Executed in 1977, The World is a particularly compelling example of Ed Ruscha’s Stain paintings—a series in which he experimented with the application of unconventional materials on paper, including tobacco oil, blood and Pepto Bismol. A relentless perfectionist, Ruscha saved only the trials that he felt worked and discarded those that did not. The current lot, painted in carrot juice, is a powerful result of the artist’s exploration of unconventional materials.
The World depicts the text of the title in white block script emerging from a sepia haze, not unlike photographic specters exposed by light during a film development process. The rigid geometry and stark whiteness of the lettering provide a dynamic visual counterpoint to the diaphanous clouds through which it floats. In this way, the artist builds upon but also diverges from the legacy of René Magritte: whereas the latter sought to communicate the inadequacy of language by divesting the written word of signification, Ruscha presents the written word itself as an object of aesthetic consideration.
While the artist maintains that there is no intended correlation between the specific medium and the phrase selected for each of his Stain paintings, in this case, the choice of carrot juice to represent The World is ripe with resonance. Reminiscent of rust and earth, it symbolizes the organic and transitory nature of life, in which every seemingly permanent thing eventually deteriorates. Instead of lamenting this inevitability, Ruscha chooses to embrace it. In an interview with Tracey Bartlett of the Getty Conservation Institute, he explained:
"We could be looking at the human body generations from now and come no closer to preserving it than we knew about or pondered at the dawn of civilization. It's going to decay. When it comes to art, you look at traditional materials that have stayed relatively the same for hundreds of years—the way they mixed paints, ground pigments with linseed oil, and carefully followed recipes—and yet ravages of moisture and sunlight and time all give you the problems that you have to face with conservation" (http://www.getty.edu/conservation, accessed 3 December 2014).
Ruscha began the process of introducing staining into his practice because he grew tired of “laying a skin on a surface” (M. Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, New York, 2004, pp. 18-19). He yearned to penetrate beyond the visible exterior and sought out media that could “go through the support to the other side” (ibid). In this case, Ruscha’s allusion to “the other side” relates to more than the permeating action of the juice. It nevertheless elicits associations with death and the otherworldly. In the present work, Ruscha endeavors to transcend the confines of the visible world, to reach into the void and attain what Constantin Brancusi termed “the essence of things.”