A portrait of Ed Ruscha by Dennis Hopper from 1964
Ed Ruscha is one of America's greatest painters. During the last forty years of producing an amazing body of work, he is best known for his recontextualizations of words and environments. These often jarring juxtapositions have helped us to reexamine the world we live in. An exhibtion of Ed Ruscha's work will be at the Portland Art Museum from June 14 to September 21, 2008.
Installation view of Ruscha at PAM
I read that you studied with Robert Irwin at the Chouinard Art Institute. What was he like as a teacher?
That's right. Well, he was very rigorous and interesting. He was a task master. He taught a watercolor class and he went through elaborate steps to teach every student how to prepare the paper for the watercolors. You would have to prepare this paper by wetting and stretching it and the paper would be taut like the head of a drum. Irwin was a committed abstract painter and he was a vital person in my estimation during my early years. It just went on from there. He was one of several people that I studied under. Although I got quite a bit, not just from the teachers, but also from the students themselves, just being in that atmosphere.
At one point you mentioned that in the sixties, you were the biggest collector of your own work. What was that like?
There is more than a shred of truth there. It was about 1961 when I really got swinging into my own art. I had it for a few years before I exhibited it, and I didn't sell too much of my early work. Even during exhibits I would only sell one or two things. So I held on to quite a bit of my own work during the early years.
Was there a painting or a drawing in which you felt you finally found your own voice in your work?
Yeah, one of the first things that I did was called Sweetwater. It was a half-abstract and half-figurative painting. The top half of the painting was a washy kind of abstraction, and there was a very clear, clean hairline that was done with ink that ran through the whole thing. The bottom half had the words Sweetwater which was the name of a town that I had hitchhiked through in Tennessee. I was doing those towns that I had visited while I was hitchhiking. I had a little voyage that I was on then.
Azteca/ Azteca in Decline, 2007
Acrylic on Canvas
Each 48 x 330 inches (122 x 838 cm)
Rusch 2007.0065 and Rusch 2007.0055
Courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery
(c) Ed Ruscha 2008
It is also interesting that the words that found their way into your paintings were places that you had direct experiences with. The paintings that will be on exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, Azteca / Azteca in Decline from 2007, were also inspired by your experiences in Mexico. Is that correct?
I was travelling to ruins outside of Mexico City, and I saw this very large wall that had a painting on it. There was no commercial message, which was intriguing to me because there is so much advertising down there. The image struck me because it was sort of like sun rays coming from a central point, and it just had a great appeal to me. I thought about it and eventually photographed it. I wanted to paint my version of that image. I liked the anonymity and urban-guerilla feeling to it. It just seemed to me like someone had painted this thing on the side of a wall and left it. That was enough to intrigue me. I just reproduced the image in my painting, and then I did another version of it that implied some kind of decline to the imagery. The banners begin to sag over upon themselves in Azteca in Decline. That was the whole story. Somehow the imagery reminded me of Montezuma or the Aztec civilization.
Were you by any chance travelling to Teotihuacan?
Yes, that is where it was.
I have always wanted to see it but I have not had the opportunity to go there yet.
It is a great trip. It is about an hour's drive outside of Mexico City. The mural was on the highway approaching Teotihuacan. It was maybe half way there, and I would like to know if it is still around.
You have often commented that the diagonal line is an important element of your work. Do you use the diagonal because it automatically implies a sense of space or depth to the canvas, or because of its allusion to a vanishing point?
I always come back to something figurative. I am always reminded of those scenes in the movies that I saw as a kid where there would be a train approaching that would suggest people travelling. The train would start at the lower, right hand corner and then in two or three seconds it would zoom in with the noise of a train and cover the entire area of the screen. That experience seemed to stick with me. The diagonal for me is like the zoom of a train, it has affected me and I have based several paintings on those sensations. I will see where it takes me from here.
Over the last couple of years, you have created series like Then & Now, in which you photographed buildings along Hollywood Boulevard in the 1973 and then re-photographed them again in 2003. The viewer is able to see the way that Hollywood Boulevard has changed over the last 35 years in a straight forward way. Are the new paintings the first time that you have developed the idea of taking something of the present and moving it into the future?
I think that it is. It is one of the few pictures where that is actually happening. I am still trying to understand the whole story there, but it seems I impressed by things that are behind and in front of me. It is all right there.
Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas 1963
Oil on Canvas
Hood Museum of Art
(c) Ed Ruscha 2008
How did you develop the idea of what the banners might look like in the future?
You mean as to the deterioration of the image?
I imagine it as being ... I know that I was taking great artistic license here, but how it would fall if it were made out of a certain material. I tried to imagine out the banner would fall if it was made out a material half way between paper and cloth. It is a kind of fantasy. It is part of the fantasy world to invent how something deteriorates. That is all based on my feelings about everything.
In Azteca and Azteca in Decline, you were not just recreating the banners but you were also recreating the physical characteristics of the wall, like stains and spots. Is that correct?
Yes, it implies a kind of aged appearance because of the character of the wall that it was on. I believe the wall panels were wood, although I am not sure. I never went up to the work. I would like to go back down there and find that thing to see what it looks like today (laughs).
Can you tell me about the graffiti on the right side of the painting?
I do believe that the graffiti on the actual mural was original and real. It was not part of the design of the mural originally. I think that someone came along and put the graffiti there. I even did a search with some knowledgeable people about graffiti in Mexico, and we really could not come up with any answers. In my second painting, I am painting the graffiti almost as though it did not exist. It is just floating there. It is even part of the thing that is falling apart. There are some inconsistencies in there. That is my license as an artist. (laughs)
New Wood/ Old Wood, 2007
Mixografia print on handmade paper, diptych
Each 13 x 34 x 3/4" inches (33 x 86 x 2 cm)
Edition of 75
Courtesy of the Gagosian Gallery
(c) Ed Ruscha 2008
Two of your recent prints are going to be included in the exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. They are New Wood/ Old Wood. Can you tell me about the process behind the prints?
The prints are embossed works on paper. They are part of the same story about the old and the new that I am telling with the larger paintings. They are made in a workshop here in an edition of 75 and are paper reliefs. I found this piece of wood that I really liked, and I wanted to reproduce it in its original form and then have an aged version.
How did you decide about which piece of wood that you would use for the print?
I found the piece of wood in the desert. Weathered wood is something that figures into my life as an artist. I don't know why, but it is just one of those things that you feel comfortable with. I was attracted to it, and I had the desire to make something out of it.
Over the years you have made paintings out of both oil paint and acrylic paint. How do you choose your materials for a painting?
I do not use oil paint very much anymore. About twenty years ago, I began to move away from it and starting using acrylics. I consider the medium to be secondary. I could paint my pictures with oil paint if I wanted to, but I somehow found a friend with the acrylic paint. They seem to be easier for me to use. I never thought that I would make the switch. I was committed to oil paint, but now here I find myself using acrylics. (laughs)
Did you make the switch because you can make cleaner lines with acrylic paint? In oil paint, you inevitably get the a little softening at the edges as the oil bleeds into the support.
Not necessarily, some things are very good with oil paint. It is really hard to say. I am always learning about my materials. Each material has its own kind of latitude, and each type of paint has its own advantages and disadvantage. I am mostly using acrylics now.
In your Standard Gas Station painting from 1966, I have always felt that you were taking something very specific and abstracting it until it became universal, almost like an icon. In the new paintings Azteca/ Azteca in Decline, I wonder if the process is being reversed, like you are starting with these general ideas that move through your work: the diagonal line, the use of text, and the temporal relationship between the past, present and future. All of these ideas or threads were unexpectedly manifested in a specific mural on the side of the highway in Mexico. Rather than being abstracted it is reproduced in detail with all the detritus of its existence: the stains, spots and graffiti. It is real.
I responded to the mural because of its deep iconography from days past. Like the image of the eagle that you see everywhere in Mexico, including coins that you see throughout history. These iconic, nationalistic and cultural logos have more or less stuck with me. I felt like I was saying Mexico and ancient Mexico. This feeling came from being overwhelmed the culture of Mexico. The gas stations are a modern invention. I think that the Azteca represents something that is much older that also has the colors of Mexico. The image is full of signifiers and suggestions that bring up this ancient culture whereas the gas stations are twenty seconds ago.
Do you go to Mexico often?
No, I don't. I was there for an exhibit at the Tamayo Museum, and luckily I came across the wall painting. I feel fortunate for that experience.
I was wondering if you have any advice for younger artists?
Max Ernst said the best thing ever, he said: "Cut off an ear." (laughs) That is his advice to young artists, and I can't do any better than that.