Ruscha’s painterly oeuvre derives from a perpetual expansion of the medium’s boundaries, often with recourse to visual strategies from advertising, graphic design and film. Early paintings from the first half of the 1960s show the artist breaking with Abstract Expressionism’s dogma of subjectivity to foreground ubiquitous brand logos or product packaging instead. Emphatically horizontal works including Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962)—a monumental, deeply elongated rendering of the Twentieth-Century Fox logo—explore notions of landscape and the American West and recall widescreen CinemaScope film projections.
But the hallmark of his painting practice would soon be the incorporation of words and lettering, often in isolation against monochrome or graded color backgrounds. Works including OOF (1962) or Hollywood (1968) document shifts in the semiotic topography of their time and its cacophonous linguistic repertoire. Ruscha’s jarring use of text severed from its everyday context goes beyond reinventing the picture plane as a place for juxtaposing imagery and language. The conceptual space he creates also frees words from their overdetermined use in the media and everyday life, leaving them open to new associations in the mind of the viewer.
Much of the artist’s work since the 1970s involves a new type of picture that combines the illusory depth of landscape painting with the flat space of typography. At the center of these works are familiar-sounding, often tongue-in-cheek phrases and short sentences that could be described as “readymade” language from media, music, literature and advertising. Since the 1980s, these words have almost always appeared in a plain, functional font that Ruscha designed himself and ironically refers to as Boy Scout Utility Modern. The backgrounds of these works usually consist in sections of sky, nocturnal cityscapes or snowy mountain peaks—almost generic-looking images that nevertheless exude a kind of dim majesty. While paintings such as Not a Bad World, Is It? (1984) or Daily Planet (2003) seem to try to secularize transcendental emotions, others including his The End series (ongoing since 1991) engage with social and societal decay.
Ruscha’s output also includes highly influential artist’s books featuring his own photographs, most prominently Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965). The images collected in these publications also formed the basis for many of his immensely skillful, luminous drawings—works-on-paper for which the artist uses cotton pads and Q-tips to deftly apply gunpowder and ground pastels to rag paper. He has also experimented with such unconventional drawing media as the American medicine Pepto-Bismol, hot sauce, blood, fruit and vegetable juices, egg yolks, grass, caviar, chocolate or rose petals, and with supports including silk, satin or moire.
With visual elegance and a great deal of humor, Ruscha’s work shifts focus to what might be called the background noise of popular culture: to that which has become so ordinary as to escape notice, to what the artist himself once described as cultural “detritus.” His subtly anarchic approach reshuffles the codes that define our relationship to the present, injecting freedom into our usual habits of perception.