"I've always been transfixed by the word city. I don't know what it is; I've just always liked it. It looks squeaky, well-packed; there's something about it. I've always felt somehow comfortable and warm around looking at the word printed someplace, not so much what it says or how it is pronounced or even what it means, not so much the fact that I like to live in big cities or anything; typographically it's so comfortable to me" (E. Ruscha quoted in U. Tosi, "An Unavoidable Coincidence," City of San Francisco, November 18, 1975, vol. 9, no. 19, pp. 27-31).
In City with Marbles, one of only three ribbon paintings created by Ed Ruscha, Ruscha presents a painted image of the word City orbited by two synchronized marbles at upper left and lower right; a miniature self-sustaining constellation of form independent from-yet surviving within-the earth's familiar atmosphere.
Like the Cubist painters Picasso and Braque, Ruscha brings text into a pictorial context. However, while the Cubists often used text to signify a flat pictorial space and to add additional clues to the specific objects within their still lives, Ruscha lets the text embody its own anthropomorphic physical properties.
As with the opening credits and title frame of a film, Ruscha's paintings foreshadow the themes and drama to be expected therein, but in City with Marbles the narrative is unclear. We are confronted by an absurd combination of image and text, a situation that is immediately uncomfortable as it fights our preconceived notions about painting. The work would be accepted quickly as graphic art yet befuddles the viewer as the representation of graphic art. Suddenly the language of the graphic artist becomes expressive in its new context. A master of formal composition, Ruscha sets up a dialectical relationship between the foreground and background of the picture by illustrating faint shadows cast by the ribbon forms flattening the two-tone background, a strategy that he uses throughout his career.
By the time this painting was created, the artist had made his home in Los Angeles, and the influence of the city's cinematic history is apparent. Like the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign, magical in its presence when lit at night in its earlier days, the subject here is also stage-lit with a light-source unseen in the picture and incongruous with the natural beauty of the rendered evening light. The lighting of the image/text is both artificial and ethereal providing the image with an almost spiritual presence. There is a promise hidden within the painting, the promise of a bright future, a thing so intangible yet so real, a fleeting moment, a fleeting thought. The personal nature of Ruscha's daydream vision is kept intact by the intimate scale of the work; City with Marbles speaks to our personal and cultural material and immaterial desires.