Ruby, Ed Ruscha’s seductive painting from 1968, is a definitive example of work from the artist’s highly-coveted series of Liquid Word paintings he created between 1966 and 1969. It illustrates the technical mastery that Ruscha had over his art, where he renders a single word spelled out in liquid form. Here, the photographic precision of the artist’s trompe l’oeil technique ratchets up the surreal beauty of the piece. The word “Ruby” is splashed across a sumptuous, dark green scrim in which gleaming drips of ruby-red paint recall the look of wet lacquer, nail polish or spilled blood. The glistening cursive script materializes to form an exquisite yet haunting vision. Interestingly, Ruby relates to an incident from the life of Pop artist Robert Indiana, who acquired the painting after it had been owned by the visionary collector David Whitney.
Both Ruscha and Indiana are two legendary Pop art originators of the 1960s—one working solely on the West Coast, the other on the East—and both share a similar interest in the visual effects of language and its graphic appeal. Working in a distinctive Pop art vernacular that has now become synonymous with his style, Robert Indiana created brash and unconventional paintings such as LOVE, EAT, and the Decade: Autoportrait series that remain some of the world’s most iconic Pop art icons. Their riotous colors, rich symbolism and ingenious design helped redefine the history of American painting for an entirely new generation. As a previous owner of this painting, Robert Indiana was clearly drawn to Ruby, and its imagery curiously relates to a dramatic moment in his own childhood. When Indiana was ten years old, his mother, Carmen Clark, was required to appear in court in Indianapolis, where a murder trial was underway. Indiana was sent away from home to live with his aunt and uncle in rural Indiana, and he spent most of his time there in isolation. The trial involved Indiana’s step-grandmother, who had been murdered by her daughter-in-law Roberta “Ruby” Watters. The trial proved to be emotionally difficult for Indiana’s mother, and she divorced his father, Earl Clark, shortly thereafter. Although the trial ended in an acquittal, and Ruby Watters was cleared of the charges against her, the ordeal was nevertheless an emotional one for the young artist and one suspects that “Ruby” might have held powerful personal associations for the artist.
Toward the end of 1966, Ruscha embarked upon his so-called “romance with liquids,” in which he devoted an entire series of highly-precise renderings of single words that appeared to have been formed from different types of liquids. “That was about 1966,” Ruscha recalled, “and I had just seen the end of the road with a certain kind of painting I was doing. I don’t know why it happened, but close-up views of liquids somehow began to interest me. And then I started making little setups on tables, and painting them, using syrup, and studying what happens” (E. Ruscha, quoted in “A Conversation Between Walter Hopps and Ed Ruscha,” in Y.-A. Bois, Edward Ruscha: Romance with Liquids, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1993, p. 102). Over the course of the next few years, Ruscha rendered all sorts of sticky, viscous liquids, such as syrup, oil, raspberry jam, and other watery yet indecipherable substances. Several of these Liquid Word paintings were debuted to the public on January 7th, 1970 at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York (including Ruby, which featured on the exhibition poster). Critics responded positively, and several of the paintings were later acquired by major American museums (Rancho, Museum of Modern Art, New York; City, Art Institute of Chicago; and Desire, The Broad, Los Angeles).
Set within a sumptuous, velvety background of darkened green that fades into the depths of black shadow at the upper edge, Ruby arrests the viewer with the surreal quality of its liquified, ruby-red lettering. As exquisite as they are strange, the glistening cursive letters in Ruby beg to be touched, having seemingly materialized out of thin air. The letters linger before our eyes, impossibly still wet, and impervious to the effects of gravity or evaporation. The photographic precision of these liquid letters and their trompe l’oeil depiction make their magical formation all the more impossible. In contrast to the aural jolt of earlier paintings such as OOF or SMASH, the more ethereal and dreamlike Ruby evokes luxury, mystery and glamour -- as if Ruscha has distilled rubies themselves into their thick, rich essence.
Ruscha’s studio notebooks indicate that he embarked on Ruby on August 24th, 1968. Working in his bright and sunny studio in East Hollywood, Ruscha had completed his first Liquid Word painting in 1966: Annie, Poured from Maple Syrup (Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA). These early Liquid Word paintings such as Oily and Jelly (both 1967) featured words that have been composed of the very substance they describe (oil in Oily, jelly in Jelly, and so forth). As the series progressed, Ruscha began to include trompe l’oeil objects embedded in the words, such as seeds in Ripe and beans in Adios, and he gradually featured words whose meaning did not necessarily match up to the word’s depiction (City and Lisp, for instance, are rendered in what appears to be water, but this liquid bears no particular meaning in the words’ interpretation). In Ruby, Ruscha depicts the very color the word describes, yet he has somehow melted the rock-hard gem and re-made it, impossibly, in liquid form. This surreal, dreamlike presentation forces the mind to ponder possible interpretations for the painting that transcend its linguistic origins.
One particular aspect of language that appealed to Ruscha was its timeless quality. As the art historian Yves-Alain Bois has pointed out, words and letters exist within an arena that’s beyond time. If Ruscha had depicted an ordinary object, his painting would have inevitably aged over time and might have looked dated many years later. By using words, Ruscha’s paintings remain “just as current today as they were forty years ago, and quite likely to still be in use a century from now” (Y.-A. Bois, quoted in R. Dean and P. Poncy, eds., Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings: Volume One, 1958-1970, New York, 2003, p. 7). The same could be said for the environments within which Ruscha situates his words, which are essentially empty stage sets, upon which the drama of Ruscha’s depiction is enacted. “I like the emptiness of things at the same time that I like things that are power-packed,” he has said (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ibid., p. 7). Out of time and out of place, Ruscha’s words break free from their traditional role and enter into the realm of imagination.
The manner in which Ruscha freely experiments and toys with language is related to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Ruscha had even met the artist a few years earlier at Duchamp’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Indeed, words form the core of Ruscha’s working practice, and he plucks them from the ordinary realm of language in true Dadaist fashion. His linguistic readymades also verge on the surreal. By portraying these floating, ethereal words within an anonymous stage or area, the Liquid Word paintings join ranks with the Surrealists, especially the deep recession of space common to Giorgio de Chirico’s landscapes, and the eerie twilit nighttime scenes of Magritte.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Ruscha’s first Liquid Word paintings coincided with Jackson Pollock’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, and critics have suggested that Ruscha’s drips and splatters paid clever homage to Pollock’s famous drip paintings. "When I was in school, I painted just like an Abstract Expressionist—it was a uniform. Except you really didn't have to wear it, you just aped it. It was so seductive: the act of facing a blank canvas with a palette. I liked painting that way, but there seemed no reason to push it any further. But I began to see that the only thing to do would be a preconceived image. It was an enormous freedom to be premeditated about my art" (E. Ruscha, quoted in F. Fehlau, "Ed Ruscha," Flash Art, January-February 1988, p. 70).
Over the course of his lifetime, Ruscha—who considers himself a “wordsmith”—has mined the infinite possibilities of language in his work, and the Liquid Words remain one of his most cherished series. They evoke what Ruscha describes as “the raw power of things that make no sense,” and share art historical affinities with Surrealism, Duchamp, Conceptual Art and Pop. “The effect is at once illusionistic, dream-like and literal,” the curator Sam Hunter described, in the first few years after the Liquid Words were debuted. “The flat, generally monochromatic ground, the spilled paint globules reminiscent of Pollock as much as Dalí...These interactive elements also give the painting a certain éclat…[and] a surprising complexity and mystery” (S. Hunter, “Narrative Art,” Critical Perspectives in American Art, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1976; reprinted in R. Dean and P. Poncy, eds., Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume One: 1958-1970, New York, 2003, p. 322). Indeed, these very characteristics make Ruby one of Ruscha's most intriguing paintings from an important, early series.