"I am a combination of someone who is an abstract artist and someone who deals with subject matter." - Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha's dazzling 1987 work Inferno stems from the acclaimed series of City Lights paintings that occupied the artist during one of his most significant decades. Bracketed by prestigious retrospectives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1983) and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1989), the 1980s saw Ruscha explore new possibilities for the word-based paintings that had, by this stage, come to define over two decades of his distinctive practice. Employing a unique new font derived from his own handwriting, Ruscha inscribes his searing one-word incantation over a bewitching night-time cityscape: a rich dark blue canvas studded with rows of gleaming white street lights. The vast, expansive terrains of Southern California have long been recognized as a crucial aesthetic influence on Ruscha's work, prompting vacant canvases inhabited by lone, estranged words and phrases lifted from contemporary consciousness. Yet it was during this later period that the artist began to import specific background scenery as stage-like settings for his laconic outpourings. The City Lights works are amongst the most captivating examples of this tendency, merging their sublime aerial vantage point with a wide array of verbal overdubs: from microcosmic urban narratives to invocations of faith and religion, as in the present work. Further examples from the series are currently held in the collections of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand.
Ruscha's practice draws upon an extensive memory bank of words, phrases, images and scenes, rooted in his fascination with both the natural and commercialized urban vistas of twentieth-century America. Having moved to Los Angeles in 1956, much of Ruscha's work has been understood in terms of its relation to the city and its topographical surroundings, defined by sprawling highways, deserts and mountains. In the "City Lights" paintings, as Richard D. Marshall has written, "the nocturnal landscapes probably represent a convergence of Los Angeles and Miami as seen from the air, an outgrowth of Ruscha's frequent flights between these two cities while working on a commission for the Miami-Dade Public Library in 1985. The two metropolises appear surprisingly similar...from an airport landing approach. In addition, their luminous quality at night is enhanced by the darkness that surrounds them, created in Los Angeles by the desert and mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, and in Miami by the vast Everglades to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east," (R. D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 209). This paradox of dense population yet overall isolation is evident in the present work. Executed using a spray gun, the individual light sources project a hazy, other-worldly glow redolent of stars--identifiable points within the cavernous depths of space. At the same time, there is a compelling correlation between the fiery biblical connotations of "inferno," scrawled onto the picture plane as if with a naked flame, and the almost palpable white heat radiating from the illuminated grid below.
Inferno may be equally understood as an exercise in compositional rigor. Ruscha's grid functions in both representational and abstract terms, signifying the city whilst also providing a means of structuring the picture plane. The artist traces his interest in the geometries of urban planning to his childhood, claiming that "I think that [being a newspaper delivery boy] also had something to do with my feelings about surveying, my interest in diagrams, rigid street patterns," (E. Ruscha, quoted in P. Karlstrom, "Interview with Edward Ruscha in his Western Avenue, Hollywood Studio," in A. Schwartz (ed.), Leave Any Information At The Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, 2002, p. 104). Here, however, the intersection of horizontal and vertical lines is confounded by the slanted aerial viewpoint, creating a diagonal perspective that imbues the work with a sense of unending galactic depth. For Ruscha, whose early visions of road signs and film logos were frequently set on the diagonal plane, this angle reflects his own sense of experiencing things in flyby motion: of mental snapshots gleaned whilst speeding down the highway or walking through the city. "The diagonal comes out of the idea of motion and speed, as well as perspective", he claims. "When you divide the canvas like that you always have the suggestion of speed and depth," (E. Ruscha, quoted in B. Clearwater, "An Interview with Ed Ruscha," Art Press, no. 137, 1989. Reproduced in A. Schwartz (ed.), ibid., p. 291). In Inferno, this dynamic is projected onto a larger scale through its allusions to air travel, invoking a correspondence between the gridlines of individual streets and the lines of longitude and latitude that map out the global terrain.
Inferno may be said to resonate with the night-time views of New York by American modernist painters such as Walker Evans and Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as with the later nocturnal cityscapes of artists including Doug Aitken, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. Yet the work also takes its place within Ruscha's own oeuvre as an example of his fascination with light-based phenomena. This is exemplified both in the striking silhouette works produced alongside the City Lights series, as well as the ethereal shafts of light depicted in the Miracle works, later developed in the monumental 1997 Getty Center commission Pictures Without Words. Discourses of light and darkness were central to Ruscha's Catholic upbringing, a facet he has acknowledged as an unshakeable influence on these works. Within an output strewn with references to heaven and hell, angels and devils, faith and evil, Inferno combines the dark religious overtones of its title with its own particular aura of light-infused sublimation. As such, the work vacillates between the earthly and the unearthly, the manmade and the supernatural, placing the viewer at an all-seeing vantage point yet retaining the sense of semantic ambiguity central to Ruscha's practice.