Ed Ruscha's cinematically scaled flag canvas, Untitled, is paradoxically both a patriotic and penetrating image of that vital American emblem, the "Stars and Stripes," in all her glory. The common thread unifying all of Ruscha's work is his exploration of the common, humble, even forgotten image and his ability to elevate those simple images to fine art. The American flag became a Pop Art fixture in the 1950s when artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg began infusing familiar objects such as the flag with irony and anti-art gestures and complicated their representation with encrusted canvases, combines and painted sculptures. By changing format, color and medium they challenged austere representations of blandly familiar things. Ruscha, like many Pop artists, used serial repetition, repeatedly painting such banal subjects as gasoline stations and the Hollywood sign and often conveyed an ambiguous attitude toward his subject matter. In Ruscha's hands, however, this flag is no longer a ready-made symbol, but rather an object alive with both figurative and symbolic meaning.
In this portrait, "Old Glory" blows majestically on a strong breeze. Ruscha handles the paint expertly, seamlessly depicting the voluptuous folds in the fabric with deeply shadowed ripples and layering. He juxtaposes the rich undulations of sharply delineated red and white stripes with the softer, deeply hued bands of purple and yellow that color the background sky. He adds dramatic contrast to the fluid lines of the billowing flag with the flagpole cutting diagonally through the composition at a raking angle to create a stark textural dichotomy that resonates throughout this work. In this single image Ruscha nostalgically establishes a clear, humble vision of a simple, elegant form and conveys immense reverence by isolating the image through his unique perspective.
Rich with historical associations, the flag has long embodied the ideal of the American dream. Generations of citizens have rallied around it, in times of both battle and national celebration. The Marine Corps War Memorial just outside Washington, D.C., for example, draws on just such powerful imagery. The sculpture is based on the iconic photograph taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Joe Rosenthal of five United States Marines and a United States Navy corpsman raising a flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. Three of these five soldiers were killed in action after the flag raising and they and their comrades serve as examples for the reverence with which the American people hold the flag.
But Ruscha's flag is not a typical depiction of national pride. Although at first glance the flag appears to be flying proudly in the wind, Ruscha laces his rendition of this familiar emblem with an enigmatic mix of nationalism and something darker. Taking a view associated with an alternative vision of America, Ruscha, perhaps even more clearly than Jasper Johns, challenges the "things the mind already knows" and sends a quiet message of decline. Though the lower half of Ruscha's canvas is washed with light purples, yellows and whites and brightly emphasizes the flag's vivid colors, the foreshortened angle of the image crowds the top of the flag, which is itself shrouded in ever darkening bands of glowering purple sky. Ruscha's image recalls Frederic Church's Our Banner in the Sky, the Hudson River artist's patriotic response to the attack on Fort Sumter during the Civil War. Church, following landscape painting tradition and using nature to communicate more than meets the eye, entwines the heavens with the flag as if guiding the Union's road to victory. In Church's work the flag is formed by a vividly striped horizon and dotted with stars in the deep blue night sky. Though Ruscha's flag follows a similar composition to Church's, the single black line at the bottom right of the canvas challenges the viewer's interpretation of the image and forces us to rethink our attitudes towards it in a contemporary context. Untitled is one of five renditions of the American flag that Ruscha painted between 1985 and 1987, all of which play with composition and offer ambiguous readings.
Ruscha's interest in strong receding diagonals and vanishing points can be traced to his early explorations in photography while driving around Europe in the early 1960s (in a new blue Citroën that he even decorated with an American flag on Independence Day). Following his graduation from Chouinard Art Institute (now known as California Institute of the Arts), Ruscha traveled with his mother and took hundreds of images with a twin-lens reflex camera. Often taken at raking angles or dramatically shadowed, these shots include landscape, flags, signs and numerous inanimate objects centered in the frame, thus lending them an animated presence and giving the objects a life of their own.
Much of Ruscha's work draws from the experience of the Los Angeles landscape. The proportions of his thin rectangular canvases resemble the view of a billboard or building from a rearview mirror. Billboards, a ubiquitous feature of the California landscape, also deeply inform his work. The outrageous scale of these massive monuments contrasts with their transience and Ruscha's work plays on the theme of death, decay and loss that they silently convey. Sunsets such as that in Untitled are a signature feature in Ruscha's most iconic work. Drawing from his lived California experience, Ruscha sees the sunset as an extension of the landscape best experienced by driving or looking at it. In one interview when asked about his frequent use of such emotionally laced skies he said, "The drama of anything is always amped up by a sunset or a sunrise, it's almost like the sound of trumpets without the trumpets" (E. Ruscha, quoted by O. Ward, "Ed Ruscha: Interview by Ossian Ward," Time Out London 12 February 2008, accessed via http://www.timeout.com/london/art/ed-ruscha-interview).
After moving to Los Angeles to attend art school in 1956, Ruscha developed a following when he began making small collages in the style of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Ruscha was heavily influenced by Johns' artistic vision and has attributed his decision to become an artist to seeing reproductions of Johns' targets and flags in a magazine. Because his work drew on sources from the real world and embraced the imagery of commercial culture, Ruscha became associated with Pop Art. Unlike Johns, Rauschenberg, and other Pop artists, however, Ruscha rarely seemed to be making art about other art. He did use unconventional materials in his work of the late 1960s and 1970s, incorporating gunpowder, blood, chocolate syrup, axle grease and a variety of organic compounds into his graphic work of the time. Though his Pop Art sympathies are obvious, Ruscha's work arguably has a realistic side. It is in works such as the flag canvas Untitled that Ruscha's wit and wisdom are perfectly married. Attention to detail, dramatic composition, and the questions that he subtly inserts in his work all come together in a perspective unique to the artist. Particularly resonant for the present political moment, Untitled waves the banner of American heroes while forcefully confronting our democratic ideals at their very core.