This work will be included in a forthcoming volume of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper.
"Well, there I was, traveling in France, and I would see a sign and I would make a painting of it. Metro or Boulangerie, I was like a kid on his first trip to the new world, or the old world." (Conversation between Walter Hopps and Ed Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal, Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Ed Ruscha, Alexandra Schwarz (ed.), Cambridge, MA, 2002, p. 320).
Boulangerie is one of the very first of Ed Ruscha's word paintings. Painted in Paris in 1961 while the twenty-three year-old artist was traveling through Europe, it is a bold and deceptively simple painting that stands as one of the foundation stones of Ruscha's long and distinguished career.
Ruscha spent much of the summer of 1961 traveling through Europe with his mother and sometimes his brother in a small Citroën that the family had bought in Paris and which later Ruscha had shipped back to the States before driving it across the country back to Los Angeles. This first visit to Europe was "a big step in my education," Ruscha has recalled. Indeed, it was to prove a revelation that ultimately opened his eyes to his own possibilities as an artist and to his unique view of America and American life as a fascinating landscape of signs. "I took pictures of things that I didn't see in the United States that had a rib-tickling effect on me," he told Sylvia Wolf, "The culture in Europe, and especially the signs, were so odd that they caught my attention, and I started photographing them. From that came these ideas to do paintings and drawings. Signs have always somehow spoken to me. When I got back I had more inspiration for American culture. I saw more possibility for myself as an artist with American influences. I have kept that feeling ever since" (Ruscha, quoted in, "Nostalgia and New Editions; A Conversation with Ed Ruscha," in Sylvia Wolf, Ed Ruscha and Photography, exh. cat., New York, 2004, pp. 260-262).
Because he did not speak the languages of the many countries he visited, the words Ruscha saw and often photographed on the signs and elsewhere in Europe took on a more striking, uncanny and abstract form for him. In three paintings made in France - one of a bicycle sign, one of the Parisian metro sign and the present lot - Ruscha transformed these signs into bold, thickly painted images. These paintings, which Ruscha later recognized as among "the earliest of what I consider my work after I got to be a serious artist," were executed in a "sort of impasto oil painting on paper that I soaked in linseed oil, so that they looked semi-transluscent, except where the paint is" (Ruscha, "Interview with Paul Karlstrom" in Alexandra Schwarz (ed.), Leave Any Information at the Signal, Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Ed Ruscha, Cambridge, MA, 2002, p. 124).
In this aspect of these early paintings Ruscha was heavily influenced by Jasper Johns, whose work he had first seen in 1957 and whose Target with Four Faces he later described as the "atomic bomb of my training." In adopting this highly textural impasto style, Ruscha was evidently seeking to bestow the same painterly sense of gravitas and strange objecthood of Johns' works upon the typographic language of the signs that had now caught his eye. Extracting them from the Parisian landscape and setting them into a dense but flat monochrome field of color, these typographic forms began to take on a new, independent and autonomous quality that Ruscha only recognized had revealed the way forward for his art when he reviewed these European paintings on his return to America.
With its bright orange background thickly painted in a swirling impasto that seems to dance and coalesce around the flatter red of its distinctly art deco typeface, Boulangerie has a strongly plastic quality reminiscent of the textural density and object-like quality of Johns' thickly painted encaustic pictures and the wry appropriation of Duchamp and Picabia, whose work Ruscha had also come to appreciate while in Paris. Ruscha has claimed that this thick textural Johns-like nature of the surface of his early pictures, in fact only came about because of his prevailing fear of the kind of flat empty monochrome surfaces that would later distinguish many of his paintings in the mid-1960s. "It represented an escape from painting a flat surface which I was terrified of doing," he said. "So what does a person do when he can't paint a flat surface - you paint impasto. That's an old artistic trick pushing a glob of paint up and making (it form) its own realistic dividing line, making the edge of the subject with the paint, with three-dimensional paint pushing it into its - paint by number so to speak" (Ibid., p. 176).
Hovering between a material physicality and the wholly abstract language of color and typeface, Boulangerie seems to deliberately assert and develop a similar sense of painterly ambiguity to that found in Johns' Targets and Flags. By extending its subject matter into the advertising and street-sign language of Pop culture from which artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol in America and the New Realists in Paris were also beginning to draw, it is not only a work that kick-started Ruscha's entire career painting words, but it is also the very first of his works to anticipate Pop.