Ed Ruscha: 50 Years of Painting

“Each piece cultivates its own labyrinth that you can enter in to, if you were to spend a little time thinking about it.” So says Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff, but it’s not a sentence you would immediately associate with the often stark, minimal paintings of Ed Ruscha. Rugoff says that through his experience of curating this autumn’s exhibition, he has discovered “layers and layers” to these “deceptively simple-looking” paintings. “The more you think about them, the more you can spin out all sorts of references and resonances that these works are setting into play,” he told The Art Newspaper.

The show—which takes up all of the Hayward’s exhibition spaces with 78 works, many of which haven’t been shown before in the UK—celebrates 50 years since Ruscha first made paintings that he would include in his “official body of work”. “These were works that he made when he was still a student, but works that he feels could represent him,” says Rugoff.

Ruscha started out in the late 1950s looking at print media, magazines and books, which led to his focus on words, but treating words as objects or images rather than carriers of linguistic meaning. He became very interested in the graphic potential of words and the ambiguity of communication. “One thing Ed often says is that he associates the word, because of the way it unfurls horizontally, with landscape,” Rugoff says. “He is taking a very broad definition of what landscape might be. Unless you’re painting people, which is something he doesn’t do, all painting might be related to landscape.”

Ruscha has also been very influenced by film, particularly widescreen formats such as cinemascope. Often the proportions of his work reflect this way of framing the world, with pieces that are four or fives times as wide as they are high. “It’s about a type of look, a scanning look,” says Rugoff. “It’s not a static look at one object that’s fixed in place, it’s about a landscape you might be driving through. It’s very much a product of car culture, a reflection on that.” But there is also a fascination with the sublime in Ruscha’s work, images of majestic snow-covered mountains, fiery sunsets or rays of light, a recurring motif in his paintings. “He’s very interested in ideas of grandeur, and how even when these have become clichés, they still awaken certain yearnings in us, we’re still susceptible to them,” says Rugoff.

The Hayward can be an awkward space to exhibit in, and its recent dedication to experiential, installation-based exhibitions has made good use of the idiosyncratic building’s nooks and crannies. A return to a straight painting show could be deemed a riskier strategy, but Rugoff disagrees: “I think painting looks great in the Hayward. The space itself is very sculptural, so it works with sculptural shows, but there have been some great painting shows throughout the history of the Hayward—going back to Howard Hodgkin, Roy Lichtenstein—and I think Ed Ruscha will be another one in this series of major painting shows.” Following this exhibition, the gallery will be closed until May 2010 for renovations. “Ed Ruscha: 50 Years of Painting” will travel to Haus der Kunst, Munich, 12 February-2 May 2010, and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 29 May-5 September 2010.

This article was published in The Art Newspaper, October 2009, p75. To see it in context, click on the PDF link below.

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