Executed in 1971, this work will be included in a forthcoming volume of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper.
Scrawled in silvery white, Ed Ruscha's Ash is a meticulously rendered work from the artist's signature series of 'ribbon' letter drawings. Spelling out the word 'ash' in a diagonal line, Ruscha's carefully crafted letters levitate against a modulated grey background, gradually receding as if into the ether. At first glance this work resembles a soft focus photograph or an elaborate pencil study. However, on closer inspection the image is revealed to have been created from gunpowder and pastel, and what appears to be rippling strips of paper is, in fact, the delicate script of the artist's hand.
Executed in 1971, Ash dates from a period during which Ruscha investigated unorthodox materials, including grass, rose petals, vegetable juices and coffee. Gunpowder was arguably the artist's most successful experiment and led to some of his most striking works on paper. To create this tactile, arenose effect Ruscha soaked gunpowder pellets in water in order to filter out the salts, a process which resulted in, 'a charcoal that had a kind of warm tone to it and it could be used in a way that was very easy to correct when you wanted to and so it became a convenient material, and a material that I liked. It had a good surface to it' (E. Ruscha, quoted in C. Cherix, 'Interview with Ed Ruscha', Oral History Program, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York 2012, p. 42). The resulting powdered substance provides a soft, malleable material, aptly suited to Ruscha's precise and elegant lettering.
For Ruscha the graphic appearance of words carries more weight than their implied meaning; however, one cannot help but derive some significance from his choice of 'ash'. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics receive ashes on their foreheads as a symbol of repentance and a reminder of our future reduction to dust. Ruscha has acknowledged that his Catholic upbringing influences his work, admitting, 'it probably does permeate everything I do, and I see traces here and there' (E. Ruscha, in K. McKenna, 'Lightening up the Getty', Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1998, Calendar, p. 4). The soft light which illuminates the lettering in Ash also holds a connotation with Christianity, as the artist went on to explain, 'Catholic literature, for instance, has been littered with images of light shafts for centuries' (Ibid.).
In this work Ruscha has created a hypnotic trompe l'oeil, the artist's expressive and hand-crafted script generating an impression of three-dimensionality. Executed in a muted palette, Ash is an exquisite example of Ruscha's distinctive convergence of word and medium, a single word drawing created from a flammable material in its elemental state.