Having helped usher in the age of Pop while remaining vehemently individual to this day, Ed Ruscha’s masterful handling of text and image have influenced countless artists. Existing on the cusp of both Pop and Conceptual Art with a knack for paintings that reassess how words connect with photography, the artist’s unmistakable cool is readily apparent in the sharply dark canvas of Liquids, Gases and Solids. Framing the night landscape of Los Angeles, a subject repeatedly addressed throughout his career, the artist seems to flip the heavens’ starry expanse into a geometric, earthly grid. Kerry Brougher notes, “Ruscha’s words hover between the flat, transversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting” (K. Brougher, Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2000, p. 161). By combining text that rests on the very surface of the picture plane with the infinite depth of scenes culled from the real world, Ruscha is able to question the nature of representation within the confines of illusionistic painting.
Emblazoned in ghostly yellow across the face of the canvas, the words “Liquids, Gases and Solids” compete for legibility against the grid of dazzling lights beneath. Disconnected from any meaning the words might impart, it is a blurred rendering of a city grid at night as viewed from the air. Each street is visible by the rows of lights from automobiles, buildings, and street lamps. Clusters form at regular intervals, notating intersections where more commotion is common. Ruscha has been a tireless documentarian of the Los Angeles landscape in various capacities throughout the years, so one can rightly insinuate that the urban grid depicted is that of his adopted home. In contrast to the translucent text, the use of bright white and dark tones to render the city’s topography brings out connections to star maps and old photographs. The roads run parallel with the top and bottom of the picture plane, creating a measured stratum that widens as the eye travels down the work. The crisscrossing arterials that interject travel diagonally from bottom right to top left, and create a sense of movement and energetic tension that can relate to that of the thriving metropolis below. Though one knows the subject matter, the contrasting planes of text and land push and pull the eye. “Conflating the grids of the city with the compositional grid of the picture plane, [the City Lights paintings] straddle the line between landscape and abstraction. They also present an image of the city that resembles a night sky turned upside down, as art historian Briony Fer has commented, so that ‘looking up and down collapse into each other’, and our sense of the ground of representation dissolves.” (R. Rugoff in Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exh. cat., London, Hayward Gallery, 2010, p. 21). In early works, Ruscha employed a flat background that served as a means to amplify his chosen text or imagery as it was compressed between the painting’s surface and the illusionary picture plane. With the introduction of spatially-vast landscapes and backdrops drawn from photographs, the artist entreats the viewer to look at foreground and background simultaneously.
In Liquids, Gases and Solids, both the choice and rendering of the words are emblematic of much of Ruscha’s career as a whole, in which he paints his subjects in a formal way that matches the physical characteristics of his chosen words. The striated letters of his 1964 painting Scream, for example, become a visual execution of physical force needed to expel a physical scream; similarly, the artist’s use of space in Talking About Space, 1963, and the physical damage being caused to the word DAMAGE by the flames in his eponymous 1964 painting, are among the earliest examples of what would become one of Ruscha’s central themes. In the present work, the artist deliberately depicts the states of matter referred to in the title in amorphous and transparent ways, the result is that the artist is able to segue between the fundamentals of the physical world and his own conceptual language.
Part of Ruscha’s landmark City Lights series, Liquids, Gases and Solids trades the artist’s traditional viewpoint for an aerial one. Robert Dean remarked about this shift, “Up to this point much of Ruscha’s work had been connected to the automobile and the road and, to expand upon Rosalind Krauss’s suggestion that the automobile for Ruscha was a kind of medium, the airplane may have become, at least in the case of the City Lights paintings, a new medium” (R. Dean, “Overlapping Dialogues: The Paintings of Edward Ruscha, 1983-1987” in Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, New York, 2007, p. 5). The probable impetus for this change of scenery were Ruscha’s frequent flights from Los Angeles to Miami in 1985. Similar to his affection for street signs, gasoline stations, and other sites along the road during trips across the country, it follows that the artist would also pull from his experiences flying across the country and mine those for new canvases.
Drawing upon images from everyday life like signs and other aspects of commercial culture, Ed Ruscha is often talked about in the same breath as Pop but bridges the gulf between that group of ideas and early conceptualism. Noting his predilection for seemingly cold, unemotional work, the artist compared his practice to that of the prevailing Abstract Expressionists on the other side of the country: “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. My subjects tend to be recognizable objects made up of stuff that is non-objective and abstract. 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). His pivotal artist books, including Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (1962), were made up of impassive snapshots that foreshadowed some conceptual documentarians. This imagery finds its painted analogue in works like Liquids, Gases and Solids where the twinkling lights of Los Angeles are neither romanticized or portrayed in any particularly identifiable manner. At the same time, by pairing landscape with nonsequitur captions, Ruscha asks us to reexamine how we view images in our day-to-day and how we ingest the information they provide.