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Ruscha had photographer's eye

"Quit," a 1967 drawing by Ed Ruscha, is among more than 200 Ruscha works from the past four decades on display at the Whitney.
"Quit," a 1967 drawing by Ed Ruscha, is among more than 200 Ruscha works from the past four decades on display at the Whitney.
Ben Blackwell, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Light pours onto the word "quit" spelled out in cursive letters that appear to be molded from white ribbon, carefully displayed at an angle and captured against a background of varying gray tones.

Despite its photographic quality, the black-and-white "Quit" is gunpowder and colored pencil on paper. The 1967 drawing by Ed Ruscha is among more than 200 Ruscha works from the past four decades on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

"Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha" runs through Sept. 26. "Ed Ruscha and Photography," featuring more than 100 original prints — many never published and on public display for the first time — runs concurrently at the Whitney.

Margit Rowell, curator of the drawings exhibit, says the title came from a conversation about the retrospective she and Ruscha had at a restaurant in Venice, Calif.

"Ed Ruscha turned to me and said, with a sly smile, 'You know it's just cotton puffs, Q-tips, smoke and mirrors,' " she said.

The first retrospective of Ruscha's drawings focuses on the artist's use of original mediums — including blood, fruit and vegetable juices, grass stains and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals — applied with unique tools like cotton balls and swabs. Ruscha is the first and only artist to use gunpowder as a medium, Rowell said.

The "smoke and mirrors" effect refers to the photographic quality of Ruscha's earlier drawings and the cinematic quality of the later ones.

Rowell said she was "mystified" and "dumbfounded" as she began to study the drawings.

"What kept coming back to me was everything looked like photographs," she said.

While lighting lends a multitonal effect to the black-and-white works, the later drawings manipulate color and backlighting, and incorporate more text.

"Pool," gunpowder on paper from 1968, spells out the title in lowercase letters that appear to be formed from liquid spilled onto the canvas. Ruscha used various materials, including pastel on paper, to create such illusionary liquid images.

Many of the drawings from the 1980s mimic movie stills.

The pink and magenta background of "Science Is Truth Found Out" generates an otherworldly feel with blackened trees slanting to the right. The text, which is the same as the title, is spelled out in white block letters, adding another dimension to the eerie image.

The rectangular shape of the 29 1/2-inch-by-40-inch acrylic and dry pigment on paper lends to the notion of a movie screen.

While Ruscha had previously said he was not a photographer and that he didn't consider his photographs art, he later recognized how his early photographs formed the foundation for his drawings, said Sylvia Wolf, curator of the photography exhibit.

"Florence, Italy," a 1961 gelatin silver print of a photograph taken by the young artist during his first European travels, reveals Ruscha's talent as a photographer. He captures a moment in time as a beam of light divides a quaint block just as a couple pass through the street.

The aerial perspective and photographic eye employed in this 3 1/2-inch-by-3 1/2-inch print is used again, decades later, in Ruscha's drawings.

"These early photographs are most revelatory," said Wolf. "It's how he began the career we now celebrate."

Ruscha was born in 1937 in Omaha, Neb., and raised in Oklahoma City. He moved to Los Angeles in 1956 and attended the Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) until 1960, studying painting, photography and graphic arts.

In 1961, Ruscha started producing paintings, drawings and photographic books of gasoline stations, apartment buildings, palm trees and vacant lots. Now regarded as an American master, he is widely recognized for his urban landscapes and the word text used in his drawings.

The Whitney show will travel to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Oct. 17, 2004, to Jan. 17, 2005, then to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Feb. 13 to May 30, 2005.