The story of a young Ruscha having a eureka moment after seeing reproductions of Target with Four Faces (1955) by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg’s “combine” Odalisk (1955/58), which includes an actual chicken, is an interesting lens through which to view his work. At the time, this discovery offered an escape from the dominance of Abstract Expressionism—a new way to see and consider art, a launch pad, a reason to cross the road. Ruscha has described it as “a voice from nowhere,” as, “music you’ve never heard before, so mysterious and sweet.”
In addition to the profound impact of Johns’s and Rauschenberg’s work, I can’t help but think how significant it is that Ruscha discovered these “paintings” as flat magazine reproductions. Their scale had to be imagined based on the known size of the real and cast objects. He held the magazine instead of standing in front of the paintings, making his experience purely visual rather than both visual and visceral. This secondhand encounter could arguably account for Ruscha’s graphic, hard-edge approach and his depiction of the “real” rather than its inclusion in his paintings, like that of Rauschenberg. What the artist seems to have taken away from that first exposure to a new visual vocabulary was disjointedness, a slippage and challenge of expectations. His attraction to Johns and Rauschenberg—and their lineage to Marcel Duchamp—explains a strangeness factor that keeps one from making complete sense of Ruscha’s choices. It has one asking why the torn Ten-Cent Western is in the corner of the painting of a Standard Station and never coming up with an entirely satisfactory answer, but nevertheless being glad its included, maybe even enjoying not knowing—a reminder, a reassurance that all things can be considered but not all things can be known.