Words collect in the pictures. They often lurch between the very prosaic and ordinary and the immense and mystical. They can transfix you, held there precariously at the center.
Set against a nighttime cityscape overlain by a shimmering prismatic network of lights, the fiery-red text ‘POINT BLANK’ brilliantly captures the theatrical graphic force that typifies Ed Ruscha’s electric oeuvre. The spellbinding Point Blank
hails from the artist’s acclaimed series of City Lights
paintings, a pivotal body of work that marks a major shift in Ruscha’s idiosyncratic style. The work is also one of around ten City Lights
paintings from this era that employed red lettering. The strategy heightens the graphic intensity and ‘film noir’ allure of the work, complementing the specific connotations of the phrase ‘Point Blank’, which alludes to the shooting of a gun at ‘point blank range’ as well as the 1967 neo-noir crime cult classic Point Blank
directed by John Boorman. Regardless of the precise associations of the phrase, text in Ruscha’s canvases function just as importantly as abstract ciphers that refuse straightforward analysis, reveling instead in their own ambiguity. The artist is known to relish unusual combinations of words and phrases, a strategy that has been a hallmark of Ruscha’s oeuvre since the 1960s. Reflective of the importance of this decisive series, other examples are held in numerous prestigious public and private collections including that of the Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Art; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Ruscha's City Lights
series was a decisive move from the soft hazy sunsets of the previous decade to the mesmerizing grid of twinkling lights set against a black night sky. Its title extrapolated from Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 silent romantic movie of the same name, the City Lights
series captures Los Angeles from an aerial perspective, as if glimpsed from the vantage of a landing airplane. The sprawling cityscape here dissolves into a reductive grid, illuminated by the ethereal white glow of street lights and traffic concentrated in bright clusters at joint-like intersections. To achieve this hazy smolder of light that brilliantly punctuates the surface and diffuses at different scales of intensity, Ruscha utilized the airbrush, a technique that he would continue to explore for the remainder of his prodigious career. The resulting works reverberate with an atmospheric luminosity, which is abruptly punctured by the artist's bold typeface. Ruscha's chosen typography, a standardized font which he christened Boy Scout Utility
, was selected for its lack of style, so as not to distract from the meaning of the words depicted.
Ruscha himself comments cryptically on the particular phrase ‘Point Blank’: “Two beautiful words side by side” (the artist cited in Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992
, New York, 2009, p. 40). Coupled with the enthralling anonymity of the city grid as seen from an aerial view at night, Point Blank
exudes an air of endless intrigue that draws viewers into its indeterminate geography in which time and memory are destabilized. Through both image and text, the work employs evasion as a strategy to enchant and appeal: “The City Lights paintings could be said to articulate a noir-ish version of the sublime: they trigger fascination tinged with doubt and uncertainty” (Ralph Rugoff, Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery (and travelling), Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
, 2010, p. 21). As Briony Fer observes: “Words collect in the pictures. Single words or combinations of words […] are placed deliberately and usually symmetrically over a constellation of lights. […] They have an existence that is just as much a matter of space as anything else in them. They often lurch between the very prosaic and ordinary and the immense and mystical. They can transfix you, held there precariously at the center” (Briony Fer, “Moth-Man: Ruscha’s Light and Dark”, in R. Dean and L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992
, New York, 2009, pp. 9-10).
As in the very best of Ruscha’s works Point Blank
is inextricably linked to the visual culture of Los Angeles, with its wide, lattice-like boulevards and bright beaming lights. Like constellations in the night sky, the luminous Los Angeles cityscape invites spectacular associations with the enduring magnetism and glamour of Hollywood’s silver screen. This link with cinema is particularly prescient as after the City Lights
series the artist became preoccupied by the language of film and would turn his hand to painting emblems drawn from the series. While up until this point much of Ruscha’s work had largely centered around the automobile and the road as a focal point, looking at the landscape as seen through the window of a car, with the present series Ruscha expands his field of vision. Abstracting the map of Los Angeles, Ruscha reduces the landscape to its most minimal framework, distilling the hallmarks of urbanization down to mere pinpricks of fluorescent lights in a loosely rendered grid that collectively reveal activity on a greater scale.
Indeed, insofar as these paintings chronicle and record space, they do so not through the literal map of the city grid that they purportedly lay out, but rather through the varying densities of light that pool and ebb along the grid’s scaffolding framework, indicating greater concentrations of light and activity and thus recording patterns of urbanization and inhabitation. “Conflating the grids of the city with the compositional grid of the picture plane, these straddle the line between landscape and abstraction” (Ralph Rugoff, Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery (and travelling), Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, 2010, p. 21). In his monograph on the artist, Richard Marshall suggested that Ruscha developed his idea for these paintings during his many trips flying between Miami and Los Angeles in early 1985 while working on his commission for the Miami-Dade Public Library. His first large-scale public commission, Ruscha created for the library an eight-panel rotunda painting. To accommodate the physical size of this commission, Ruscha also moved into a bigger studio in Venice, California during this time, and the larger studio space allowed him to increase his scale moving forward.
The near monochromatic palette and reductive composition of the City Lights paintings present a significant departure from Ruscha’s earlier sunset paintings of the 1970s and early 1980s, which featured highly saturated, candy-colored skies painted in vibrant reds, pinks, and oranges. Constituting a new chapter in his career-long investigation of text and image through the lens of Los Angeles and Hollywood as cultural symbols, Point Blank was created during one of the artist’s most meaningful decades of rising critical and commercial acclaim in which he was the subject of two acclaimed solo retrospectives – one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1983, and another at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Created during such an accomplished period at the apex of Ruscha’s career, the evocative Point Blank ranks amongst the most captivating of Ruscha’s creations.