This work will be included in the forthcoming Ed Ruscha catalogue raisoneé volume I being prepared by Pat Poncy as archive number P1962.21.
Painted in 1962, War Surplus ranks as one of Ruscha's first truly revolutionary word paintings. Transplanted from a worn and paint-peeled shop sign advertising army surplus material, Ruscha takes two words and through their monumental and dislocated placement against a dark blue field, he creates a dramatic image that resonates with meaning and memory. But Ruscha seems half-serious in his intentions. On one level the central position of the word "War", written in "Army-Navy" serif typography and blazing large in yellow, speaks of patriotic bravado, boyish optimism and axle-grease masculinity. The viewer takes in this bold statement as though it was a blaring front-page headline. It is only then that the eye moves to the bottom of the canvas to read the smaller word "Surplus". The subtle distance between the words creates a moment of delay in cognizance. Suddenly there is a slippage in language as each word is read separately. "War". "Surplus". What was at first a proclamation of proud aggression is suddenly undermined and an anti-war sentiment, criticizing the extent of American Imperialism, becomes the predominant thought. The simplicity of this bold conceit makes the effect even more direct and impressive.
Ruscha's clever word play is reminiscent of the work of Marcel Duchamp, famous for his delicious puns and intellectual mind games. Duchamp was the patron saint of the Pop artists. His cool anti-art stance and dry humor provided a blueprint for the radical young generation emerging in the late 1950s and 60s. His invention of "ready-mades", found objects that he had declared as art works, had a huge influence on artists like Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Ruscha. It allowed them to find a new direction away from the heavy legacy of Abstract Expressionism, one that was more relevant to the concerns of their day. Just as Duchamp once took an advertisement sign for soap and adapted its lettering to make a pun, so Ruscha borrows "found" words from a sign to make his ready-made imagery.
Ruscha has stated, "Vital art is made out of things that the general population has overlooked. The things that are forgotten and thrown away are the things that eventually come around and cry for attention. The artist sees the possibilities in things that are overlooked. Seeing the electric vibrancy in something that is so dead. The forgotten things are a source for food" (E. Ruscha cited in K. Brougher, "Words as Landscape", Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum, 2000, p. 161).
Ruscha copies the war surplus sign faithfully, even mimicking the distressed condition of the paintwork by illusionist means. Whereas similarly early Ruscha pictures like Smash, Noise or Talk about Space present large lettering floating against a plain monochrome background, the deliberately agitated surface of War Surplus, covered with trompe l'oeil scuffs and white flecks, destroys any illusion of depth in the picture. In this sense, Ruscha had been inspired by Jasper Johns, whose Target with Four Faces, 1955, he had greatly admired. It was the deliberate flatness of Johns' Targets and their real relationship to the picture plane which influenced Ruscha in War Surplus, as well as the fact that Johns had selected existing objects and images and transformed them, enriching them by removing their original context and lavishing attention on them.
The found War surplus sign itself may have prompted Ruscha's choice of a "war" subject for his picture. However, its simultaneous message of pro-and anti- sentiment certainly mirrored the concerns of Ruscha's contemporaries, living under the threat of Cold War annihilation and being part of a growing liberal counter-society that championed the freedom represented in Jack Kerouac's On the Road and the music of Bob Dylan. Faith in military supremacy had long been eroded, especially after such blunders as "The Bay of Pigs". Andy Warhol's Red Explosion (Atomic Bomb), 1963, a repeated image of a red mushroom cloud, elicits the horror that was felt by the population. Similarly, Bruce Nauman's War, a neon sculpture that alternately flashes the words war/raw and therefore shares the same linguistic twist as War Surplus, demonstrates a powerful sentiment against the prevailing establishment.
Ruscha's War Surplus also has its place next to Lichtenstein's war-comic series, which characterize a more sensational side to military conflict. Lichtenstein's exploding planes and tank attacks present the romance of war as fought by GI-Joe or John Wayne. Ruscha's choice of army typography for War Surplus gives added weight and meaning to the words and creates in the mind a sense of nostalgia. We hear the words as much as see them. The yellow is so visually loud against the blue ground that you can almost hear the sound of the bugle or the marching band as the boys go off to glory.
Although he grew up in Oklahoma City, Ruscha is seen as the quintessential L.A. artist. In many ways, just as War Surplus appears to encapsulate so many of the directions and ideas that Ruscha would explore throughout his career, so the message of this picture seems even more in tune with the flower-power reactionaries of Berkeley and other hippie reformers of the late 1960s. Jeffrey Deitch has discussed Ruscha's social commentary: "Ed tuned in to a particularly contemporary kind of consciousness, a mode of thinking that would not really have been possible until the late 1950s or 1960s. It is the state of mind of someone driving in a car in a sort of automatic pilot mode, a kind of meditation in which street signs, billboards, palm trees, apartment houses, etc., loom in and out of consciousness with a neutral evenness of impact. This is a mode of consciousness that may have first emerged in Los Angeles, but with the globalization of California culture, it is something that is experienced world-wide. This state of mind is comparable to the television viewer's stupor, another semi-meditative state in which words and images float on and off the screen as the words float over the surface of Edward Ruscha's paintings" (J. Deitch, Edward Ruscha: Early Paintings, exh. cat., Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1988, n.p.).
Fig. 1 Roy Lichtenstein, Live Ammo, 1962
c Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Fig. 2 Bruce Nauman