Beautifully rendered and meticulously executed, the bold white lettering “THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW” triumphantly surfaces out of a darkened, stormy sky. Ruscha derived this titular text from a 1985 film starring Emilio Estevez, which was itself an adaptation of the 1971 novel That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hilton. Written out in Ruscha’s iconic typeface, which he himself developed and refined in the early 1980s, the phrase hinges on the pronouns “that” and “this,” which, here without any referential antecedent, allude to an unknown past in contrast to an unspecified present condition. The seductive ambiguity of this text is echoed in the dramatic and yet cinematically generic composition of the present work. While commanding in its authoritative message and its ominous composition, That Was Then, This Is Now possesses a refined, restrained elegance and conveys both visually and semantically a wistful and nonspecific nostalgia that is suggestive of a fascinatingly enigmatic narrative.
Commenting on his fascination with and appropriation of the tropes of Hollywood film industry, Ruscha notes: “If I’m influenced by the movies, it’s from way down underneath, not just on the surface. A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way they’re words in front of the old Paramount mountain... I have a background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, 2004-05, p. 21) This influence on Ruscha’s paintings from this period is apparent not only in the text and imagery of That Was Then, This Is Now, but also in the painterly devices and atmospheric sfumato which recall celluloid film reels. In a series executed concurrently with the present work, Ruscha makes explicit reference to the influence that cinematography had on his paintings of this period, mimicking in his paintings the scratches, dust particles, and light leaks that are visible in analog film.
Born in Oklahoma City, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956 where he worked as a sign painter and commercial graphic designer, the influences of which are apparent in the boldly distilled and readily consumable composition of the present work. Uninspired by commercial art and creatively confined by the narrowly prescribed modes of the then dominant artistic traditions of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Ruscha pioneered a visual vocabulary all his own that was aesthetically and conceptually informed by his artistic forebears and by Los Angeles’s rich culture. Of his indeterminate style, Ruscha said: “I like the idea that an artist should never be questioned about what he does, because he actually deserves this right of artistic license...I’ve always felt like the number one rule is that there are no rules.” (Ibid., p. 154) Ruscha’s amusingly flippant sentiment is perfectly encapsulated in That Was Then, This Is Now, a transcendental distillation of his unmatched vernacular and unique artistic verve.
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