MAD SCIENTIST depicts its two-word title in neat, centrally-aligned lettering. The letters display the untouched, off-white colour of the paper and are surrounded by a brightly coloured background of hazy pastel shades. 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 shows through in places to create an impression of diffuse light behind the 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 preparatory medium of creative skill and self-expression. The flatness of the visual field, the floating text and the abstract coloured background are strongly reminiscent of advertising or film title design – both examples of endlessly reproduced mass media.
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 MAD SCIENTIST, ‘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 group of ‘catch-phrase’ drawings dating from the late 1970s 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.) By maintaining this duality of material and concept, Ruscha’s words both engage with and escape linguistic signification, constantly toying with absurdity.
In the background, the softly blended areas of green, blue, yellow, orange and red pastel meet at the centre of the paper. The luminous colours are visually suggestive of the psychedelic counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, often associated with California and its free-spirited, relaxed way of life. In combination with this diaphanous, dusty and light-infused background, the phrase ‘MAD SCIENTIST’ is suggestive of a B-movie character from a science fiction caper, working obsessively in a laboratory in his tie-dye shirt. This juxtaposition of madness and humour is also seen in another of Ruscha’s catch-phrase drawings, I PLEAD INSANITY BECAUSE I’M JUST CRAZY ABOUT THAT LITTLE GIRL 1976 (Tate AR00053). The effect of the drawing is evocative rather than illustrative of any one idea; the work’s inherent ambiguity, provided by words and not pictures, prevents a definite conclusion, so that a filmic narrative is only hinted at.
Ruscha has lived and worked in Los Angeles since the age of eighteen. His artistic identity is intimately entwined with the city and its film industry. His work takes inspiration from the sprawling west coast metropolis and its role as producer of Hollywood myth and fantasy. Informed by the look, feel and sound of cinema, the image-free drawing MAD SCIENTIST evokes an array of filmic associations. Even the proportions of the paper connect to this preoccupation. The curator Margit Rowell has noted that in this group of drawings, ‘the almost universal format of nearly square rectangular sheets is … evocative of an illuminated movie screen. “If I’m influenced by the movies,” says Ruscha: “it’s from way down underneath, not just on the surface”’ (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.21).
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.33.
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.