Jar of Olives Falling, 1969 affirms Edward Ruscha’s assertion that “paradox and absurdity have just always been really delicious to me.”(1) An aspect of the painting’s “absurdity” is its taking of objects that might appear in a still-life painting and rendering them, not resting on a table, but hurtling through space. “Space” seems to be the term that best approximates the light-to-dark olive green expanse surrounding the glass jar and its tumbling and spilling contents. The viewer receives no orientation, except the color values, which gradually darken from bottom to top, suggesting gradations in the sky seen when looking at the horizon at sunset. Yet the perception of celestial infinity abruptly collapses because of the shadow cast by the jar. Suddenly, infinite space becomes finite and flat, but—paradoxically, absurdly, and deliciously—only in this portion of the composition. The rest of the work maintains spatial indeterminacy in contrast to the life-size realism of the falling jar of olives.
By 1969, the painting’s date, Ruscha had gained wide recognition as an artist whose compositions merged elements of Dada, Surrealism, Pop, and Conceptual art. Like many artists, Ruscha dislikes labels; for instance, being associated with Pop art made him “nervous.”(2) . . . More than anything else, however, Ruscha’s art was shaped by seeing a reproduction of Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces, 1955 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York).(3)
Jar of Olives Falling shares with other Edward Ruscha compositions a fascination with visualizing noise. . . . In Jar of Olives Falling noise is anticipated: the glass jar is about to hit with a thud or crash; the olives and their juice are about to splatter. . . . In regard to Ruscha’s work, 1969 might be dubbed the Year of the Olive. Besides Jar of Olives Falling and Bouncing Marbles, Bouncing Apple, Bouncing Olive, the artist also rendered the fruit in Eye and Painkillers, Tranquilizers, Olive. It appears in his pastel Adios with Olive, three lithographs (Sin; Marble, Olive; and Olive, Screw), and a silkscreen, Cheese Mold Standard with Olive. Depicting olives convincingly at actual size brings a sense of realism to these otherwise often unreal compositions. But why olives? “Well, I don’t really know. They confused me so I stopped using them.” Ruscha further explained, “You know what they call pure research? What you’re doing when you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s what pure art is too...Well, with the olives I never did find out what I was doing.”(4) The artist’s comments should not, however, be considered a sign of frustration or failure, for he enjoys the belief that “disorientation is one of the best things about making art.”(5)
(1) Quoted in Ralph Rugoff, “The Last Word,” Art News 88 (December 1989): 123.
(2) Quoted in Neal Benezra and Kerry Brougher, Ed Ruscha (Washington, D.C. and Oxford: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford in association with Scalo, 2000): 150.
(4) Quoted in Dave Hickey, “Available Light,” in Anne Livet, The Works of Edward Ruscha (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982): 26, 27. Recently Ruscha reiterated that the olives carried no symbolic meaning and that they were shapes he liked (conversation with author, 23 March 2001).
(5) Quoted in Yves-Alain Bois, Edward Ruscha: Romance with Liquids, Paintings 1966–1969 (New York: Gagosian Gallery and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1993): 19.