In I Tried to Forget to Remember, Ruscha captures the city of Los Angeles from an aerial perspective, as if glimpsed from the vantage of a landing airplane. The sprawling city 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. Capitalizing on the dissipated softness and subtle translucence that result, I Tried to Forget to Remember dutifully records contrasting patterns of light through variously dense hues of white paint. Through the heightened foreshortening of the painted perspective, I Tried to Forget to Remember shimmers with an enticingly cinematic allure. 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. Through both image and text, I Tried to Forget to Remember is cryptic and enigmatic, evading specific association and reveling in a state of ambiguity that lacks clear resolution. “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)
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. Indeed, 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.” (Ibid., p. 21) In his monograph on the artist, scholar 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.
Constituting a new chapter in his career-long investigation of text and image through the lens of Los Angeles and Hollywood as cultural symbols, I Tried to Forget to Remember refuses straightforward analysis. Emerging from a labyrinth network of city lights, the cryptic phrase “I Tried to Forget to Remember” lacks clear resolution, and instead revels in the circular ambiguity of its text. Coupled with the enthralling anonymity of the city grid as seen from an aerial view at night, I Tried to Forget to Remember exudes an air of endless intrigue. Drawing the viewer into its indeterminate geography in which time and memory are destabilized, Ruscha’s spellbinding I Tried to Forget to Remember enthralls viewers, enchanting them in in its compositional complexity and its instantaneous visual appeal.
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