Set against a dusty escarpment rising towards a limitless blue sky, Ed Ruscha's Nerve
from 2006 is an archetypal example of the artist's critically acclaimed mountain paintings, highlighted at the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
. Combining Ruscha's career-long intellectual inquiry into the visual and semantic possibilities of words with stunning vistas of an American landscape of myth and nostalgia, these paintings form a late high point in his oeuvre.
, the relentless sun casting midday shadows and the palette of indigo sky and red soil is highly evocative of the Californian landscape and the dry mountains around Los Angeles. Ruscha moved to the West Coast metropolis in the mid 1950s, driving down the legendary Route 66 in a black 1950s Ford from his small-town childhood home in Oklahoma. At just 18 years old, this road trip proved to be a formative influence on his work. Along Route 66, the endlessly featureless horizon, so beautifully evoked in the rusty hues of the present work, is only occasionally punctuated by the huge billboards which start as specs on the horizon and gradually get bigger until they slide past the window. They are contemporary signposts of modern America set against the boundless sky and setting sun of the mythical landscape of the Wild West. Seen against the timeless landscape, the words which make up banal advertising slogans for commonplace consumer products—brands of gas, types of aftershave—take on the mythology of their surroundings. It is this iconography, of the landscape as seen from the road, familiar to the beat generation and immortalized by Jack Kerouac's narrator in On the Road
, which lends Ruscha's work a distinctly West Coast sensibility endemic to his immediate environment: “When you're on a highway, viewing the western US with the mountains and the flatness and the desert and all that, it's very much like my paintings." (The artist in Ossian Ward, 'Ed Ruscha Interview' in Time Out London
, 12 February 2008).
Isolated and out of context, cinematically emblazoned on widescreen billboards, words take on a surreal presence, their meanings lost or transformed by their incongruous surroundings. They stick in the mind's eye long after they have flashed by the windscreen of the passing car. In Ruscha's paintings their physical supports, the billboards, disappear to leave the words hovering in space, reflecting his experience of them in the desert landscape: "Ruscha's experience on the desert highway was one of words floating in emptiness, their message of comfort attempting to mask the landscape of awe, signs and advertisements trying to fill up the uneasy void of the desert". (Kerry Brougher, “Words and Landscape” in Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ed Ruscha
, 2000, p. 158).
When he first moved to Los Angeles in 1956, Ruscha worked as a sign painter and graphic designer. He also worked for an art book publisher, hand-setting the type and working the presses, jobs which fostered his interest in the formal qualities of printed text. At the same time, while studying at the Chouinard Art Institute, he encountered the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose cool, anti-art stance provided the necessary foil to the prevalent Abstract Expressionist tendencies of contemporary art practice. On the one hand, Ruscha's experiences as a commercial illustrator fostered an interest in the aesthetics of text, its manifold typologies and the formalism of letters as pure shapes worthy of artistic study. On the other, the blueprint provided by Duchamp's word games stimulated an intellectual curiosity in found words—linguistic ready-mades—which became the lifeblood of Ruscha's work. His subsequent career-long exploration of the formal qualities of words is totally unique in the history of art.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Ruscha saw very little fine art in the flesh and was much more influenced by the immediacy of vernacular imagery: comic strips, book design and vivid commercial advertising. Nonetheless, the dramatic American landscape, as seen in Nerve
, continues a long line of artistic interpretation of the Californian landscape, in particular the Romanticized landscapes of Albert Bierstadt. A master of Californian light, Bierstadt's broad panoramas depicted an idealized West as a bountiful land of plenty, imbued with a golden luminescence they are deeply poetic images which appealed to the Manifest Destiny aspirations of those in the East Coast cities. In the 20th century, Ansel Adams' soaring images of Yosemite under vast open skies captured a similarly Romantic spirit. Ruscha's landscapes are the inheritors of this genre. Whereas Ruscha investigates this striking terrain via his hyper-realist painting, his contemporary, Richard Serra, approaches it via his sculptural works composed of Corten steel. As the steel oxidizes, it turns orange, before taking on earthen tones of dark brown and amber about eight years later—resembling the grittiness and rawness of the landscape and its natural striations.
From afar, Ruscha’s hyper-realistic depictions are packed with the drama and beauty of nature. Up close, however, they are much more deadpan: "On close examination, Ruscha's super-real, photographic mountains break up into a complex series of little flat planes of color... similar to the methods used by billboard painters. The natural appearance of the mountains is only an illusion; rather, Ruscha gives us the 'idea' of the mountain" (Ibid, p. 174). Nonetheless, there is something profoundly poetic found in his deadpan approach to contemporary visual culture which chimes with the linguistic play of his paintings. It is this spirit of Duchampian intellectual inquiry, embedded in his vernacular visual culture, which is the hallmark of Ruscha’s best work. And, as one of the most significant American painters living today, it also aptly distinguishes him from the Pop tendencies of his peers.