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For Ruscha the road began as a means and became an end. The road took the young artist from Oklahoma to California. Before that, it took him on an early sojourn to Florida. Ruscha saw the road from the car, and on foot when he hitchhiked. But what he really saw was the landscape—rural and urban. The road is just a ribbon that runs between, that divides and defines. Buildings generally face the road. Fence lines trace its edge. Even nature is disrupted and conforms, falling on either side.
The road then became a point of perspective for Ruscha, a position from which to see buildings and text. Even though billboards are commercial spaces with specific messages, floating up above and often surrounded by sky, their texts and images are often isolated, viewed from great distances and at highway speeds. It is no surprise that when in the studio, after numerous road trips, Ruscha would depict objectlike words and phrases floating across a canvas. His experience from the road told him that words are pliable and don’t operate by the rules of physics. They don’t have assigned size or color, for example. This point is made clear in some of his early paintings of words and phrases in which he strategically includes recognizable items carefully rendered in their actual size. Of course the inclusion of the odd and unexpected shifts and deepens contemplation, guiding the viewer to move beyond looking to thinking, much like the experience of the highway, seeing the landscape and its markers pass by until something suggests a story or just associations that lead to unrelated thoughts.
There is also the how of Ruscha’s art. Of course the bold graphic quality of many of his paintings is suggestive of the artist’s early interest in commercial art. But the formal decisions in all of Ruscha’s work are telling. It seems certain that there is meaning in his method. To begin with, despite training that focused on Abstract Expressionism, his is not process-based work. Atmosphere is completely sucked out of the early gas station paintings and prints—something Ruscha admired in the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg—offering an unencumbered presentation, abstracted for clarity. Their subject is read as an isolated structure, an outcropping in a flat desolate landscape that builds in scale and impact as it is approached in a moving vehicle. The strong diagonal dramatizes the effect. For the most part there is an indifference to detail; no one part of the scene is favored. Each individual block of color seamlessly locks together with its neighbor to make the whole legible. These paintings stop one in one’s tracks, disrupting the mental wandering that sometimes comes with viewing art, and in this way replicates the experience of the road.
With the books, Ruscha seems unconcerned with content and certainly uninterested in narrative. There is no story being told; there doesn’t even appear to be a compulsion to compose and show pictures. Apparently when in Europe as a young man, Ruscha came across some modestly constructed books being sold in the streets. He found their construction and format compelling and following their example, seems to have made his own books simply because he wanted them to exist—the way they come together, the serial quality of one page to the next, the placement of text and image, the way they are viewed/experienced, the way they travel and so forth. This exhibition (Ed Ruscha: Road Tested) includes Ruscha’s musing about facts concerning the books in a partial presentation of his text Information Man (1971), which reveals to some degree how he feels about the books and maybe his aspirations for them. Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) became the subject of his first book because he liked the word gasoline and the configuration of the number 26 spelled out. These fascinations became the matrix that directed the book and anyone at the time knew there was something special about this odd and simple but compelling piece. Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a source of curiosity and fascination, whether found in a gallery or a library, and elicits that head-scratching response the artist is after.