In this drawing, the words ‘DIRTY BABY’ stand out in large grey capital letters against a black ground. Ruscha created the words by carefully drawing and contouring individual letters rather than by using stencils, making this work unique within his group of ‘catch-phrase’ drawings dating from the late 1970s in ARTIST ROOMS (Tate AR00053–AR00059). Centrally aligned on the page, the outlines of the letters are slightly irregular, as if each one had been cut by hand from an undulating piece of paper and placed against a matte background (Marshall 2003, p.162). Each letter was drawn on the page in graphite, before black acrylic emulsion was painted around them, covering the entire background. This layer of emulsion is thick and impenetrable, with no visible brushstrokes. The drawing’s dense background is balanced by the lightness of Ruscha’s touch within the lettering. Black pastel is applied in smudges to create rippling shadows inside the letters, making them a patchy, smoky grey. The letters therefore appear to be ‘dirty’ like the ‘baby’ of the title. The slight illusion of three-dimensionality is the result of the artist’s precise draughtsmanship which paradoxically leaves almost no trace of his hand. This work is reminiscent of Ruscha’s ‘cut paper’ single word drawings in gunpowder produced in the 1960s (Richards 2008, pp.44–5), which similarly evoke the historical technique of trompe l’oeil, literally ‘to trick the eye’, with skilled shading, light effects and the conjuring of three-dimensions from a flat paper surface.
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 DIRTY BABY, ‘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.) By maintaining a duality of material and concept, Ruscha’s words both engage with and escape concrete signification, constantly toying with the absurdity of language.
Unlike the impersonal, style-free uniformity of text in such drawings as MAD SCIENTIST 1975 (Tate AR00053) which aped efficient graphic design, in DIRTY BABY the appearance of the two words is given the intense care and attention seen in movie title designs from the golden age of Hollywood. In the 1930s and 1940s, film titles presented audiences with elaborate hand-drawn lettering and fonts, the style of which would visually anticipate the mood of the picture to follow. Likewise, the letters of DIRTY BABY correspond to the potentially sexual meaning of the two-word phrase in their ‘dirty’ appearance, reinforcing the phrase’s status as slang or vernacular. The anachronistic reference to the cinema of forty years earlier underscores Ruscha’s deep entanglement with the myth and allure of Hollywood and its past, as well as its role in the development of language and social mores. The artist’s particular interest in the role of text in film is also seen in his ongoing series from the 1990s and 2000s that depicts the phrase ‘The End’ (for example, The End #1 1993, Tate T07512) as if seen on the film screen. These works have a similarly outmoded filmic resonance, with the use of Gothic style fonts and marks approximating scratches on the film stock: another marker of age and deterioration.
Writing about Ruscha’s drawings, including DIRTY BABY, the curator Margit Rowell notes: ‘The word “narrative” seems appropriate here, in that these phrases, compared with single generic words, are more charged with content. They reflect the social context in which Ruscha’s generation came of age. They ring of the youth culture of the fifties and sixties, of its sexuality.’ (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.21.) Ruscha’s drawing is deeply suggestive in its combination of sexual connotations, narrative overtones and the sweep of cinematic history, coupled with the evocation of danger through the use of the colour black.
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.39.
Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London and New York 2003, p.162, repr. p.174.
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, p.21, repr. p.183.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008.