For all its variety of styles and techniques, however, Ed Ruscha’s work also displays certain constants. Among these is his use of writing, whether in print form or painted onto pictures on canvas. It is a red thread that runs through his oeuvre from its earliest beginnings to the present. During his art training in Los Angeles Ed Ruscha also worked as a sign painter and for advertising agencies, studying among other things layout methods and printing techniques, which were later useful for his own early publications. As far back as the early 1960s he produced his legendary artist books comprising photographs of gas stations taken en route from his home in Los Angeles to Oklahoma where his family lived (Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963), or of all the buildings on Sunset Strip (Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1965).
With these works alone Ed Ruscha went down in art history and influenced later generations. His works are represented in the most important museums worldwide, and two years ago a major retrospective of his painting toured the museums of North America and Europe.
While that retrospective was devoted exclusively to his painting, the Kunsthaus Bregenz will be presenting not one
but an entire range of media including drawing, photogravure, book, film, and acrylic and oil painting. The focus will be on an obvious-enough area which, nevertheless, has never been fully examined to date, namely, the significance of the book and/or the act of »reading« in his work.
How special writing is for Ed Ruscha is clear from his famous pictures on canvas where single words or sentences placed on monochrome or polychrome backgrounds seem to magically hover in front of the picture surface. No less significant in this context is the ant lettering he developed for documenta 5 (1972) curated by Harald Szeemann, or the typeface he designed in the 1980s and named »Boy Scout Utility Modern,« which he has referred to as a »style of lettering without style.
Just how productive Ed Ruscha’s engagement with the written word is can be seen from his artist books, all of which are on show in the Bregenz exhibition, as also from the abstract oil and acrylic pictures of the Cityscapes series. In these pictures he places rectangular blocks on what are generally monochrome backgrounds so that the
blocks, on closer inspection and comparison with the titles of the pictures, are seen to mirror the lengths and spaces between individual words. Over a dozen such works in the exhibition document not only the atmospheric density that this combination of visual abstraction and the words supplied in thought can generate, but also a remarkable directness varying from despair and aggression to humor. It is significant that in this series, which he once referred to as »visual noise,« as also in others, Ruscha now and then blithely breaks his own rules.In a later comparable series of four-color photogravures, instead of a monochrome background Ed Ruscha used typical American landscape photos with titles such as Your A Dead Man that conjure up associations to Westerns.
Among other unusual works on show in the exhibition are Ruscha’s book objects with e.g. The End written on the cover in oil paint or single letters bleached into the linen binding, such as the O Books. The books become picture supports while retaining their status as objects, whereby the book’s content and its (new) cover step into dynamic relation with each other. The same holds for Oh No and Pep, two leather books whose fore-edges have been manually engraved and specially prepared for the Bregenz exhibition. There are also photographs by Ed Ruscha that are rarely exhibited. These photographs, at first glance,show precisely what their titles describe (e.g. Single Flat Book). On closer inspection, however, they are seen to poetically dramatize the relation of text and image, signifier and signified.
Some of the most impressive works in the show are pictures on canvas consisting of deceptively real-looking, minutely illusionistic front views of books whose covers boast words like Atlas, Bible, Index, or Standards and Norms. Ed Ruscha has specially continued this series for Bregenz by producing new works that combine the original books and their painted »copies« in frames. There are also new, large-format pictures, likewise produced exclusively for the exhibition, that are being presented to the public for the first time.
The exhibition Reading Ed Ruscha was specially conceived by the artist for the Kunsthaus Bregenz. It will be, surprisingly, his first institutional solo exhibition in Austria.
Ed Ruscha has selected four works pertinent to his exhibition at the Kunsthaus Bregenz for the KUB Billboards (Seestraße, Bregenz): Starbrats, Naive Evian, Index, and Stock Market Technique Number One from his series Books, and the two pieces It’s Payback Time and Your Space Gravure.
Four works show opened or closed books with a title added or with a title inscribed on the book cover. The titles´ texts play with the form, the content, and the readability of words and with the readers´ expectations. Two are palindromes, reading the same forward and backward - Starbrats and Naive Evian.
This playing with signs and readability is reinforced by the photo of a landscape with blackened lettering and thephoto of a blank shiny empty sign.