Executed in 1987, Ed Ruscha’s Whiz Kids is a visual representation signaling the start of the computer age and technological revolution on the West Coast. The “whiz kids” were the next generation of tech superstars who followed the success generated from the creation of Microsoft and Apple towards the end of the 70’s. The technology and the speed of innovation both in Hardware and Software together with the cheapness provided a speed of growth never seen before. Our world would never be the same. With its interconnected sequencing of dazzling lights, Ruscha creates a visual World Wide Web at the moment of its evolution and eruption into society.
Whiz Kids offers the viewer both immediate and deferred forms of gratification, beginning with a visceral jolt that yields to more cerebral pleasures as the viewer discriminates the myriad conceptual frequencies coursing through the work. The incandescence of electricity juxtaposed with the Oxford blue sky demonstrates Ruscha’s mastery of the medium with a virtuosic display. The background appears alternately photographic—translating the diaphanous glow of street lights— and painterly as the myriad flecks of white spray paint, that creates this effect, reveal their individuality.
Ruscha repurposes the layout of Los Angeles, interrupted by diagonal boulevards as an element of readymade minimalism, reflecting his enduring interest in the standardized aesthetic of our “increasingly homogenous American built environment” (A. Schwartz, op. cit., p. 141). This interest represents a constant in his work but most distinctly in his iconic books examining the architectural typologies of Los Angeles. Whiz Kids continues this exploration from a fresh perspective by “taking the viewer up in the air”(M. Duncan, “The Return of a Native Son: Painter Ed Ruscha Resurfaces in L.A.” from Leave any information at the Signal, ed. A. Schwartz, Massachusetts, 2002, p. 342), as the artist phrases it, reexamining the landscape from an aerial vantage.
Ruscha’s inclusion of text extends Pop art’s fascination with found material, creating a parallel between “[Jasper] Johns’s use of mass-produced imagery and his own subsequent incorporation of popular language” (A. Schwartz, op. cit., p. 18) Ruscha infuses these art historical influences with the character of the “brilliantly sunny, palm-studded, Day-glo spangled Los Angeles landscape” (A. Schwartz, op. cit., p. 52), and the Hollywood culture spawned in that environment.
In the present lot, this environment appears reflected as hyperluminosity assembling associations and references to the silver screen, and Ruscha’s abiding attraction to “the light bulb more than the candle”, to express “the frustrations and decadence of city life” ( B. Blistene, Edward Ruscha, Rotterdam, 1990, p. 134). Analogous to the sublime skins of John McCracken’s planks, the obsessive “finish fetish” (A. Schwartz, op. cit.,p. 56) of Ruscha’s perfected surfaces hint at the allure of Hollywood’s commercialized sexuality. The painting reminds the viewer that while the aphorism “beauty is skin deep” may hold (sometimes frighteningly) true, in order to remain perpetually appealing (as Ruscha’s work has for more than four decades), it must be sustained by a deep and solid armature of thought beneath that captivating surface.
A cursory regard assumes that the words “Whiz Kids” appear unrelated to their background. As is often the case with Ruscha’s work, however, immediate impressions are often belied and contradicted by greater underlying complexities that reveal themselves only through sustained attention. The spectral white text, rendered in the artist’s most iconic script, that apparently floats over the lights of the LA grid (or cosmos of nebulous forms), in actuality represents the background. Executed by reverse stenciling, the graphic elements appear etched in the canvas by negation rather than addition. Only when the viewer stands within a few feet of the canvas-- as comprehensible structures resolve into pure abstraction, and graphic elements become interplays of curved and linear forms— does the visual evidence of his process announce itself. The pigment bleeds subtly into the seemingly hard edges of the letters, confusing our assumptions about their seemingly mechanistic nature of the graphics, and instilling the work with a painterly quality.
While the phrase “Whiz Kids” has specific connotations— many of which contain allusions to light (“bright”, “brilliant” etc.)-- the respective words stacked one upon the other also allow the viewer to process them individually, multiplying available associations. Ruscha, who once fabricated business cards spelling his name as ‘Ed-werd Rew-shay’, and has incorporated text as a predominant element in much of his work, here displays his consistent interest in the semiotic and onomatopoetic resonances of language. “Whiz” defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “to hum, whir or hiss like a speeding object,” underscores the dissonance between the literal muteness of the painting and its implied speech through the reading of the text aloud, and moreover the “disjunction between sight and sound” (D. Hickey, op. cit.,p. 32). In the context of Ruscha’s work, this speeding object could be nothing other than the car, the requisite mode of transportation for navigating the “rambling network of boulevards and throughways” that comprise L.A. (C. Butler, Cotton Puffs, Q Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, New York 2004, p. 20).
Meanwhile, “Kids” evokes Hollywood’s obsession with youth, a reading that is mutually supported when the words are united to form the popular phrase connoting precocious children. In Los Angeles, where youthful beauty possesses immense currency, this phrase also includes the particular irony of a culture where everyone is trying to look younger than they actually are. It requires a Whiz Kid of enormous subtlety and skill to cohere all of these associations into a work that, in the words of the artist, “glimmer[s]” (A. Schwartz, A History Without Words from Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, London, 2009, p. 29) with an “earth-shaking religious feeling,” (ibid) in a town where God may be Paramount.