Ed Ruscha's Europe from 1989 marks a dramatic transition from his earlier Pop-inspired work. The black and white soft-focused silhouette paintings that the artist began to paint in the mid-eighties abandon the boldly colored Hollywood Technicolor works. Instead he describes this work as "sooty and colder to the bone," and true to his word his dramatically condensed palette translates to a more austere tone towards his depiction of common objects. However, this transformation was long anticipated. "I remember this notion I had in school about Franz Kline, thinking how great it was that this man only worked with black and white," Ruscha remarked in 1988. "I thought at some point in my life I would also work with black and white-and here is it" (R. Dean and L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Vol. 4, 1988-1992, New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2009, 1).
Ruscha removes what the viewer assumes to be a cigarette from context. It is figural, minimal, surreal, conceptual, and all of the above; at once. As a white space hovering in an ashy fog, a mundane and easily identifiable object becomes subject to contemplation. The artist takes an image that fits within contemporary iconography and translates it into modernist abstraction.
Europe is not the first example of an artist experimenting with a radically reduced palette. In the late fifties artists, from Pollock to Warhol, produced works with simple black and white pigment. Yet, Ruscha distinguishes himself from the other artists, by using an airbrushed technique; he abandons painterly gestures for a "strokeless" surface.
The use of airbrushing allows for the silhouette to become more of a shadow play, since the contours the object are blurred and indistinct. Reminiscent of the shadows produced by a lantern's light, it is as if the canvas has transformed into a kind of "mechanized viewing apparatus" (Ibid., p. 7). The blank space of the supposed cigarette allows for the viewer to use their own imagination to complete the work. The hazy aesthetic leaves the image to be an open-ended puzzle, inviting those in front of it to try and piece it together. The airbrushing erases any identifiable edge, is the cigarette in the foreground and clouded by the smoke. There is no precise spatial zone. Ralph Rugoff described the Ruscha "soot" as if the object "appeared to suffer a nocturnal dropout of visual detail" (Ralph Rugoff, "The Last Word," Artnews 88, no. 10 (December 1989), p. 122).
Even though the usual Pop aesthetics of Ruscha's earlier work seem to have been relegated to the past, his mature style is still includes illustration techniques used in advertisements and commercial billboards seen throughout Los Angeles. His repertoire still uses traditional, media inspired subject matter, but his shadow play places the object into abstraction-the "modernist lack of subject matter" (James Ellroy, Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2010). Europe fits into the Ruscha repertoire, since it is the manipulation of an everyday shape.