The white words ‘ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS’ stand out against an intensely dark black pastel background, giving this drawing a stark appearance. The letters were not outlined by hand but were positioned on the white paper using acetate stencils in the sans serif typeface. Once these inverse stencils were in place, the powdery pastel was rubbed into the paper by hand and with rags to achieve a dense but smooth finish. A fixative was then applied to maintain the crisp division between text and background, before the acetate stencils were peeled back to reveal the bare, white paper surface of the individual letters. In his reliance upon the technical aids of graphic design, Ruscha subverts the common understanding of drawing as a medium of creative skill and self-expression. This mechanical efficiency echoes the subject matter of the drawing: artists producing books of printed material in multiple editions, as opposed to creating unique works of art.
Ruscha worked as a layout artist at a Los Angeles advertising agency after graduating in fine art from the Chouinard Art Institute in 1960, becoming the production designer for the influential Artforum magazine from 1965–9, under the pseudonym Eddie Russia. The writer Mary Richards has compared Ruscha’s earlier single word paintings and drawings, such as HONK 1962 (Tate AR00184), with his late 1970s group of ‘catch-phrase’ drawings, of which ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS is one example among many in ARTIST ROOMS (Tate AR00053–AR00059). She says of the ‘catch-phrase’ works: ‘each can be seen as a puzzle or teaser. No longer detached objects, these words are now contextualised in sentences; instead of looking at the patterns of letters, one has to think, read, digest and process.’ (Richards 2008, p.71.) These imperatives are also necessary to understand and interpret the photographic books of conceptual art, pointing to the similarities between the consumption of visual and textual information. In Ruscha’s work, units of information are measured and processed equally – the ‘catch-phrase’ drawings present a written statement in the expected place of a visual image.
In her essay, Richards goes on to state: ‘Legible and authoritative like painted signs, these statements look bold and factual even when the phrases are kooky.’ (Ibid., p.71.) This intentional mixing of visual authority with verbal jokiness is a key characteristic of the ‘catch-phrase’ drawings. These works build on Ruscha’s west-coast pop art style of the early 1960s which established his reputation, replacing the slick visual representations of everyday objects and LA architecture (for example, Standard Study #3 1963, Tate AR00050) with a precise focus on the imaginative potential of language, while retaining the artist’s trademark playful irony. The critic Dave Hickey has observed of these textual snippets: ‘Like the drawings themselves, these words are at once objects and ideas.’ (Hickey 1998, p.33.)
This phrase drawing is less enigmatic and playful than others in the group, in that it names a specific group of people and is without obvious humour or witticism. The drawing may seem anonymous and detached, but as the writer Richard Marshall explains: ‘In certain of his pastel word drawings, the phrase can be self-referential and contain allusions to actual things. ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS is an obvious reference to the artist’s own production of books.’ (Richards, p.161.) In the 1960s and early 1970s, Ruscha published sixteen books, including Every Building on the Sunset Strip 1966 (Tate Archive), a deadpan photographic project which became an icon for west-coast American conceptual art. The severely centred and monochromatic design scheme of ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS is a reference to the black and white photographic publishing output of Ruscha and his contemporaries, which was intended as a sort of non-style, devoid of artistic judgment. This drawing forms a pair with ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES” 1976 (Tate AR00057), and together they allude to conceptual art’s undoing of traditional artistic and technical categories.
Dave Hickey, ‘I Gotta Use Words When I Talk to You. Ed Ruscha’s Drawings’ in Ed Ruscha: New Paintings and a Retrospective of the Works on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1998, pp.33–7, repr. p.37.
Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London and New York 2003, p.161, repr. p.169.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008, repr. p.7.