Having forged a name for himself in the fires of mid-20th century American art, Ed Ruscha is one of the most recognizable artists working today. Though his paintings, photographs, and artist books are purposefully rendered as detached and self-assured, works such as Dear Friend combine text and image in a manner that confronts the viewer, pulls them in, and leaves them scrambling for more. “Usually in my paintings,” notes the artist, “I’m creating some sort of disorder between the different elements and avoiding the recognizable aspect of living things by painting words. I like the feeling of an enormous pressure in a painting” (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York 2003, p. 241). Executed the same year as a major travelling exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and only a year prior to a painting retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art, Dear Friend came at a particularly active time for Ruscha and expanded on his use of appropriated imagery and blunt wordplay. In his deft use of sardonic wit coupled with a cultivated California cool, Ruscha influenced artists like Lawrence Weiner and Bruce Nauman who were also breaking from the Abstract Expressionist tendency during the late 20th century. Marking the transitory space between Pop and Conceptual art, Ruscha’s oeuvre is strikingly individual and has had a far-reaching impact on countless generations of younger artists.
Dear Friend pairs bold, capitalized text with an evocative, ethereal background imagery that the artist often gleaned from found photographs or other sources of print imagery. Emblazoned in his trademark typeface, Boy Scout Utility Modern (which Ruscha began using with fervor in 1980), the words “A DEAR FRIEND OF MANY PEOPLE” rips across a photorealistic blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. The words “A” and “OF” are rendered slightly smaller, and the whole phrase is justified center. The whiteness of the words fades into each wisp of cloud, blurring the divide between background and foreground—the artist inserting his chosen phrase into the image like a title screen film still. The link to movie production is telling as Ruscha has often referenced the Hollywood sign and various film production companies throughout his career as he has lived and worked in the motion picture hotbed of Los Angeles since the 1950s. Ruscha’s oeuvre is full of images of mountains, windows, skies, signs, and various other backdrops that play host to his boldly detached phrases. Sometimes the words will connect to the image in a way that enhances one or both, but other times the viewer is left to wonder with their questions unanswered. Kerry Brougher once noted, “Ruscha’s words hover between the flat, transversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting” (K. Brougher, Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2000, p. 161). Both part of the atmosphere and hovering just in front of the picture plane, the text in Dear Friend creates an uneasy divide between the illusionistic space of the cloudy sky and the information contained in the spirited script.
Ruscha’s use of photographic sources, expanded and blurred like an out-of-focus projection, have visual similarities to the earlier blurred photographic paintings of Gerhard Richter, but with a particularly American turn. Rendered in color and enlarged far beyond their original sources, Ruscha’s images have a distinctly anonymous air to them. A dark skyline taken from a plane, the Hollywood sign in the distance, a mountain that has more in common with the Paramount logo than Caspar David Friedrich or National Geographic, or the archetypal sky of works like Dear Friend all serve as instantly recognizable but generalized backdrops for the artist’s obtuse phrasings. “A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words … I have a background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks” (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York, 2003, p. 239). Acting as a substructure for the words, each image is both seen and forgotten at the same time. Within this carefully constructed dichotomy Ruscha asks us to question not just his pairings but those we see in our everyday lives on billboards, advertisements, newspapers and mass media. The artist has been coy about his sources, and once told Calvin Tomkins, “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again” (E. Ruscha quoted in, C. Tomkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.,” The New Yorker, July 1, 2013). The idea that letters and phrases can become something more than just information is at the heart of Ruscha’s text paintings, and is a major reason why these works hold such gravity in a society where we are consistently inundated with the written word.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha studied in Oklahoma City before moving to Los Angeles in 1956. Having shown an interest in Surrealism early on, he was nevertheless entranced by the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and started making small collages in that vein. He rose to prominence as his works began to employ combinations of words and images that he repurposed from daily life. One of a number of California artists to rise to prominence during the rise of both Pop Art and Conceptual art, Ruscha was included in the landmark 1962 exhibition New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum (later renamed the Pasadena Museum of California Art) alongside some of the progenitors of Pop like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud and Jim Dine. Curated by Walter Hopps, this exhibition cemented Ruscha’s first solo exhibition at Hopps’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles the following year. Given this initial start in the realm of Pop, Ruscha has nevertheless detached himself from the label in favor of his own investigation into text and image culture. Some of the artist’s phrases are culled from popular culture while others appear to be fabricated phrases that he pulls from his daily life. About his lexicon, Ruscha noted, “Some [words] are found, ready-made, some are dreams, some come from newspapers. They are finished by blind faith. No matter if I’ve seen it on television or read it in the newspaper, my mind seems to wrap itself around that thing until it’s done” (E. Ruscha, quoted in an interview with J. Sterbak “Premeditated: An Interview with Ed Ruscha,” Real Life Magazine, Summer 1985). Rather than champion the images of consumer society or mass media, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, respectively, Ruscha is interested in how we as viewers interact with the conjoinment of words and images. Why do certain combinations make sense? Why do others appear standoffish? Works like Dear Friend marry two seemingly recognizable elements in order to question the nature of visual information in society.