This is a drawing comprising the words ‘ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES”’ in white against a red and orange coloured ground. These 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, so that the white paper would show through in places to create an impression of diffuse light behind the particles of red and orange pastel. 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.
The pastel background evokes a low, intense sunset, a charred sky of subtle gradations. This relates to what the writer Diedrich Diederichsen has termed Ruscha’s ‘various implicit possibilities’ in his backgrounds, particularly ‘when he fashions the background with “pictorial” means such as mixtures of deliberately graduated colours, so as to convey the Californian clichés of light, sun and leisure’ (Diederichsen 2000, p.8). Through an abstract colour-field technique, Ruscha creates a surface that is indelibly linked to a romantic, evocative image of California and its bountiful pleasures. The horizontal format further strengthens this association, but it is held in check by the graphic lettering technique. As the curator Margit Rowell has noted: ‘It is only around 1973 that Ruscha’s work developed toward a landscape conceit. The drawings are larger and feature pale block letters on a colored ground. The style of the lettering is clean and anonymous, with no relief or shading, and no oblique slants.’ (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.19.)
Ruscha worked as a layout artist at a Los Angeles advertising agency after graduating from the Chouinard Art Institute in 1960, becoming the production designer for the influential Artforum magazine during 1965–9, under the pseudonym Eddie Russia. As the writer Mary Richards notes of works such as ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES”: ‘Legible and authoritative like painted signs, these statements look bold and factual even when the phrases are kooky.’ (Richards 2008, p.71.) This intentional mixing of visual authority with verbal jokiness is a key characteristic of Ruscha’s ‘catch-phrase’ drawings dating from the late 1970s, of which ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES” is one example among many in ARTIST ROOMS (Tate AR00053–AR00059). 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 drawing forms a pair with ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS 1976 (Tate AR00056), and together they allude to conceptual art’s undoing of traditional artistic and technical categories. Ruscha’s delicate pastel drawing seems retrograde in comparison with 1970s conceptualism’s emphasis on photographic documentation and written instruction and observation, and yet the drawing’s title statement suggests a potentially ambivalent relationship towards materiality and artistic process. Noting the self-reflexive and critical tone of this drawing, the curator Cornelia Butler declares ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES” to be an example ‘of Ruscha’s distanced stance vis-à-vis movements, isms, and the ongoing attempts to categorize his work’ (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.34). By referring to a vague category of making, Ruscha appears to mock the desire to pigeonhole artists and define their output. The quotation marks around ‘pieces’ further attest to the slippery nature of definition, isolating and questioning the language of the art world and the danger of it degenerating into meaningless generalisation.
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.
Diedrich Diederichsen, ‘I Think She Did Have to Do That’, in Ed Ruscha: Gunpowder and Stains, exhibition catalogue, Sprüth Magers Galerie, Munich 2000, pp.7–10.
Margit Rowell and Cornelia Butler, Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: the Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2004.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008, repr. p.7