The work of Ed Ruscha (born 1937), one of the best-known artists of his generation, eludes established categories. Assigned to pop art at the start of his career and later on to conceptual art, today it is clear that one of the qualities of Ed Ruschas work is its never confining itself to one style or medium. Artist books, drawings, prints, photography, and painting are used in parallel, for instance, together with materials as unconventional as gunpowder, fruit juice, coffee, and syrup in producing his drawings and prints.
For all its variety of styles and techniques, however, Ed Ruschas work also displays certain constants. Among these is his use of writing, whether in print form or painted onto pictures on canvas. It is a red thread that runs through his oeuvre from its earliest beginnings to the present. During his art training in Los Angeles Ed Ruscha also worked as a sign painter and for advertising agencies, studying among other things layout methods and printing techniques, which were later useful for his own early publications. As far back as the early 1960s he produced his legendary artist books comprising photographs of gas stations taken en route from his home in Los Angeles to Oklahoma where his family lived (Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, 1963), or of all the buildings on Sunset Strip (Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1965).
With these works alone Ed Ruscha went down in art history and influenced later generations. His works are represented in the most important museums worldwide, and two years ago a major retrospective of his painting toured the museums of North America and Europe.
While that retrospective was devoted exclusively to his painting, the Kunsthaus Bregenz
is presenting not one but an entire range of media including drawing, photogravure, book, film, and acrylic and oil painting. The focus is on an obvious-enough area which, nevertheless, has never been fully examined to date, namely, the significance of the book and/or the act of »reading« in his work.
How special writing is for Ed Ruscha is clear from his famous pictures on canvas where single words or sentences placed on monochrome or polychrome backgrounds seem to magically hover in front of the picture surface. No less significant in this context is the ant lettering he developed for documenta 5 (1972) curated by Harald Szeemann, or the typeface he designed in the 1980s and named »Boy Scout Utility Modern,« which he has referred to as a »style of lettering without style.«
Just how productive Ed Ruschas engagement with the written word is can be seen from his artist books, all of which are on show in the Bregenz exhibition, as also from the abstract oil and acrylic pictures of the Cityscapes series. In these pictures he places rectangular blocks on what are generally monochrome backgrounds so that the blocks, on closer inspection and comparison with the titles of the pictures, are seen to mirror the lengths and spaces between individual words. Over a dozen such works in the exhibition document not only the atmospheric density that this combination of visual abstraction and the words supplied in thought can generate, but also a remarkable directness varying from despair and aggression to humor. It is significant that in this series, which he once referred to as »visual noise,« as also in others, Ruscha now and then blithely breaks his own rules.
In a later comparable series of four-color photogravures, instead of a monochrome background Ed Ruscha used typical American landscape photos with titles such as Your A Dead Man that conjure up associations to Westerns.
Among other unusual works on show in the exhibition are Ruschas book objects with e.g. The End written on the cover in oil paint or single letters bleached into the linen binding, such as the O Books. The books become picture supports while retaining their status as objects, whereby the books content and its (new) cover step into dynamic relation with each other. The same holds for Oh No and Pep, two leather books whose fore-edges have been manually engraved and specially prepared for the Bregenz exhibition. There are also photographs by Ed Ruscha that are rarely exhibited. These photographs, at first glance, show precisely what their titles describe (e.g. Single Flat Book). On closer inspection, however, they are seen to poetically dramatize the relation of text and image, signifier and signified.
Some of the most impressive works in the show are pictures on canvas consisting of deceptively real-looking, minutely illusionistic front views of books whose covers boast words like Atlas, Bible, Index, or Standards and Norms. Ed Ruscha has specially continued this series for Bregenz by producing new works that combine the original books and their painted »copies« in frames. There are also new, large-format pictures, likewise produced exclusively for the exhibition, that are being presented to the public for the first time.
The exhibition Reading Ed Ruscha was specially conceived by the artist for the Kunsthaus Bregenz. It is, surprisingly, his first institutional solo exhibition in Austria.