Annie is a groundbreaking, important early painting by Ed Ruscha. Measuring nearly six feet tall, this large-scale canvas is an early example of what would become his signature style, and demonstrates the unique and pioneering approach to art that would make him one of the most celebrated artists of his generation. In this painting, Ruscha abandons the conventional dichotomy of figurative and abstract art. His seemingly simple aesthetic presents a completely novel way of looking at art and understanding its iconography. As a young artist in college Ruscha was fascinated by Dada and Surrealism, particularly the work of Johannes Theodore Baargeld who, along with Max Ernst, founded the Cologne Dada. In 1961, the year before he painted Annie, he saw Baargeld’s drawing Beetles at the Museum of Modern Art that he felt related to his own sensibilities. Building on these traditions of Dada and Surrealism, Ruscha takes popular culture and turns it on its head, producing a painting that prompts more questions than it answers. Inspired by the comic books featuring the popular children’s character, Annie is the first in a series of paintings that have formed the backbone of the artist’s career. It is also a motif that he has returned to again and again throughout his career, working with it in different mediums over a dozen times; from an early pencil drawing in 1961, to one of his famed liquid word paintings (Annie, Poured from Maple Syrup, 1966, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena), and Annie—2008, the present painting has become one of Ruscha’s most iconic and enduring works.
Annie is a conceptually complex painting that belies its apparent visual simplicity. On the upper half of this bifurcated canvas, Ruscha renders the word ‘Annie’ in bright red pigment against a golden yellow background. The lower half of the canvas is devoid of any imagery, instead the viewer is immersed in a sea of deep, rich blue. A strip of pale primed canvas divides these two halves, a strip which is itself adorned by a thin, hand painted black line. Unlike the artist’s other paintings from this period in which he rendered words in utilitarian, industrial type, the contoured word ‘Annie’ is taken directly from a pop culture source, the comic strip Little Orphan Annie. The letter’s red, curvaceous outlines are encased in a black silhouette, providing both depth and structure. A 1961 work on paper Annie Six Times, shows Ruscha working through the composition of this painting. Experimenting with different colors and gestures (one attempt appears to show some Pollock-like drips flung onto the surface), one can see the artist working through the different weights and intensities of color before finally arriving on his chosen arrangement. The result is a painting of harmonious proportions with the weight of the letters above mirrored against the depth of the blue below. The solidity of the letters, combined with their undulating silhouettes provided the perfect foil for Ruscha, who’s investigations into the semantic and semiotic properties of words and their forms would sustain much of his career.
By taking the typography of a popular comic strip as his source, Ruscha located Annie firmly within the Pop tradition. But, while on the East Coast Andy Warhol was painting his Coca-Cola Bottles and Roy Lichtenstein was rendering his comic book Kiss paintings, on the West Coast Ruscha was looking at the words and phrases in a different light, thinking about them beyond the physicality of the painted surface. So, unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein—whose early paintings of cartoon characters (Popeye, 1961 and Look Mickey, 1961 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.] respectively) were inspired by the cultural ubiquity of those characters—Ruscha’s interest in the character of Annie herself is almost non-existent. Completely expunged from the composition, he negates the figure of Annie, instead focusing solely on the formal qualities of the typography used to render her name. “I love the language,” Ruscha said, “Words have temperatures to me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me” (E. Ruscha, quoted by R. D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 11).
This interest began early in his career, and in the late 1950s while he was still in art school, the artist began investigating the aesthetic qualities of typography, for example in works such as E. Ruscha (1959). But, Annie marks the first time he used a world copied directly from a mass media cultural source. In rendering the letters in such a dispassionate way—separate from any linguistic meaning—they became purely a visual motif. By extracting a word from its usual meaning, it changes how it is read, and what it might mean, “…if you look at a word long enough, it begins to lose its meaning” (E. Ruscha, quoted by U. Wilmes, “Once Upon a Time in the Present,” in R. Rugoff et. al. Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2009).
In this respect, these word paintings continue a trajectory started by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg nearly a decade earlier. “I saw a reproduction of Jasper Johns’ Target With Four Faces and Robert Rauschenberg’s painting, the combine painting with the chicken,” Ruscha has said. “That just sent me. I knew from then on that I was going to be a fine artist… The work of Johns and Rauschenberg marked a departure in the sense that their work was premeditated, and Abstract Expressionism was not… So when I saw the Target, I was especially taken with the fact that it was symmetrical, which was just absolutely taboo in art school…” (E. Ruscha, quoted by R. D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, pp. 8-9).
Beginning with works such as Flag, 1954-55 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Target with Four Faces, 1955 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and Figure 1, 1955 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne), Johns took recognizable signs and signifiers and removed the symbolic meaning in order to create a representational work that was still mostly devoid of any personal history. “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me,” Johns said, “because I didn’t have to design it. So, I went on to similar things like the targets—things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.” (J. Johns in 1959, quoted in D. Sylvester, “Saluting the Flags,” exh. cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994, 1996, p. 15). In similar fashion, Ruscha adopted the typography of the Annie logo and worked to take his art to another level, to explore the existential nature of painting, and in a work such as this, the word Annie exists beyond its original meaning and function.
Thus, Ruscha launched himself into a series of works that would become one of the most important in the postwar American artistic canon. Along with paintings such as Actual Size, 1962 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), OOF, 1962-63 (Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles), and Hurting the World Radio #1, 1964 (Menil Collection, Houston), Annie became a vehicle for his formal and conceptual investigations. “For Ruscha, words constitute an escape route from the straightjacket of the literal nature of the visible and of the perception forced upon us by our unequivocal understanding of things” (U. Wilmes, “Once Upon a Time in the Present, in R. Rugoff et. al. Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2009, p. 47). Yet, just as much as Annie could be argued to be a conceptual work, it is also still very much a painter’s painting. Ruscha’s alma mater, Chouinard (which later became California Institute of Fine Art, and then CalArts), had historically fostered the emulation of Abstract Expressionism as the most modern and advanced form of art. Yet Ruscha graduated into a world of Pop, and unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein who—in their paintings—sought to mimic the commercial printing process as much as the resulting comic books, Ruscha’s Annie still bears witness to the manner of its production. Although with his ‘words’ the artist had sought to expunge the gestural manifestations of Abstract Expressionism from his work, this painting also pays homage to its predecessors. The painterly process is revealed as close inspection of the word Annie exhibits loops and swirls of thick red impasto, almost as bulbous and globular as the letters themselves.
Painted in 1962, Annie is one of Ed Ruscha’s earliest fully painted canvases. Executed in his favored 71 x 67 inch format (which meant he could stretch and move the canvas in his studio without the need for an assistant), along with Actual Size, 1962 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and OOF, 1962-63 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Annie has become a cornerstone of his career and is reproduced in countless catalogues of the artist’s work. Eschewing the gestural excess of Abstract Expressionism and absorbing the influences of the nascent Pop Art movement in New York, Ruscha developed his own unique voice. In 1963, he came to the attention of Irving Blum, the legendary dealer and owner of the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. That same year, the gallery honored him with his first solo show, an exhibition in which Annie was included. Blum was immediately struck by Ruscha’s energy and originality, and speaking in 2002, Blum recalled that “ [Ruscha] was doing fascinating work… and has gone on to have a really brilliant career” (I. Blum, quoted in Ferus, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2002, p. 33).
Annie marks a pivotal point in the artistic canon of the 20th century as the tradition of painting fought to maintain its relevance in light of the early beginnings of Pop Art. In work’s such as this, Ed Ruscha successfully connects the painterly tradition with the contemporary culture of advertising and mass-media. This culture would eventually spread beyond the United States. Artists such as Ruscha, Warhol, and Lichtenstein not only became the messengers, but their works also would form part of the message and universal language of art that reigned for much of the rest of the century. As Jeffrey Deitch pointed out, "Ed [Rushca] tuned in to a particularly contemporary kind of consciousness, a mode of thinking that would not really have been possible until the late 1950s or 1960s. It is the state of mind of someone driving in a car in a sort of automatic pilot mode, a kind of meditation in which street signs, billboards, palm trees, apartment houses, etc., loom in and out of consciousness with a neutral evenness of impact. This is a mode of consciousness that may have first emerged in Los Angeles, but with the globalization of California culture, it is something that is experienced world-wide. This state of mind is comparable to the television viewer's stupor, another semi-meditative state in which words and images float on and off the screen as the words float over the surface of Edward Ruscha's paintings" (J. Deitch, Edward Ruscha: Early Paintings, exh. cat., Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1988, n.p.).