Claire Tuna — “Serendipity and Mishap in the Work of Ed Ruscha”

These pieces prompt me, as a poet, to consider the personality inherent to material.

Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at The Museum of Modern Art from September 10, 2023 through January 13, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado
Installation view of ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, on view at The Museum of Modern Art from September 10, 2023 through January 13, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

Ed Ruscha has a knack for getting things just so. Front and center at NOW THEN, the MoMA exhibition which honored more than sixty-five years of the artist’s work, were well-known pieces that displayed Ruscha’s talent for envisioning, then impeccably executing, an idea for an image or series. Among these loomed the painting Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963). It features one of the twenty-six filling stations between Oklahoma and Los Angeles that Ruscha first treated photographically in his artist’s book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and later in multiple paintings and screenprints. Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, with its neat lines, accentuated geometry, and startling reds, has both the gravitas of an architectural rendering and the grandeur of a billboard. Ruscha’s pairing of the highly professionalized, larger-than-life treatment with the essentially mundane errand of fillin’ up the tank generates the kind of voila irony present in much of his work: that this—(this?) this, is our situation, and thereby, the stuff of our art.

Ed Ruscha, Insect Eating Paper (1960). Collage and watercolor on paper, 11 1/8 × 10 5/8 inches (28.3 × 27 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of The American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, President, 2005.62. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Amid such epic and declarative works, I found myself compelled by a smaller piece in the corner—a quiet one, absent of language, fashioned in various shades of cardboard and beige. The piece, Insect Eating Paper (1960), bears marks, tells that it has been folded, then folded again. Its perimeter is untidy, as if cut out by hand, ungoverned by the concept of the perfect straight line. As its title plainly states, an insect nibbles its way up the centerfold, leaving behind it a trail of pulp. Insect Eating Paper reminds its viewer of the delicacy of its own materials, materials that could be shredded by a pin-sized creature, or made jagged by a careless snip.

Paper betrays again in Hey with Curled Edge, (1964) another piece-within-a-piece, this one depicting a drawing of the word HEY that has sprung free and curled up from one of its corners. Paper that curls. Paper that frays. These gone-wrong scenarios read to me not as mistakes but as failures to fully command all that’s involved in the process of making. These pieces, which look, with their lack of color, like drafts or studies, provide a counterpoint to more polished and definitive drafts like Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, making visible the alternative fates at which any piece of art, lacking the blessing and cooperation of its materials, may arrive.

That artmaking itself is (along with the American West, the road, consumer culture, and the everyday) one of Ruscha’s great subjects is further evinced by the piece Hurting the Word Radio #1 (1964). Unlike others that star in his paintings, words like HONK (Honk, 1961-62) or WON’T (Won’t, 1964), this word, RADIO, is not so much the hero of this painting as its victim. The artist has seemingly turned on the word, clamping the O and yanking it to the side. Ow. What motivates a person to hurt a word? To make a series (this is #1) of pieces that torture a word? Well, maybe this damage is not inflicted by design. After all, a clamp’s first function is not to harm, but to hold in place that which is being worked on. It could just be that the artist, in securing the word, has damaged it incidentally.

It’s worth noting that in most of Ruscha’s oeuvre, you don’t find direct representations of people; often the landscapes or words represented, though man-made, like the Standard Station, appear in a vacuum, free of people themselves. Still lives, you could say. Their subjects at rest. Taken as a set, Hey with Curled Edge, Insect Eating Paper, and Hurting the Word Radio #1, depart from this pattern. We see, in these pieces, materials in the middle of antagonizing the artist: acting out, falling apart, and failing to comply.

Ed Ruscha, Hey with Curled Edge (1964). Ink and powdered graphite on paper, 11 5/8 x 12 1/2 inches (29.5 x 31.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Laid out page by page in a display case nearly the length of a room was Stains (1969), Ruscha’s extravagantly imagined artist book which catalogs seventy-six stains on paper, including entries such as:

1. Los Angeles Tap Water

2. Pacific Ocean Salt Water

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

12. Sperm (Human)

13. Ant (source unspecified)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

18. Liquid Drano

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

20. Beer (Coors) 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and, “Blood of the Artist”

From the most literal standpoint, Stains kept track of different pigments that could be of use to the artist, who, in years that followed, would use liquids like whisky and Pepto-Bismol to color his work. This project is defined by the curation and range of its stainers. The book covers both the elemental and the mundane, the most public and the most private, the synthetic and natural components of daily life, treating each of these disjunctive, eclectic choices as equal.

Unlike a more practical collection of swatches, Stains includes those which are worth more in intrigue than in actual pigment. Pacific Ocean Salt Water, for instance, approaches invisible on the page. This experimental book keeps a record of what it tried, what worked, and what didn’t, seeming to enjoy its failures. This posture of curiosity toward the pigments—the desire to let them speak, to see what, if anything at all, they would say—makes Stains, by my estimation, interactive and collaborative, a kind of duet. To place alongside pieces that announce Ruscha’s command and precision pieces that capture the chaotic, uncontrollable, and serendipitous nature of his process adds depth, humility, and playfulness to this body of work. These pieces prompt me, as a poet, to consider the personality inherent to materials. What word or phrase or form would I like to hurt, or does writing my poems hurt, regardless of what I’d like? What is it to hurt a word? What is that pesky thing a poem can do, the poet’s equivalent of the painter’s curled edge? What can eat a poem like a bug eats paper? What kind of words fail, like Ruscha’s faintest stains, to leave much of an impression? What do I want to try, anyway? Could I catalog that?