‘I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again. I see myself working with two things that don’t even ask to understand each other’ (E. Ruscha, quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘Ed Ruscha’s L.A.’, The New Yorker, 1 July 2013).
‘A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way, they’re words in front of an old Paramount Studios mountain. You don’t have to have a mountain back there - you could have a landscape, a farm. I have a background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks’ (E. Ruscha quoted in R.D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London 2003, p. 239).
‘It’s an artist’s job to (embellish a trivial subject) despite the fact that you have to use tricks and devices in order to put that idea across. I like to give attention to the lonely paintbrush or make a tribute to something that is humble, or something that does not require explanation. There are things that I am constantly looking at that I feel should be elevated to greater status. That’s why taking things out of context is a useful tool to an artist. It’s just the concept of taking something that’s not subject matter, and making it subject matter’ (E. Ruscha, quoted in Edward Ruscha : Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume One 1958-1970, New York 2003, p. 151).
Executed at the apex of an illustrious career, Ed Ruscha’s Woman on Fire characteristically combines graphic simplicity with a complex interpretation of contemporary American vernacular. Large, clear white lettering, depicted in Ruscha’s distinctive font, is centred over an image of a dark, atmospheric urban landscape. The scene is at once familiar and surreal, rooted in closely observed everyday realities of American life, and yet coolly estranged from the deadpan, sinister text that floats detached, and seemingly unrelated, above it. Made using a combination of acrylic and stencilled lettering, bright colour streaks across the predominant tones of midnight blue, evoking busy highways at night, rain soaked cityscapes, and nocturnal scenery glimpsed at speed.
Woman on Fire dates from 1990, an important time for the artist. The preceding years had brought Ruscha’s work to widespread international acclaim. By the 1980s Ruscha’s word-based paintings were well-established, and they had been celebrated in prestigious exhibitions, including 1989 retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which toured across Europe and America. 1990 also saw a dedicated painting retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art, and work dating from these years are included in many important public and private collections across the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Gallery in London.
Juxtaposing humour, cinematic illusion and a unique take on popular culture, Ruscha’s work maintains a sense of mystery while providing an immediate vibrant visual resonance. ‘Vital art’, Ruscha has said, ‘is made out of things that the general population has overlooked. The things that are forgotten and thrown away are the things that eventually come back around and cry for attention. The artist sees possibilities in things that are overlooked. Seeing the electric vibrancy in something that›s so dead. The forgotten things are a source of food’ (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, 2001, p. 161).
Ruscha has spoken in the past of how the clear, angular white lettering that he often uses in his work bears similarity to the iconic sight of the Hollywood sign that he has lived in the shadow of since he was a student. The combination of text and image is a visually potent union that evokes the cultural landscape of California as well as its physical appearance. ‘A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words’, he has said. ‘In a way, they›re words in front of an old Paramount Studios mountain. You don›t have to have a mountain back there - you could have a landscape, a farm. I have a background, foreground. It›s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They›re just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks› (E. Ruscha quoted in R.D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London 2003, p. 239).
Describing the background imagery in the series of works of which Woman on Fire belongs, Ruscha said it was ‘light-movements – what you would see in a time exposure of vehicle and urban lights’ (E. Ruscha, quoted in Edward Ruscha : Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume Four 1988-1992, New York 2009, p. 330). Ruscha was drawn to photography from the start of his career, and it is a medium that has remained central to his practice ever since. He was initially trained as a commercial artist and throughout his career he has taken documentary photographs, such as the celebrated Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963). Yet he has also been highly influenced by early twentieth-century experimental photography. The colour photography of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy were particularly significant to the paintings that were made around the same time as Woman on Fire. There is a striking sense of movement in these images that conveys a similar Modernist concern with bold abstract form and colour - poetic devices that help transform elements of everyday reality into an eloquent pictorial world.
Ruscha had moved to Los Angeles in 1956, where he had first come to prominence making collages that were greatly inspired by the pioneering work of artists such as Jasper Johns, who were beginning to move away from the abstract expressionist narrative that was predominant in America at that time. Johns’ work opened Ruscha’s eyes to the possibilities of a type of art making that had little to do with gesture and subjective expression. Instead, he began to make work that was ‘completely premeditated’ (E. Ruscha, quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘Ed Ruscha’s L.A.’, The New Yorker, 1 July 2013). This led to the artist’s significant decision to use words in his work. He felt that fundamentally, words were more meaningful than abstract painting, and they have remained a primary motif in his work since that day. ‘It was so simple, and something I could commit to’, Ruscha has said. ‘I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again. I see myself working with two things that don’t even ask to understand each other’ (E. Ruscha, quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘Ed Ruscha’s L.A.’, The New Yorker, 1 July 2013).
As with Woman on Fire, the meanings of Ruscha’s paintings often remain elusive. The words are ambiguous, and they do not necessarily relate to the picture they have been paired with. Conveying an indefinite sensation with his art that has long appealed to Ruscha. ‘Paradox and absurdity have just always been really delicious to me’, he has said (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ed Ruscha: Road Tested, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, 2011, p. 288). Ruscha’s oeuvre is diverse, however. The form, medium and tone of the words and images in the paintings vary considerably. Semantic meaning, typography and pictures appear in a myriad of styles: the background imagery ranges from sublime American mountains, to strange imaginary plains akin to those found in a surrealist painting, or even the end credits of a film. The phrases can be nonsensical, witty, pithy or poignant.