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BOOK ARTIST

In what sense does Ed Ruscha make us ‘read’ him as an artist? Literally — by having kept books and words at the centre of his work for more than fifty years now. READING ED RUSCHA (Kunsthaus Bregenz, 58 euros) explores its subject’s unflagging interest in books, in the written, printed or painted word, and in the act of reading, through its exhaustive large- format reproductions and excellent critical essays. Edited by Yilmaz Dziewior, director of the Kunsthaus Bregenz, Reading Ed Ruscha follows a superlative exhibition at the Kunsthaus a couple of years ago, in which Ruscha’s iconic artist’s books from the early years, together with most of the later and latest work — all engaging with the book as object, idea and form — melded beautifully with the architecture of the Kunsthaus to realize spatially the shapes and histories of his inner life and bodies of work. To ‘read’ Ruscha, in this exhibition, was not only to encounter and absorb the startling otherness of his endlessly gamesome and mysterious wordplay, but also to walk physically into and around the books authored or appropriated by him. The reader experienced these books as spaces and forms — conceptual, pictorial or architectural — that were coterminous with the rooms and levels of the artist’s mind.

Ruscha was born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, moved to Oklahoma City when he was five, and then to Los Angeles in 1956 to study art. He had his first solo show in LA in 1963, and from the Seventies started showing his work with Leo Castelli in New York. With the works of Sol LeWitt and John Baldessari, Ruscha’s books, book-objects, photography, paintings, videos, writings and interviews are now essential to the canon of contemporary art — although he has managed to avoid being labelled as a Pop, Abstract Expressionist or Conceptualist artist more successfully than LeWitt and Baldessari have done. This quality of being constantly on the move is best documented in two of his most famous mass-produced artist’s books: Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), each a deadpan inventory of the architectural ‘readymades’ indicated in the title. Together with other inventories of unpredictable objects — from palm trees and parking lots to vinyl records and ruined typewriters — these books become brilliantly idiosyncratic roadmaps through “Ruschaworld”, in Douglas Coupland’s coinage, eternally contemporary but with its own “asteroidal sense of timelessness”.

From the actual making of books, Ruscha’s art shifts to an exploration of how books become dwelling-places for words; and how words, in turn, hold or withhold meaning in their forms and substances when abstracted from conventional literary or functional discourse. The words marooned in Ruscha’s artwork draw readers to them with the sensuality of their printed, written or painted forms. But they also keep habitual seekers of sense at arm’s length by turning precious, coy, reticent or opaque in their gaze. One begins to see the point of two of Ruscha’s most arresting paintings playing with the palindromes, TULSA SLUT and STRATOTARTS.

Books and words are turned into beautiful, intriguing, beloved objects — framed, adorned, fetishized, monumentalized. But they are also subjected to a relentlessly transformative and demystifying violence, their original voices and functions gagged or erased to create astonishing visual, formal and semantic displacements. They tease and shock us into reflecting afresh on the reader’s sensual and cerebral relationships with materialized language, stranded in what Ruscha calls the “no man’s land” between signage and interpretation.

Left, Of Mice and Men, 2008, dry pigment on museum board paper; top right, Books, 1966, pencil on tracing paper; bottom centre, Sea of Desire, 1992, acrylic on the book-cover of Dear Everyone (1959); bottom right, The End, 2005, bleach on the fabric-covered Mainstreams of Modern Art (1958).