Created in 1967, Ed Ruscha’s lush and evocative Juice is an early example from one of his most celebrated and beguiling bodies of work, the gunpowder ribbon drawings he created between 1967 and 1970. In Juice, Ruscha lights upon a word whose visual punch is matched only by its onomatopoeic oomph. Like Oof, Honk or Smash, the sound of “juice” in the viewer’s ear uncannily recalls the spurt of freshly-squeezed oranges, while its dreamlike depiction evokes the sensuous, sundrenched pleasures of postwar California. Hovering just above the paper sheet, “j-u-i-c-e” is spelled out in delicately looping cursive letters as if floating pieces of paper or stiff paper ribbons have materialized by some magician’s trick. These enigmatic paper words have no corollary in the real world, belonging instead to the realm of Hollywood filmmaking or the magic of cartoon illustration. Along the left edge, a trompe l’oeil fly snaps the viewer back into reality, a wry example of the artist’s keen wit. In December 1967, Juice was selected for Ruscha’s first solo show in New York, at the Alexander Iolas Gallery, and was acquired shortly thereafter. It has since been widely exhibited, and has remained in the Anderson Collection for over forty years.
Considered as a group, the gunpowder ribbon drawings are collectively known as “one of Ruscha’s most important bodies of drawing,” (L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1, 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 23) and Juice remains an especially significant example, considering the artist’s self-described “romance with liquids. The subject playfully recalls the artist’s actual use of real vegetable and fruit juices as media in his work, as well as points, figuratively, toward the varied meanings and connotations of the word itself. Together with Cherry, Soda, Pool, and Grapes, Juice is reminiscent of all things ripe and luscious, of California and the promise of the West, and extracting the sweetness of tart fruit into syrupy elixir. It evokes abundance and the essence of sunshine, condensed and bottled into postwar commodity.
Spelled out by a single strip of undulating paper as it unscrolls in flawless cursive script—the “i” and “j” whimsically dotted with tiny v-shaped pieces—Juice displays the visual manifestation of Ruscha’s stated claim: “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again” (E. Ruscha, quoted in L. Turvey, ibid., p. 39). Indeed, the letters in “j-u-i-c-e” hover just slightly above the paper support, where subtle shadows suggest that the letters have been illuminated by some unknown light source, oddly luminous though no discernible light is present. These floating letters are held magically aloft, incomprehensively—and not perhaps ironically—composed of the same material upon which they are drawn. In raking diagonal script, “juice” fills the vast expanse of the rectangular sheet, arranged diagonally as if seen from some distant perspective, is not unlike the looming quality of the Hollywood sign as it comes into view or the expansive impression of a Cinemascope movie screen. This dramatic horizontality became an aspect of some of Ruscha’s most notable work from this period.
As part of a generation of West Coast artists who, during the sixties, reimagined the possibilities of what drawing could be, Ruscha—the Oklahoma boy with California dreams—revitalized the genre, incorporating strange imagery and unusual materials. Beginning in early 1967, Ruscha made about two dozen works on paper that featured single words rendered in stunning trompe l’oeil technique, as if formed from curling pieces of paper. His chosen medium (gunpowder, as indicated by the letters “gp” in the lower right corner), was uniquely suited to the artist’s method, in which he used cotton balls and q-tips to apply the powdered material onto the page. “I soaked some gunpowder in water once,” Ruscha described, “and I saw it separated all the salt out of it. I just did it as an experiment. The gunpowder itself is in granules. I could see it would make a good choice of materials; it could actually impregnate on paper. You could use it almost like charcoal… Graphite was much more laborious, but it has a different feel altogether... So gunpowder was simple, it was easy to get going.” (E. Ruscha, quoted in A. Schwarz (ed.), Leave Any Information at the Signal, Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 155-56.)
These deceptively simple trompe l’oeil drawings are in fact the artist’s sophisticated investigation of art and language. With a nod to the surrealist’s penchant for frisson—that unexpected shock or chill that results from ordinary objects viewed in quite unexpected or dreamlike situations—Juice is especially haunting given the verisimilitude of its rendering, of a highly realistic “object” that doesn’t actually exist. The strangeness of the ribbon word “juice” and its glowing, floating presence within an unknowable, smoky gray void, is startling enough through the sheer power of its graphic pull, yet Ruscha goes the next step altogether by placing a single, ordinary black fly near the upper left edge of the paper sheet. Exceptionally rendered in faithful adherence to its real-life counterpart, the fly seems absolutely real, a brilliant trompe l’oeil addition to an already attention-grabbing work. It seems to highlight the unreality of the nebulous world in which the ribbon words exist, snapping the viewer back into the present, while tarnishing the notion of the juice and all its wholesome, youthful connotations. Trompe l’oeil objects were a somewhat common trope in Ruscha’s gunpowder ribbon drawings. Illusionistic drops of water appear in Pool with Water Spots, for instance, and beads of oil in Oily. The fly also appears in a handful of other works from this period, such as the drawing Western, and the lithographs Carp with Fly and Flies and Frog. As an insect symbolic of melancholy, rot and decay, the fly has featured in Renaissance and Baroque art, and especially in fantastically detailed trompe l’oeil paintings of the 19th century; contemporary examples include Dalí and Damien Hirst.