“I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again.” Ed Ruscha
A major figure of the postwar art scene, Ed Ruscha’s text-based paintings have gone through continuous refinement while still retaining a signature wit and intellectual depth that make them irreplaceable as part of American art history. The text and its formation are a lattice upon which he builds further inquiries into everything from physical material to photographic reproduction. Executed in 1973, An Invasion of Privacy springs out of Ruscha’s interest in alternative painting materials and exhibits a skill for creating conceptual depth in what appears to be a rather straightforward painting. During the era that this piece was realized, the painter was using everyday liquids and mediums in an effort to more closely connect with the materials of American life. Food, condiments, and household chemicals all became part of his palette as the process and product grew ever closer. By focusing on commercial and consumer culture as it passed through his theoretic filter, the artist was able to ally himself with both the Conceptual and Pop artists of the 1960s and 70s while never firmly settling in either camp.
Conceptually complex, yet rather spare in form, An Invasion of Privacy nonetheless delivers a bold statement in a forthright manner. Nearly five feet square, the capitalized block letters are typical Ruscha (although he has yet to transition to his self-designed typeface, “Boy Scout Utility Modern”). The canvas and the oxidized letters made from humble grass are executed in varying shades of organic hues, yet even these milquetoast tones can do nothing to temper the work’s impact. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again” Ruscha told The New Yorker in 2013, (C. Tompkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.,” The New Yorker, July 2013). Fixating on the letters themselves, one starts to think about the manner of their construction and the process of creating meticulous stains from a ubiquitous plant whose manicured lawns have become a symbol of suburban America.
Realized during a period when the artist was working with alternative materials, An Invasion of Privacy makes use of carefully manipulated grass stains to form words on canvas. Rather than the rough mark or smear typically associated with playground mishaps and slides into first base, Ruscha has enticed the greens into sharp letters and bold forms. With age, the colors have oxidized, leaving the slightly mottled surface the only indicator of the base material. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the artist frequently employed organic materials and non-traditional methods to create his work. In related pieces from that time, he worked with everything from egg, ketchup, and red cabbage, to cilantro, hot sauce, and blood. “To generalize, [the Abstract Expressionists] approached their art with no preconceptions and with a certain instant-explosiveness, whereas I found that my work had to be planned and preconceived, or rather wondered about, before being done. [...] I have always operated on a kind of waste-retrieval method. I retrieve and renew things that have been forgotten or wasted” (E. Ruscha, quoted in B. Brunon, “Interview with Edward Ruscha,” in Edward Ruscha, exh. cat., Octobre des Arts, Lyon, 1985, p. 95). Each substance is retrieved, renewed, and coaxed into bold words or phrases, taking on a coldly logical edge not often present in many artworks that use alternative media. A series of works on paper called Stains, 1969, encapsulates Ruscha’s testing phases for these explorations and is held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ruscha’s practice flirts with the boundary between two pivotal movements: Conceptual Art and Pop Art. By embracing the text-based inquiries on meaning of the former and marrying them with an interest in consumerism and visual culture, the artist has been able to carve a particularly significant place for himself in the annals of art history. “New roles for the word also emerged in the register of production, in a variety of practices that supplanted the Abstract Expressionist focus on the (however unrecognizable) image with an attention to language.
This linguistic turn in practice would reach its apogee in the text-only work, efflorescence of artists’ writings, and theoretical apparatuses of Minimalism and Conceptualism, but much Pop, too, featured language prominently: its most iconic works, Warhol’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic frames, contain words, and even the labeling of Rosenquist’s work (usually devoid of language) as ‘billboard painting’ hints at a text behind the image.” (L. Pasquariello, “Ed Ruscha and the Language That He Used,” OCTOBER, Vol. 111, Winter, 2005, p. 86). By forcing the viewer to reckon with words as both image and information, Ruscha created a means of working that required careful observation and rewarded research and time. The text in An Invasion of Privacy conjures up new images when paired with the knowledge that each letter comes from the macerated juices of lawn clippings. Whose privacy is being invaded? Who is invading? Are they going to track grass onto the rug?