The Art Of Ed Ruscha

“Dead Serious About Being Nonsensical”

All along Route 66 in the ’50s, gas stations dotted the sides of the road between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Ed Ruscha, Standard Study [#3], 1962, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 9 3⁄8 × 12 1⁄2″. © Ed Ruscha.

David Platzker at Artforum: Ruscha’s avant-garde proclivities surfaced in his first pagework as a member of the group Students Five, a collective of friends—Joe Good, Jerry McMillan (both high-school classmates of Ruscha’s), Patrick Blackwell, Don Moore, and later Wall Batterton. Their mailer/bulletin, Orb,9 published in seven issues between 1959 and 1960 by Chouinard’s Society of Graphic Designers, contained an amalgam of cartoons, collages, graphic experiments, texts, and exhibition announcements. Ruscha edited and laid out the issues on a single seventeen-by-twenty-two-inch sheet, printing it recto-verso in an elaborate overlapping two-color system and folding it six times down for dissemination through the mail. Commenting on the genesis of Orb’s design, Ruscha would say, “I pasted the thing up and I maybe was thinking in the back of my head, Dada, ’cause they kind of echo a lot of the things that the Dadaists were doing. Things can be upside down, they don’t have to be orderly, you don’t have to have a proper well-behaved page line.”

An untitled text-and-photo collage by Ruscha highlights this radical inclination. Published in the final issue of Orb and dated September 30, 1960, the piece takes the form of a “letter written home to the mother of an art student,” wherein a starving artist pleads for funds for food. In the margins, the artist reveals that the cash would in fact be put to use “purchasing paint, pencils, paper and various other tools so necessary to an art student!!!!,” with the center of the collage being a homemade bomb crafted from found images of a “dry cell ignitor” wired to a vine of tomatoes. Beside the improvised explosive, Ruscha drolly scrawled a modified George Bernard Shaw quote: “The true artist will let his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.”

Ed Ruscha, 1938, 1958, oil and ink on canvas, 49 1⁄8 × 33 3⁄8″. © Ed Ruscha.

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