alive and active in us
today" (Paul
Ruscha,
"Some Comments on Ed Ruscha's
Birds,
Fish and
Offspring Paintings,"
in Ed Ruscha:
Birds,
Fish
and
Offspring,
exh. cat.
[New
York: C & M
Arts, 2002],
n.p.)
81. Ruscha in
Karlstrom,
"Interview with Edward
Ruscha,"
p.
157.
82. "The
techniques
of
jokes
indicate the same
processes
that are known to us as
peculiarities
of the
dream work"
(Sigmund
Freud,
Jokes
and Their Relation to the
Unconscious,
trans.
James Strachey
[New
York:
Norton, 1960],
p. 166).
104
Ed Ruscha and the
Language
That He Used
depicting single
words to
longer phrases
and sentences.83 Yet the
screenprint
series
News, Mews, Pews, Brews,
Stews & Dues
(1970)
also
engages
the idea of the
nontransparent sign
that marks Ruscha's first decade of work-in the relation of
the words' definitions to their
typeface
and
material;
in their
rhymes,
both aural
and
visual;
in the comic
self-referentiality
of
picturing
the words Stew and Brew as
stews and brews-and
prefigures
its
subsequent development.84
The
rhymes
continue and
multiply,
both within
single
works
(Hostile
Polyester,
1977)
and across
series
(Sweets, Meats, Sheets, 1975; Metro, Petro, Neuro,
Psycho,
1998),
and a sense of
letters as
palpable persists
in works that reference
stuttering
and
stammering
(Pr-Pr-Process Food, 1976;
I Don't Want No S-Silicones or No Accidental
S-Sideburns,
1979),
that
spell
out words
phonetically (Kay-Eye-Double-S,
1979),
misspell
them
(Chili Draft, 1974),
and
parse
them
humorously
(Elect
...
tricity,
1979);
that evoke
colloquial speech,
dialects,
and
slang
(Wass
A Guin Mo?
UDig Me?, 1985);
and that
depict palindromes
(Tulsa Slut,
Lion in
Oil,
both
2002).
What links these
projects
is
not an intention to
picture
communicative failure or
represent
the
signifier
as an
empty cipher,
but instead to
figure
the word as
simultaneously physical object
and
bearer of
meaning,
and to render the concretization of
meaning
in and as form.
As Ruscha said about the
phrase
in a recent
work,
"this had to be
painted
so I
could hammer down the words."85
Ruscha is not a
Cratylist,
Bois
maintains,
and indeed the debate in Plato's
Cratylus
resolved
long ago
on the side of
Hermogenes'
conventionalist
position
in
that
dialogue,
that words do not resemble or
embody
their
meanings.
Yet
Socrates concedes to
Cratylus,
and
subsequent linguistic theory
has
shown,
that
instances of verbal mimesis
exist,
and Ruscha demonstrates a sustained attraction
to such
instances,
as well as a consistent
urge
to motivate the
linguistic sign by
way
of
foregrounding
its
materiality, despite-and perhaps
because of-the
arbitrary
nature of most
signifying.
This attention to the matter of the
sign
is manifest in
other
aspects
of his work: we witness in the first decade of his
practice
a consid-
ered
inquiry
into the
lingering
material
validity
of
pictorial tropes (process
and
accident, flatness,
the
integrity
of the
picture plane)
that had been
emptied
of
resonance in Abstract
Expressionism's
bathetic
wane,
and the stubborn
physicality
of his artist's books resists full
absorption
into those histories of
Conceptual
art
that
emphasize
the
ontological
and institutional status of the art work over its
83. Ruscha in "A Conversation Between Walter
Hopps
and Ed
Ruscha,
September
1992,"
in Ed
Ruscha: Romance with
Liquids, p.
102;
reprinted
in Leave
Any Information
at the
Signal, pp.
312-28.
84. The
series,
made in
London,
was executed in
typically "English" foods-chutney,
baked
beans,
Branston
pickle;
the Gothic font is "an Old
English type
set";
and the words recall the
place
where
they
were made: Mews because
"greens
here are
very
beautiful,"
News because
"England
is a tabloid-minded
country,"
Pews to
conjure
the Church of
England,
Brews as a reference to
"English beverages-beer,
stout, ale,"
Stews for "the idea of British
cooking,
with little
rooms,
smoky
kitchens,
and
fireplaces,"
and
Dues for its evocation of "the
story
of Robin
Hood,
unfair
taxation,
the British
protest"
(Ruscha
in Siri
Engberg,
"Out of Print: The Editions of Ed
Ruscha,"
in Edward Ruscha: Editions
1959-1999, Catalogue
Raisonne, vol. 2
[Minneapolis:
Walker Art
Center, 1999],
pp.
26, 29).
85.
Ruscha,
lecture at the
Whitney
Museum of American
Art,
September
26,
2004.
105
106 OCTOBER
formal and
perceptual components.
Ruscha's
preoccupation
with
materiality
may
render him
unique
within
Pop, yet
it also
suggests,
at a moment when the
movement seems to have a renewed critical
currency,
the merit of
considering
the
specificity
of
Pop's
individual
practices
and the
referentiality,
even the self-
referentiality,
of its
signs.