DEC. 30th is a large work on white museum board created using acrylic spray paints and a custom-made stencil that forms a silhouette of the Hollywood sign perched on a hilltop. The image was created in two stages: firstly, fine black paint was sprayed over a stencil of the Hollywood sign on the lower part of the paper; then red and orange layers were sprayed to fill the upper part. This second paint coating also covers the stencilled sign image, leaving it blurry. The paint coverage is a fine mist of various sized paint particles, with some areas highly pigmented blends of red and yellow, evoking a sunset. Through this process, Ruscha produced a drawing which has no immediate relationship to the artist’s hand: both the paint application and the visual motif are mediated by the technical tools of the spray gun and the graphic stencil. As the curator Cornelia Butler has noted, Ruscha’s approach disrupts the fine art understanding of drawing as expressive mark-making, by employing the ‘cool masquerade of graphic design’ to challenge the received notion of drawing as an articulation of the artist’s thought processes and technical skill (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.28).
The dimensions of this work evoke the widescreen movie format, which elongates what is seen on screen, just as the sign’s lettering is stretched to a more elongated appearance. The sign is positioned at an oblique angle, as if the viewer is peering up at it, the final letters receding into the middle distance. Earlier in his career, Ruscha precisely duplicated the widescreen CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in the dimensions of certain canvases, such as the large painting Standard Station 1966 (reproduced in Richards 2008, p.24–5). The title, DEC. 30th, bears no obvious relationship to its subject matter, and perhaps refers to the particular day on which the drawing was executed.
The artist began to use the Hollywood sign in the late 1960s, in such works as the lithograph Hollywood 1969 (Tate P07716). In the lithograph, the sign is much smaller, and recedes in the opposite direction – from right to left – to that of the sign in DEC. 30th. It is a motif that the artist has returned to repeatedly, from small prints to an actual billboard erected in Los Angeles, testing the limits of its reproducibility and resistance to reversal, enlargement and other types of visual experimentation.
The writer Mary Richards has discussed some of the characteristics of DEC. 30th and related works, commenting that: ‘Ruscha has even “Hollywoodised” the Hollywood sign, that universal symbol of the glitz and glamour of the movie industry, by placing the letters of the Los Angeles landmark on the crest of a mountain rather than picturing them in their actual location halfway up Mount Lee.’ (Richards 2008, p.114.) Ruscha’s reworking of the recognisable symbol creates a dramatic compositional structure with a dynamic diagonal plane, that focuses on the silhouette of the sign perched perilously on an imagined mountaintop. The iconic sign was erected in 1923 to promote a real estate development, and was originally the longer ‘Hollywoodland’. In 1949 the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce removed the ‘land’, and the sign was co-opted fully by the film industry as a landscape-defining monument to its myths and dreams.
Filming a 1981 documentary on his work and its relationship to Los Angeles, the artist said of the iconic sign: ‘The idea of Hollywood has lots of meanings and one – to me – is this image of something fake up here being held up with sticks … I looked outside my window here and I saw the sign “Hollywood” and it became the subject matter for me. It only lasted for a while so the actual remnants of the sign are not even important to me.’ (Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.220.) Ruscha’s use of the sign as an image reveals the fragility of both its material structure and its mythic or symbolic content.
Edward Ruscha and Alexandra Schwartz (eds.), Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2002.
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.