Hovering over a richly saturated red ground, the words I Just Can't Bear to Look are articulated in a hue several shades darker than that below; the similarities in tone and saturation between the crimson shades invite close inspection by the viewer, necessitating intimate interaction with a painting whose text suggests otherwise. While the neat typeface of Ruscha’s letters invokes uniformity, upon close inspection, the edges of each crimson form reveal softness, inconsistencies, and their unique hand-painted nature. In its innovative medium of eggwhite upon satin support, I Just Can't Bear to Look advances ideas about the material volume of words earlier explored by Ruscha’s paintings of text rendered in trompe l’oeil fashion as if made of bubbles or viscous liquids; here, however, Ruscha brilliantly inverts this approach, using the once fluid medium to create the hard-edged typography instead of mimicking the runny substance in form. Ruscha similarly explored quotidian materials as medium in his 1969 book Stains, a boxed portfolio of seventy-five leaves of paper stained with various substances such as blackcurrant pie filling, axle grease, mustard, Vaseline and bleach, a work now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Continuing his fascination with nontraditional media at the Venice Biennale in 1970, Ruscha covered the walls of the United States Pavilion in 360 sheets of paper silkscreened with chocolate, installed side by side in layered rows to resemble the shingles of a suburban roof. Initiated the following year, Ruscha’s Stain paintings of 1971—1977 mark the pinnacle of this creative inquiry: as in the present work, Ruscha creates these remarkable compositions by staining porous surfaces like canvas, moiré, rayon, and satin with such unconventional materials as chili sauce, salad dressing, eggwhite, cherry extract, tea and castor oil—substances eccentric in the context of painting, yet banal in their everyday use. This extraordinary series marked the conclusion of Ruscha’s two-year hiatus from painting between 1969 and 1971, the artist revealing: “I can’t bring myself to put paint on canvas. I find no message there anymore.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 152) In its titular phrase, I Just Can’t Bear to Look appears to echo the artist’s sentiment, articulating the impetus behind its own creation: simultaneously, the radical innovation of its medium and mode of execution offers reprieve from the very painterly fatigue Ruscha cites, presenting new avenues for creative expression.
The oft-ignored sensory dimension of language enraptures Ruscha. He stated, “Words have temperatures to me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me...Sometimes I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart, and I won’t be able to read or think of it. Usually I catch them before they get too hot.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery (and travelling), Ed Ruscha Fifty Years of Painting, 2009, pp. 46-7) We can attribute the transfixing seduction of I Just Can’t Bear to Look partly to the tantalizing narrative mystery of the phrase, but also to our imagining of how the dried eggwhite bonds with the gossamer strands which make up the satin support—the five simple words are viscerally charged for the viewer to hear, smell and taste, titillating a tactile polarity of attraction and repulsion. An enigmatic painting that possesses a resounding power, the present work poetically commands an exhilaratingly sensory response.
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