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Ed Ruscha and the Language That He Used*

The first images seen by visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art's

recent exhibition Ed Ruschaand Photography were a set of six photographs taken in

in 2003.1Each ProductStill Life features a single con-

1961 and shown for the first time

sumer item-Oxydol bleach, Sherwin-Williams turpentine, Wax Seal car polish-on what appears to be a shelf, shot frontally in black and white against a solid backdrop.

As exhibited, these works foretold the photographic practice treated in the rest of the small show: Ruscha went on to use such artless viewpoints to picture vernacular subjects, stripped of affect, in artist'sbooks such as Twentysix GasolineStations (1962) and SomeLos AngelesApartments(1965). The books are rightly regarded as beachheads in the genealogy of Conceptual art, but a pair of the single-object photographs evoke

instead Ruscha's first allegiance,

that are

For two of Ruscha's early photographic subjects, a box of Sun Maid Raisinsand a tin of Spam, reappear in paintings executed in tandem with or shortly after the photos, Box SmashedFlat (1960-61) and Actual Size (1962), paintings that established the reputation of "Ed-werd Rew-shay,Young Artist"as an avatarof WestCoast Pop.3 The assessment was sensible enough: with their sign-like vibrance, depiction

of mass-produced commercial items, and allusion to the strategies of advertising (picturing a product in its "actual size"), the paintings feature several of the markers

to Pop.2 (A charter membership in two movements only begins to suggest his art-historical elusiveness.)

in many ways anathema

* Parts of this Ruscha, 1958-1970"

am indebted to Pamela Lee; thanks as well to Scott


comments and suggestions on this version.

are taken from a chapter of my dissertation, "'Good Reading': The Work of Ed

and insight on that project, I

Bryan Wolf. I am very

to Yve-Alain Bois, Johanna Burton, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, and Malcolm Turvey for their

essay (Ph.D. diss., Stanford

University, 2004). For her help

Bukatman, Wanda Corn, and



affinity to the Pop

carrying member of it, but my attitudes were more similar to Pop artists than

Goode, Jeny McMillan, Edward Ruscha, exh. cat. [Oklahoma


in 1960. Box Smashed Flat and ActualSizewere included in Walter

exhibition (Pasadena Art Museum, 1962); Box SmashedFlatwas the first work Ruscha sold and ActualSize

the first acquired by a museum.

any other" (Ruscha in Joe

The ProductStill Lifes were first exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles in spring 2003.

Ruscha is

wary artists and their

of art-historicallabels but does


acknowledge attitude than to

his Pop sensibility: "Ihave more of an

You couldn't call me a card-

Museum, 1989], p. 84).

anything else

City: Oklahoma City Art

upon graduating


So read the business cards Ruscha made for himself

from Chouinard Art Institute


Painting of Common Objects

OCTOBER 111, Winter 2005, pp. 81-106. ? 2005 October Magazine, Ltd.and MassachusettsInstitute of Technology.



82 OCTOBER A Ed Ruscha. L e f t : Sun-Maid Raisins. 1961. All i m

Ed Ruscha. Left: Sun-Maid Raisins. 1961.

All imagescourtesy theartistand

Right:Spam. 1961.


that stylistically characterized Pop in both its early flush and subsequent historiciza-

tion. Present too are the parodic rejoinders

critics saw in Pop (Ruscha, then a recent graduate of Chouinard Art Institute, was trained to paint in an Abstract Expressionist manner, against his inclinations). The title Box Smashed lat is perhaps the most pithy summary of Greenbergian modernism yet, and the streaky run-off in the lower half of Actual Size so regular it could

have been applied with a ruler; both paintings testify to the reception of

Abstract Expressionism's once-unencumbered,


to Abstract


that several


marks as shopworn

is the



and packable-by not Pop about

the early 1960s.


What is conspicuously




tance Ruscha accords to the single item and its qualities as an object. The Pop subject

was typically pictured as uniform and exchangeable, whatever distinguishing proper- ties it might possess eclipsed by the growing power of the mass-cultural sign, and its multiplicity reiterated in the Pop artist's imitation or direct use of techniques of


mechanical reproduction. show exterior

Mel Ramos's Velveeta Cheese boxes), Ruscha shows interior substance, indicating crushed raisins with a smeary blot of brown paint below the lid of the Sun Maid box. Pop's most iconic subjects are serial (Warhol's rows of Campbell's Soup and Coke cans), while Ruscha depicts a single item with lavish trompe l'oeil care. And we learn

from the Product Still Lifes that, unlike Warhol culling his imagery from daily newspa- pers, or James Rosenquist clipping from old magazines, Ruscha based his early

paintings on actual objects. The sources of his first subjects were a single can of processed meat and a box of raisins he photographed in his studio, and Ruscha's care-what he calls a "reverence"-for the substance of his subjects, his concern to

While Pop representations

of commercial




(Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann's


Ed Ruscha and the Language That He Used

?R f',"i


0 Box? Smahe
0 Box?

Ruscha. Left: Box Smashed Flat. 1960-61. Right: Actual Size. 1962.

present them as palpable things with tactility, weight, and even velocity, hallmarks his polymathic practice.4

This engagement

with materiality

can, I would

argue, be traced through most

of Ruscha's production of the past forty-five years-in renderings of both words and images; in work in painting, drawing, editions; and even in his photographic books, thought to augur Conceptual art's antagonism for the work of art as physical

object. The project of the following is narrower: to use the notion of linguistic

opacity-of the word as a nontransparent sign, whose materiality may be tied to its meaning-to chart some consistencies in Ruscha's word choices during his first decade of work. His notebooks indicate that he depicted more than four hundred

words between


his subsequent

has been

sents. These





1960 and


1972, and there

have been


more since. Yet the

of Ruscha as a pacemaker

on any number by an account

in the use of text in and as image, and


of artists with language-centered

of the particular


kinds of words he repre-


(mass culture,


words are less Pop's transparent





has long

signs of something












in twentieth-century and


art history,

a sustained

4. Ruscha in Paul Karlstrom, "Interview with Edward Ruscha in His Western Avenue, Hollywood

Studio" (1980-81),


ProductStill Lifes:"They

kicked around, and wrinkled. I liked them for that" (Ruscha in Sylvia Wolf, "Nostalgia and New Editions: A

Conversation with Ed American Art, 2004], p.

uniqueness acquired by time. They are not yet worn or left over" (New York: Praeger, 1966), p. 78.

"Popobjects decidedly forgo the

York: Whitney Museum of

Mass.:MIT Press, 2002), p. 185. Ruscha remarked on the objects in the

in Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews,Bits, Pages, ed.

perfect condition

they're ratty around the edges, and they've been

Schwartz (Cambridge, were not in

Ruscha," in Ed Ruschaand Photography, exh. cat. [New

263). Compare to LucyLippard'sprimer Pop Art:



demonstrate a pattern of choices based on linguistic opacity, in which words possess a

material density and form is often motivated

received wisdom about signification in Pop at the moment the movement itself is

ripe for critical reexamination. Ruscha's textual choices-mostly

practice, then longer phrases and sentences from the early 1970s on-are gener- ally regarded as humorous one-liners, lightweight piffle and self-evident snippets

drawn seemingly at random from Los Angelean

Paramount. Gas. Western. Honey, I Twisted Through MoreDamn TrafficToday. When

critics do mention

that, like many Pop artists, Ruscha represents brand-name products, or that

names such as "Hollywood" and "20th Century Fox" conjure the local color of his


"adios"to look as if formed of beans might be some sort of a joke. This semantic lip service follows from conventional notions of signifying in Pop: its words and

images were (and are) mainly considered straightforward, if oversized, inventories of an increasingly pervasive, mass-media-driven American popular culture. The

issues of interest, then and now, were the level of critique intended

everyday subjects signal a cheerful acceptance or the grim ascent of the culture industry?) and the question of what picturing the commodity in a work of art entailed in terms of its own status as a commodity; the signs themselves were taken to be obvious, even transparent, vehicles of meaning. "The authentic Pop image exists independent of any interpretations," wrote one critic. "It is simple, direct, and immediately comprehensible."5 These presumptions of simplicity were understandable: Pop's new imagery-demotic, commercial, urban, sexual-

though startling, was at least recognizable after nearly two decades of abstraction, and fast-changing conditions of artistic production and reception seemed to call

out for what Leo Steinberg would memorably term "other criteria" to gauge the work. To evaluate the matter of Ruscha's words, and consider the relation of that

matter to meaning, is an unabashedly formalist project, and Pop, as Steinberg suggested in 1963, had "pushed subject matter to such prominence that formal or aesthetic considerations are temporarily masked out."6

by meaning,

may complicate

single words for the first decade of his

highway and movie culture:

most do so only nominally, noting

if painting

the word

his particular selections,

or in bemused


passing, wondering

(did these



forwardnessof its signs.


tion in "Other Criteria" (1972)

the earliest criticism on


lack of interest

about the 1963

John Russell and Suzi Gablik,

reception of Pop,

in "A






Pop Art Redefined(New York: Praeger,

Gablikdoes not depart from initial

9. Even while


assumptions about the straight-



to "redefine"the




that art criticism abandon formalism had already been realized in much of


Art," Arts37

(April 1963), p. 39. Steinberg's


reviewerssawlittle formal

significance the work "insufficient

it:Jules Langsner, review- "the


Artforum 51

TheNew Paintings of

Common Objects,pronounced

these works resides in



esthetically,"declaring, of visual invention"; John Coplans, writing

Oakland Museum, noted, "Forthese artists, the

generated by Art-USA show he



the poverty

at the

Abstract Expressionist concern with gesture,

sophisticated concern


the expressive possibilities of sheer materials, is out





is also out" Art-USA,"



Angeles Letter," Art International [September 1962], p. 49; Coplans, "Pop

Ed Ruscha and the Language That He Used


Most criticism on Ruscha fuses the

observation that he

turns words into objects

with the assumption that those words, in turn, relinquish whatever immanent or

referential signifying capacities they might possess; bypassed is the potential of the

rendered word to be both physical thing and conveyor of meaning,

object and bearer of linguistic resonance and association.7Yet it is the possibility of picturing this simultaneity that animates Ruscha's practice: his material is language, but that language is material, and in giving size to things that "existin a world of no-

size," he tends to

materiality.8 He loves words, picks them carefully ("whatever I do now is completely premeditated"), and often represents text as mimetically as his scrupulous trompe l'oeil figures object.9 Ruscha'swords thicken and perplex their assumed transparency by foregrounding their substantive physicality and by reproducing the look, shape, sound, and meaning of their referents, and it is this refusalof the transparency attrib- uted to the sign by historians of Pop that unites the various linguistic categories

recurrent in his earlypractice.10

at once pictorial

portray words as signs that can be motivated and linked to their


1963], p. 28). Many artists concurred: "Pop seems to be all subject

Abstract Expressionism, for example,

seems to be all esthetic"



(that is, noisy)

matter," Lichtenstein

m a t t e r , " Lichtenstein


in G. R.

e d . , Hand-Painted

ed., Hand-Painted




Swenson, "WhatIs Pop Art?," Art News [November 1963], p. 26). See Russell Ferguson,


reconsideration of the formal

7. Yve-AlainBois's work on

that one cannot retrieve from the

Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993), for a

relationships between Abstract Expressionism

Ruscha is an important exception; he writes that Ruscha "clearly knows

he will

always bounce back full of meaning" (Bois,

"Thermometers Should Last

cat. [NewYork: Gagosian Gallery, 1993], p. 20; reprinted in this volume, pp. 60-80).

8. Ruscha in Patricia

News 81, pt. 4 (April 1982), p. 78; reprinted in Leave AnyInformation at the Signal,pp. 225-37.

that strike him, from con-

One interviewerasked

Zappa song.'

MysteriousVoltageDrop: 'I read it in an electric manual.' Malibu= Sliding GlassDoors:'That whoosh they

about the inspirations for certain works:"Slobberin'Drunkat thePalomino:'That'sfrom a Frank

versations, dreams, music, and books, and he writes these down even while

9. Ibid., p. 77. Ruscha

AmericanArt in Transition 1955-62, exh. cat. (Los

escape signification. He knows that however empty

semiological profusion of social refuse, it will

Failing, "Ed Ruscha, Young

Forever," in EdwardRuscha:Romancewith Liquids,Paintings 1966-1969, exh.

Artist: Dead Serious About Being Nonsensical," Art

keeps notebooks in which he lists words and phrases

'My He Bustsinto a UnionHall Full

that words do not mean





make sounds like the ocean.' TalkReal:

Going: 'A Groucho Marx quote.'

Guys Want, PontiacCatalinas?':It came to me in a dream" (ibid., p. 81).


kid said that once to me when he was small.' HelloI MustBe

of Workersand Yells Out, 'O.K., WhatIs It You


To say that language signifies transparently suggests that a word's physical features do not affect


perception of


the paper, and from the moment I am

ters on it,

fades before what

PhenomenologyofPerception [1962], trans. Colin Smith [London: Routledge,

Some suggest ly, from his Catholic upbringing,

Although Ruscha equated

acknowledged the influence: "I kind of spring from Catholicism

quasi-religious thing" (Ruscha in Amei Wallach, "The Restless American: On Ed Ruscha's Royal Road,"

NewYork Times, June 24, 2001,

to word choices such as Sin, TheCatholic Church, Devilor

p. 33). It is easy enough to trace a religious theme in his work, from the sym-

bolism suggested by the "birdsand fish" paintings

Angel, Miracle, The Chapel Window, SheSureKnewHer Devotionals, and Bible.The utility of these connect-the-

dots biographic analyses seems limited at best, however, and is at any rate beyond the scope of this essay.

meaning, is that it

my eyes

virtue of their materiality. "The wonderful

of some invisible




its own oblivion," wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty:"Myeyes follow the lines on

them. The paper, the let-

caught up in their meaning, I lose sight of

there as the minimum


operation. Expression


is expressed, and this is why its mediating role may pass unnoticed" (Merleau-Ponty,

1989], p. 401).

that Ruscha'sinterest in the

from years


of catechism classes on how

of the word may stem, however unconscious-

"the Word became flesh."

his move to California in 1956 with his abandonment of the church, he has

Some of my work comes out of a



Harold Rosenberg, writing in 1964 on the contemporary proliferation of "art

books," diagnosed the character of recent reception as marked

art and comment."ll The market boom that occurred in lockstep with the burgeon-

ing of Pop art precipitated a growing interest in new work on the part of the mass media that Pop often took as subject, an enhanced cultural standing for the critic,

and a rapidly expanding art press.

salutary; Rosenberg lamented that painting had "become nothing else than what is said about it," and Brian O'Doherty complained that art was being "overinterpreted,

overcriticized, and overdocumented in a strangling undergrowth of verbal redun- dancies."12New roles for the word also emerged in the register of production, in a

variety of practices that supplanted the Abstract Expressionist focus on the (how- ever unrecognizable) image with an attention to language. This linguistic turn in practice would reach its apogee in the text-only work, efflorescence of artists' writ- ings, and theoretical apparatuses of Minimalism and Conceptualism, but much Pop,

too, featured language Roy Lichtenstein's


Rosenquist's work (usually devoid of language) as "billboard painting" hints at a text behind the image.

by a "coalescence of

Many did not view these developments as

prominently: its most iconic works, Warhol's soup cans and




and even

the labeling


Together with the implosion of medium-specific practices and the dismantling

1960s, this "eruption of language into the field of the

of "high-low" boundaries in the

visual arts," as Craig Owens wrote, was "coincident with, if not the definitive index of, the emergence of postmodemism."13Although Abstract Expressionism's artists and art workswere hardly as nonverbal as the myths about their moment make them out to be, high modernist practice and criticism had been decidedly antilinguistic, the putative opticality, autonomy, and immediacy of the image privileged over the narra- tive, referentiality, and temporality spawned by language.14 "All pictures of quality ask to be looked at rather than read," Clement Greenberg wrote, and he inaugurated the crusade to establish avant-gardepainting as "dominant" by taking up the mantle

11. Harold

Chicago Press, 1964), pp.


Rosenberg, "Art Books, Book Art, Art," in his TheAnxious Object(Chicago: University of



199; Brian

O'Doherty, "Criticizing

Criticism" (1963), in his Object and Idea:An Art Critic's

& Schuster, 1967), p. 193.


Journal 1961-1967 (New York:Simon



more than the

the contamination

ics, the ersatz metaphysics



recent invasion of the 'textual' into the domain of


As W. J. T. Mitchell notes: "Modern painting

Owens, "Earthwords," October10 (Fall 1979), pp. 122, 126.

'pure' image-abstract,

of a verbal title-has

of 'art


free of

while it has ostensibly sought to create nothing

reference, narrative, and even



in fact become more

on an elaborate verbal apologet-


rushing into the art

theory"' (Mitchell, ed., The Languageof Images[Chicago: University


who came

[in the mid-1960s], bringing

news of the

Press, 1974], p.

as into the

1). And Rosalind Krauss argues: "The

of art



thirty years ago

the visual,


could have saved his [sic] breath. The visual

arts have always battled the onslaught of

poesis to iconography-that

ekphrasis to allegory; from ut pictura

modernist art managed, briefly, to stun but never totally to silence" (Krauss,

83). See also Ann Gibson, "Abstract

a verbal production-from

[Summer 1996], p.

"Welcome to the Cultural Revolution," October77

Expressionism's Evasion of Language," Art Journal 47, no. 3 (Fall 1988), pp. 208-14.

Ed Ruscha and the Language That He Used


of G. E. Lessing's 1766 attack on ut picturapoesis.15 Abstraction, Greenberg main- tained, would best demarcate and purify the limits of the medium, best serve the modernist painter's crucible of eliminating "from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art."16Foremost among the worst of such borrowings were the "effects" of words, and the flat picture plane's renunciation of perspectival illusionism meant that the avant-gardepainter could get "ridof imitation-and with it, 'literature.'"17



the early reception new work signaled

of Pop art was mixed,

a treacherous

its critics split as to

of the Abstract


Expressionist ethos or the next logical stage in the organically successive march of art history, most concurred that Pop artists were (in contrast to their New York

School predecessors) "eminently write-able about," as Thomas Hess put it, responsi- ble for ushering in what BarbaraRose called a "verbalfeast"for criticism.18This new

care for language about art did not extend, however, to the very words depicted in Pop; early critics remained largely uninterested in what the signs of "sign art"actu- ally said or meant, and instead effectively viewed text in Pop as more or less pure

pictorial matter.19"Most of them have nothing

about the works.20 Except for the interpretations that representing a mass-produced

item with techniques often cribbed from industrial production foregrounded the

force of postwar American consumerism,

question of the extent to which the work of art itself had become a commodity, the

extent to which its meaning was its commodity status, analyses of Pop mainly grew out of assumptions that its words and images were possessed by what Roland Barthes


at all to say,"charged Peter Selz

and that such representations begged the

would later call "the obtuse and matte stubbornness

of a fact."21 Barthes's reflections

on what he termed Pop's "facticity"-how its subjects are "stripped of any symbol" and "signify that they signify nothing," how the work itself denies that "it possesses a

profound or proximate space through which its appearance can propagate vibrations

15. Clement Greenberg, BarnettNewman:First Retrospective Exhibition (Bennington, Vt.: Bennington

College, 1958), n.p.


Criticism, vol. 4,

Press, 1986),


and Criticism, vol.

Press, 1986), p.






Collected Essays and

Modernismwitha Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago



(1960), in Clement Greenberg: The

Greenberg, "Towardsa Newer Laocoon" (1940), in Clement Greenberg:

The Collected Essays

1, PerceptionsandJudgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago


ArtNews (Summer 1963), p. 41; Barbara Rose, "Pop in Perspective,"


art, the


Encounter25, no. 2

Thomas Hess, "New Realists,"

(August 1965), p.



Johanna Drucker is one of few scholars to note this omission: "With the advent of


are overwhelmed





by other issues in its consideration"



use of language as a visual form resurfaces in the visual arts, but the



227). An impor-

tant recent

see his ImageDuplicator:Roy Lichtensteinand the Emergenceof Pop Art (New Haven: Yale University Press,

2002), esp.



ExperimentalTypography and ModernArt [Chicago: University

to the boundaries of

(Drucker, The VisibleWord:


Press, 1994],

is Michael Lobel's careful attention to the words in Lichtenstein's comic bubbles;



1, 3, 5. "The Flaccid Art," PartisanReview (Summer 1963),

Thing, Art


." (1980), in


Roland Barthes, "That Old

Pop Art:A Critical History, ed. Steven Henry

Madoff (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1997), p. 372.



poststructuralism for such

appraisals.22 Gene Swenson wrote much the same thing in an early review ("animage

from a sign

Pop artistof having decided to "banish metaphor."23

of meaning"-are elegant, but we need not look only to

is stripped of its original signification"), and Dore Ashton accused the

Such disavowalsof Pop's intrinsic signifying power indicate how long the criti-

lasted; Michael Fried, for example, in a

could work only

cal hangover of high modernist formalism

1962 reviewof Robert Indiana's work,wrote, "Paintings such as these

if the words could be bled dry, if they could be deprived of all their force as bearers

of meaning."24 Critics of Ruscha's first decade of work, while mainly laudatory, not

only avoid analyses of his particular word choices but seem to want to ignore his use

of language


difficult to get through them because the meaning of the words gets in the way."25

David Bourdon stated that Ruscha was not "makingliterary or intellectual allusions"

and even that "a knowledge of the

ment of Ruscha's work."26Ruscha's

such interpretations: from Larry

opalescent white discs, from Billy Al

Craig Kauffman's Plexiglas, "objectsculpture" stressed

the quality and specificity of material and surface to the exclusion of what those prop-



deceptively bland and succulent pastel surfaces can trick one into taking him as an aberrantformalist-but then there is his perverselyexplicit literary content."28 (The tenable objection to be raised here is that Ruscha's words elicit less a Pop frameworkthan a Conceptual one. But this context is also flawed, and not simply because much of the work treated in the following predates the coalescence of

Conceptual art in 1965-66. Although Ruscha's depiction of words without accom-

panying imagery might seem to realize the Conceptualist proposal that language,

and language alone, could be

the matter and subject of an art work, this realization

altogether. "No matter how much one tries not to see it, these slick and surfaces are spelling out words," Robert Pincus-Wittenwrote in 1968; "itis

English language is not a prerequisite to the enjoy-

association with an emergent

group of Los