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Ed Ruscha’s Smash is an early example of one of the artist’s revolutionary Text paintings, a body of work which established him as one of the most innovative and influential painters of his generation. Based in Los Angeles, far away from the heady environs of New York’s art scene, the simple aesthetic and utilitarian styling of this painting mark it as an important contribution to the Pop Art movement that was becoming established on the other side of the country by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Although it came to be associated with the East Coast, it is often forgotten that Pop was born on the West Coast, with two of the earliest, most important exhibitions being held in California, namely Warhol’s 1962 Ferus Gallery show in Los Angeles of his Campbell’s Soup Cans and the first group show of American Pop held at the Pasadena Art Gallery. Ruscha’s participation in the Pasadena show puts him firmly in place at the moment of conception, an influential figure whose conceptual rigor played a leading role during the movement’s early days.
Across a vast expanse of sumptuous deep ultramarine, the word “SMASH” is laid out in vibrant, sunshine yellow letters that expand horizontally to fill the breadth of this large canvas. At risk of being completely enveloped by the rich chromatic quality of the deep blue ground, these stately letters are painted on a ground of a slightly softer-keyed blue, causing them to levitate above the surface. Ruscha lays out this central band right around the canvas, embracing the sides of the stretcher in addition to the front. And as if to further emphasize the totality of the painting, Ruscha paints the word “SMASH” three more times, along the lower edge and once along each side of the painting. In essence, the word “SMASH” now runs directly through the very heart of the work.
These bold letters—a dynamic combination of substantial down strokes accompanied by more delicate, horizontal accents—progress across the canvas in an authoritative, yet non-threatening way. Substantial, yet restrained, Ruscha’s choice of stylized font is the perfect counterbalance to the richness of the painted surface. Overshadowed both literally and metaphorically by its more dominant neighbor, a diminutive rendition of “Smash” appears to stand on tiptoe along the lower edge. The care and precision with which Ruscha endowed these words help to elevate their stenciled font from its utilitarian origins to a higher, more majestic plane.
In isolation, Ruscha’s choice of word appears unambiguous; however, when placed in the context of the opulent surface, it becomes slightly more abstruse. It could be an instruction, a violent command to lash out at something or someone in a wild, unprovoked attack; it could also be an abandoned adjective, the remnants of a newspaper headline; or, it could simply be a word culled from the cacophony of visual stimulus that littered the urban environment. Whatever the reasoning behind his choice, Ruscha reveled in this uncertainty, “I’ve always had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things which cannot be explained,” he once said. “Explanations seem to me to sort of finish things off” (E. Ruscha, quoted by B. Blistene in “B. Blistene: A Conversation with Edward Rushca” reproduced in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Centre Cultural de la Fondacio Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona, 1990, pp. 36-38).
With its conflation of “high” and “low” cultural references, Ruscha’s work from this period found its natural home in the emerging Pop Art tradition. This association was reinforced by the inclusion of two works of his from the early 1960s, Box Smashed Flat and Actual Size, in the 1962 exhibition New Painting of Common Objects—the first museum show to examine American Pop Art. Organized by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Museum of Art, the exhibition also featured paintings by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and demonstrated the increasing interaction between a new generation of contemporary painters and a wide array of visual stimuli gleaned from the products of mass culture, including advertising, billboards, newspapers and magazines.
In this way, Ruscha was also completely in tune with the art of his era, creating a spiritual fusion of Pop, Minimal and Conceptual tendencies, whose impact and ironic humor still maintain a freshness and relevance today. Ruscha’s choice of a mundane word as the subject matter of a major painting paralleled Warhol’s foregrounding of brand-names and trademarks in his paintings of Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans. Both artists selected the iconography of modern-day America as a means of introducing contemporary experience into their art. Just as Warhol mimics the machine-like sterility and repetition of the factory production line through his stenciling and serial screenprinting, Ruscha uses techniques learned as a commercial artist to break down the barriers between that which constitutes “high” and “low” art. Ruscha also acknowledged Roy Lichtenstein, and his 1961 painting Keds in partuclar, as an important influence on his career. On being shown the painting during a visit to Leo Castelli’s gallery in New York he was struck by the striking beauty of such a pared-down image, an aesthetic that would become important in much of Ruscha’s early work.
In some ways, there are parallels between Warhol and Ruscha’s artistic beginnings. Both pursued early careers as commercial artists before turning to “high” art in order to satisfy their creativity, finding inspiration in the explosion of commercial imagery they saw around them. “Ruscha has often recounted his early fascination with commercial art and a parallel frustration with painting. Initially Rushca’s work as a commercial artist simply outweighed any compulsion to paint. In time he recoiled his doubt, conjoining his interest in vernacular imagery, typography, book design, filmmaking, and photo-documentary work with an emerging desire to paint. Paradoxically it was his work in a wide variety of non-traditional media, and a distrust of the career path of a painter, that enabled Ruscha to overcome his uncertainty and freed him to create paintings of striking originality” (N. Benezra, “Ed Ruscha, Painting and Artistic License,” Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington. D.C., 2000, p. 145).
Ruscha first began to include text in his paintings in the late 1950s when he discovered the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg while studying at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, and his first major paintings combined his interest in the strict formalism of printed material with the freedom he found in painting. These early works mainly consisted of hand-painted typography, ranging from crisp renderings of well-known logos, such as Actual Size and Annie, to more painterly interpretations of street signage spotted on a trip to Europe including Metropolitan, a 1961 painting based on the iconic Art Nouveau typography of the Paris subway, and Boulangerie, a thickly impastoed painting that mimics the crusty surface of a freshly baked loaf of bread. By 1962, he began to produce work on a much larger scale, producing a series of paintings which eschewed the brushy nature of his previous work in favor of vast expanses filled with more emphatic monosyllabic words, such as that featured in the present work. This imposing scale would soon morph effortlessly into his iconic large-scale paintings inspired by gas stations and advertising billboards such as Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963.
Given his developing visual aesthetic, curators and critics alike were keen to associate Ruscha with the burgeoning Pop Art scene, but the artist was hesitant, insisting that he was more closely aligned to the tradition of painting than perhaps the subject matter of his paintings suggested. “The term Pop Art made me nervous and ambivalent,” he said. “…It actually goes beyond painting. It was culture, and it was so many other modes of making art. …A Pop artist can be anyone who has thrown over a recent set of values” (E. Rusha, quoted by N. Benezra (ed.), Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 150). A chance meeting with Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in late 1963 would send Ruscha off in a different direction, transforming combinations of materials that were regarded as taboo and continuing a tradition of innovation that would become the hallmark of his long career.
Many of the artists Ruscha admired, such as Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Duchamp, laced their art with a strong sense of wit, which also became one of the hallmarks of Ruscha’s own oeuvre. “Absurdity and paradox had real meaning for me as an artist,” Ruscha has tellingly divulged. Such is the tone of one of his most notorious compositions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (Hirshhorn Museum), which shares important connections to its fiery predecessor, Burning Gas Sation, as well as the 1964 book that Ruscha produced titled Various Small Fires and Milk. After viewing the new building from a helicopter, Ruscha recounted, “I knew at the time that I started the picture that I was going to assault that building somehow” (E. Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal, Cambridge, 2002, p. 45). Both paintings take subjects that have hallowed cultural associations and send them up in flames—in the case of Burning Gas Station, one of Edward Hopper’s quiet meditations on the modernism of America seems to have suddenly combusted.
Ed Ruscha’s paintings from the early 1960s stand at a pivotal point in the history of art as the tradition of painting fought to maintain its relevance in light of the beginnings of the nascent Pop movement. In work’s such as Smash, Ruscha successfully straddles both, connecting the painterly tradition to the new contemporary culture of advertising and mass-media. Unbeknownst at the time, this culture would spread beyond the United States. Artists such as Ruscha, Warhol and Lichtenstein not only became the messenger, their works would also form part of the message, part of the universal language of art that reigned for much of the rest of the century.