One of the most recognizable artists working today, Ed Ruscha’s early practice served as a veritable catalyst for the Pop Art movement and the later Conceptual artists. Known for his early adoption of text as a legitimate subject for a painting and his use of photographic reference, Ruscha was at the forefront of the art world in the 1960s. Amphetamines, Marble is a testament to Ruscha’s impeccable handling of paint and his eye for color and composition. Painted during a stint as a professor at UCLA, and the same year as his National Endowment for the Arts grant, this example of Ruscha’s object-based works is telling of his interest in both singling out certain words or subjects while also causing them to fade into the moody canvas. “There’s no logical order to it,” the artist mused in an interview with Paul Karlstrom, “There’s no logical reason why I might make a painting of, say, a Spam can, or whether I might want to take a photograph of it and put it in a book. It’s a constant shifting of material: taking it out of context and putting it back in context; glorifying it in one way, and putting it in the background in another way” (E. Ruscha, quoted in P. Karlstrom, “Interview with Ed Ruscha in His Western Avenue, Hollywood Studio,” California Oral History Project, 1980-1981).
Typical of works from this year, Amphetamines, Marble takes the signature Ruscha gradient and dispenses with any textual information in favor of carefully wrought images of tiny objects. Five pills and a shiny metallic marble occupy the upper third of the composition. Two green capsules neatly bookend the marble and a trio of yellow, red, and white amphetamines at the very point where the dusky orange canvas begins its shift into darkness. Ruscha employs the gradient to create depth within the image, giving the entire scene the look of a martian desert lit by photographic flash at night. However, these moody atmospherics are interrupted by the small floating drugs and their spherical compatriot. Painted in an illusionistic manner that sees them casting miniscule shadows on the ochre ground, these elements have much in common with carefully selected collage elements overlaid onto oil. Ruscha created a series of these smaller works on canvas during the year 1969 and populated them with pencils, apples, marbles, pills, and olives in varying arrangements. One of these, Amphetamine, Pencil, sees a tripartite gradated ground, but otherwise adheres to the series’ formula of a particularly airless, mysterious composition and a negation of the artist’s trademark text.
Ruscha’s oeuvre has often been spoken about alongside artists who identify with Pop Art (because of his graphic style and everyday subject matter) as well as Conceptual artists (because of his text and photographic works). Shown alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jim Dine, among others, in the pivotal 1962 exhibition New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art
Museum (now the Pasadena Museum of California Art), Ruscha has always been tangentially related to these pioneers of Pop Art. Though Ruscha himself resisted being labelled a Pop or Conceptual artist, his work drew from both schools and situated him firmly in the conversation.
Drawing visual parallels to the bizarre floating objects of Surrealists like Rene Magritte and the metaphysical tableaus of Giorgio de Chirico, Ruscha’s object paintings are both similar and distinct from his textual pieces. The words that he uses come in a variety of typefaces, sizes, and styles, but the objects are always illusionistically painted and delicately rendered. To him, words “exist in a world of no-size. Take a word like ‘smash’—we don’t know it by size. We see it on billboards, in four-point type and all stages in between. On the other hand, I found out that it is important for objects to be their actual size in my paintings. If I do a painting of a pencil or magazine or fly or pills, I feel some sort of responsibility to paint them natural size—I get out the ruler” (E. Ruscha, quoted in P. Failing, “Ruscha, Young Artist,” Art News, v. 81, n. 4, April 1982, p. 78). This adherence to accurate scale is apparent in Amphetamines, Marble and others in the same series.
Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha attended the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in Los Angeles. After graduating in 1960, he began working on a variety of projects that spanned photography, printmaking, painting, and collage. This mixed media approach has always been characteristic of Ruscha’s practice, and is clearly visible in his championing of artist books (of which his Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations of 1962 is arguably the most famous) and the different visual cues that he spreads across his oeuvre. Much like the bokashi, or gradation, inherent in some printing methods, the backgrounds in paintings like Amphetamines, Marble exhibit a transition between colors that borrows formally from a disparate media. Furthermore, referencing his early collage works of the 1950s, which were influenced by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Ruscha isolates separate visual elements like pills and pencils that seem to have been cut from a photograph and placed upon the atmospheric ground. This combination of formal elements from various media extends throughout his practice and creates a distinct visual language that informs the artist’s decidedly signature style. These premeditated compositions and juxtapositions of objects, subjects, and ideas are at the core of Ruscha’s practice. Talking about his process, the artist notes, “To generalize, [the Abstract Expressionists] approached their art with no preconceptions and with a certain instant-explosiveness, whereas I found that my work had to be planned and preconceived, or rather wondered about, before being done. My subjects tend to be recognizable objects made up of stuff that is non-objective and abstract.
I have always operated on a kind of waste-retrieval method. I retrieve and renew things that have been forgotten or wasted” (E. Ruscha, quoted in B. Brunon, “Interview with Edward Ruscha,” in Edward Ruscha exh. cat., Octobre des Arts, Lyon, 1985, p. 95). Ruscha draws not from the emotive outbursts of his forebearers, but instead from the textual and object-based world of signs, sketchbooks, magazines, and, perhaps in the case of Amphetamines, Marble, the artist’s own pocket.