A Photographer-In-Spite-Of-Himself?: Ed Ruscha in New York and Los Angeles

Ed Ruscha and Photography
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
June 24 - September 26, 2004

Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
June 24 - September 26, 2004

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
October 17, 2014 - January 17, 2005

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
February 13 - May 30, 2005
Ken Allan

Ed Ruscha has always been ambivalent about photography, but his use of the medium to make a series of influential books, such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on Sunset Strip, has linked him directly to the emergence of conceptually-based photographic practices during the 1960s.1 He never considered himself a photographer when taking pictures for these books, however. As he explained recently, Ruscha sees the medium as a part of his larger practice: “My use of the camera, now or then, is still as a tool to make a picture. At the time, I was into making pictures that happened to be photographs, rather than making ‘photographs.’”2 Ruscha’s use of photography is typically seen as grounded in a separate set of concerns from those addressed by his work in other media, such as the drawings and paintings of words and phrases he began making in the early 1960s. Two recent exhibits at the Whitney Museum, however, one of which travels to Los Angeles and Washington D.C., make the claim that Ruscha’s practice as a whole is run through with the tropes of photography and that he, in fact, approaches his work with a kind of “photographic vision” particularly evident in his drawings.3 When seen in conjunction at the Whitney, these exhibitions may suggest that Ruscha’s complex career can be decoded by an understanding of his relationship to photography. But seeing the drawings in isolation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, especially in relation to Ruscha’s Chocolate Room—a kind of “‘drawing environment’” not included in the New York installation—challenges the notion of such a medium-specific reading of the artist’s work.


Ed Ruscha and Photography was organized to present the Whitney’s recent acquisition of over 300 photographs the twenty-four-yearold Ruscha took during a seven-month car trip through Europe with his mother and brother in 1961. In this small but enlightening exhibition, curated by the Whitney’s Silvia Wolf, a selection of fifty or so of these travel photographs are accompanied by prints of the gasoline stations, apartments buildings and parking lots Ruscha used to make his books, copies of which are available for browsing. The European photographs are a real revelation here, as they come at the outset of Ruscha’s career and yet exhibit an already well-formed visual sensibility.


Travelling through Europe in the spring and summer of 1961, Ruscha took photographs with a Yashica twin-lens reflex camera. The small size and warm, brown tones of the Agfa Brovira prints, which he developed at photomats along the way, have the intimacy of a kind of visual journal. There are pictures of people who helped the family along the way and images of children and fellow travelers, but many of the photographs record Ruscha’s fascination with views of building facades, window displays and roadside signs that seem to hold the seeds of much of his later art.


A photograph of three dog leashes in a shop window, the title of which, like all of these images, is simply the location in which it was taken, Amsterdam, Holland (1961), is a good example. Ruscha has shot this image straight on and the window trim, sill and the partially lowered blinds emphasize the framing of the photograph. These rectangular elements, in turn, draw attention to the stark arrangement of the three looping leashes hanging in the otherwise empty display box. The small sign is one of the many examples in these photographs of the foreign typefaces that interested Ruscha on his first trip to Europe. This simple juxtaposition of signage, window frame and objects for sale is repeated in many of these images and shows the influence of Eugène Atget and Walker Evans, whose work Ruscha had recently seen in his studies at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, which he attended between 1956 and 1960.4 But photographs such as this one also demonstrate Ruscha’s deepening interest in the rhetoric of display and the play between vision and consumption that constitutes, in this case especially, the pathetic appeal of commodities behind glass. Ruscha was particularly fascinated by stores of all kinds and took photographs of shop windows displaying baked goods, cigars, women’s hats and dresses, and even an open refrigerator stocked with food—a kind of display within a display. But there are also images of empty shelves and, in one case, the blank, curtained windows of an art gallery in Zurich, which suggest that it is the presentation itself, the staging that surrounds the commodity, which intrigued the artist.


Also included in this collection are images of roadside signs and advertisements that Ruscha made at various points in his journey. France (1961) depicts a sign for a local café painted on a tire attached to the top of a billboard for an Alsatian beer. The composition of this photograph is typical in its extended foreground that places the sign in the middle of the visual field against a background of trees and sky that divide the space in nearly even horizontal bands. By isolating the sign within the landscape and centrally locating it in the frame, Ruscha focuses attention on it as an object, while at the same time emphasizing the way the photograph flattens space. Signs already held an interest for the artist as is evident from the work he had completed before leaving for Europe, such as the collage called, in fact, Sign (1960), that incorporated a photograph of a blank canvas on an easel, placed over a piece of wooden fencing. But his most famous paintings, which borrow from trademarks and billboards, were to come shortly after he returned from this trip. In these travel photographs, we see Ruscha developing a sense that signs, displays, symbols and advertisements could offer productive material for his work—in both their mundane visual vocabulary and as circumscribing an area of artistic inquiry about the nature of representation.


There is a nice dialogue between the photography exhibition and the selection of rarely seen early works on paper included in Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha in which some of the European images reappear. This show, which also originated at the Whitney and was curated by independent scholar Margit Rowell, is organized in chronological order covering work from the early 1960s to the present. The inclusion of the artist’s notebooks shows the careful planning and execution with which Ruscha approaches his drawings. These are not studies for paintings but a separate body of work, which reveals that the techniques and materiality of different media are far more than simply the means with which to render an image for Ruscha. The show’s title comes from a remark the artist made about the tools he uses to create the subtle illusionism of his drawings in gunpowder and graphite. Given this emphasis on the drawing process, it is surprising that Rowell’s essay in the exhibition catalogue seems to force the analogy between Ruscha’s drawings and photography.


Honk (1964), is an early drawing in powdered graphite on paper that reflects an interest in perspective, oblique views and the sonic and visual appeal of single words that Ruscha was also exploring in his paintings of this period. Like all of his drawings in powdered media, Ruscha created the dense, smoky atmosphere and intense light-dark contrast of this piece by rubbing the graphite into the surface of the paper with cotton balls and swabs and then applying a fixative. The design of the words is masked with tape while the many layers of background are built up. The seductive surface of the drawing only adds to the effect Ruscha creates of a word turning into an object, of a play of light and the appearance of a space that is somewhere between the actual and the metaphoric. Realism here has been harnessed to do a kind of philosophical work. Showing Ruscha’s childhood interest in comic book illustration, in which single frames are often devoted to dramatic lettering representing the sounds of the action, this drawing provokes questions about what it means to apprehend visual language. What do we hear when we look at this image? Is this a picture of an idea, a word, a report of an event already occurred, or a directive to the viewer? Compared to a painting or a photograph, how does this image’s status as a drawing—with its associations with the sketch or model as a more direct expression of an idea—contribute to this kind of interpretation?


Ruscha investigated these issues in many drawings of the period, such as Quit (1967), one of the many works in the exhibition that feature words that appear to be cut from paper and arranged in space. The illusionism in this image is even more ponderous as the light and shadow suggest that the objects portrayed are floating above a barely defined surface. And more than this, the pencil included at the bottom of the drawing, as if to give a sense of scale as is done in scientific photographs, has been impossibly twisted so that it appears to be both flat and threedimensional at the same time. The pencil’s form and placement in the composition echoes the shape of the “Q,” but its point extends into the border of the drawing, suggesting it is both part of, and separate from, the depicted space. It is as if Ruscha wants to give the viewer a tool through which to gauge the meaning of the image—but yet this tool doesn’t fit, it confuses categories and registers. What concept of scale are we to use here? Ruscha often explored these ideas in his paintings of the period, most famously in Actual Size (1962), in which a life-size image of a can of Spam shoots across the canvas with a yellow tail like a comet, beneath large letters repeating the name of the product. The unconventional medium of Quit, gunpowder and colored pencil on paper, further draws attention to the artifice of this drawing. But what does the substance of a medium tell us about the meaning of an image?


Ruscha used unusual materials in many of his prints and drawings of the ’60s and ’70s. In drawings of words and phrases like “romance with liquids,” for instance, Ruscha stained the support with foodstuffs such as onion residue and lettuce juice. But the most ambitious of these projects was a piece originally done for the Venice Biennale in 1970, called Chocolate Room. Recreated for Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors when it traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (where Ruscha had previously installed it for a 1995 show there), Chocolate Room consists of 360 sheets of paper screenprinted with chocolate paste. These “drawings” completely cover the walls of a small room in the museum, producing an intense aroma. Disrupting the chronological order of the show at MOCA, the piece casts its conceptual shadow over much of the rest of the exhibit. Instead of maintaining the emphasis on the development of Ruscha’s visual illusionism or his fixation on certain kinds of speech, Chocolate Room broadens the viewer’s sense of Ruscha’s artistic project. The artist has described this phase of his work as a period when he turned away from “applying a film or coat or skin of paint on a canvas” and “started looking at ideas as though they were stains.”5 The print portfolio of various substances on paper, such as “Los Angeles Tap Water” and “Witch Hazel,” called Stains (1969) displayed at the entrance to Chocolate Room further exemplifies this reorientation of Ruscha’s work.


Before encountering the majority of this exhibit of word drawings, which could easily be reduced to a kind of exercise in reading to oneself, the viewer is primed to investigate the media and materiality of the work on display at MOCA. Drawings that fill a room with the smell of chocolate suggest that our experience as viewers is crucial to determining the nature of Ruscha’s inquiry. Perhaps by thinking about Ruscha’s drawings as images, ideas, and as the record of the physical interaction of different substances all at once, the messages written on their surface, such as “eye,” “babycakes,” and “I was gasping for contact,” achieve a sense of completion that exists apart from words. The Los Angeles installation of the exhibit benefits from the addition of Chocolate Room and the Stains portfolio, then, by resisting the easy comparisons between illusionism and the photograph available to viewers of the show at the Whitney when it coincided with Ed Ruscha and Photography.


While the selection of material in both shows gives us a better picture of the development of the artist’s rich visual imagination, the attempt to read his work purely through the camera eye, as curator Margit Rowell sometimes does in her catalog essay, ultimately obscures the importance of Ruscha’s longterm and multi-faceted engagement with the nature of representation as an overarching practice. What gets lost in interpreting Ruscha as a kind of photographer-in-spite-of-himself, is the way his art, often with wit and humor, suspends an image between its status as an idea and its presence in a medium, luring the viewer into deeper reflection on just what it means to look at a picture.


Ken Allan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently completing a dissertation on the relationship between artistic practice and social space entitled, “Making the Scene: Assemblage, Pop Art and Locality in 1960s Los Angeles.”


  1. Support for the preperation of this article was provided by an ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
  2. Silvia Wolf, “Nostalgia and New Editions: A Conversation with Ed Ruscha,” Ed Ruscha and Photography (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/Steidl Verlag, 2004) p. 257.
  3. Independent curator Margit Rowell uses this term in her catalogue essay for the drawing show, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips ®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha (New York: Whitney Museum and Harry N. Abrams, 2004) p. 15.
  4. In an interview with curator Silvia Wolf, Ruscha describes his exposure to the history of photography in commercial art classes, particularly the work of Atget and Moholy-Nagy. He also recalls that Evans had a particular effect on him when he discovered the photographer’s work when he began art school in Los Angeles. Another major influence Ruscha remarks upon is Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959), particularly the qualities that make it a book, rather than simply a collection of photographs. Silvia Wolf, Ed Ruscha and Photography, pp. 258, 270-271.
  5. Paul Karlstrom, “Interview with Edward Ruscha in His Western Avenue, Hollywood Studio,” California Oral History Project, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, October 29, 1980; March 25, 1981; July 16, 1981; October 2, 1981, quoted in Cornelia Butler, “Information Man,” Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips ®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, p.31.
Further Reading