Miracle #64 is a large pastel drawing on heavyweight paper. It depicts a bright beam of light entering a dark space from above, its source unknown. The radiating light divides and illuminates the mysterious, seemingly empty space of the drawing. The beam is rendered using yellow pastel and zinc oxide, a whitening pigment. The shaft travels down the paper on a slight diagonal, dispersing its yellow and white light across the murky black background. This background, which covers most of the paper surface, never achieves total opacity. Even in the furthest corners of the page, where the central light shaft does not appear to penetrate, the pastel coats the paper surface so that its original white state gives a shimmering luminosity beneath the layering of dark pigment. The beam is composed of a series of vertical slashes of yellow and white, which move from fairly solid bands to hazy areas of tonal gradations, dissolving into black. Unlike other drawings by Ruscha of this period there is no border to contain the image; instead the pastel medium is worked right to the edge of the paper, creating the impression of a boundless, infinite space.
The diffuse quality of the pastel application eliminates decisive graphic boundaries and contouring: in effect there is no linear element to the drawing style. Rather, it relies on a soft blending technique, the pastel rubbed into the slightly textured fabric of the paper, conveying the impression of particles of light floating through air with nothing solid to bounce off or reflect against. Miracle #64 belongs to a group of eight Miracle drawings Ruscha produced in the mid-1970s. These works are unusual in relation to the artist’s drawing practice of that time in that they are purely visual images, with no textual component. This contrasts with Ruscha’s ‘catch-phrase’ drawings (Tate AR00051 and AR00053–AR00059), which depict vernacular phrases in stencilled lettering against coloured backgrounds.
As an image, Miracle #64 tends towards the cinematic, layering suggestions of a film projector beam and the chiaroscuro space of 1940s film noir. Ruscha has stated that during his time as a student at the Chouinard Art Institute in the late 1950s he ‘became aware of the art of the movies. I would forget the story but remember the emotion’ (Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.11). This early encounter with the emotional impact of Hollywood pictures had a long-lasting impact upon the artist’s work. Rather than tying his interest in cinema to a particular film or storyline, the cinematic becomes a pervasive mood that links many disparate entities. The artist has considered this aspect of his work: ‘“Hollywood dreams” – I mean, think about it. Close your eyes and what does it mean, visually? It means a ray of light, actually, to me, rather than a success story.’ (Ibid., p.221.)
The Miracle drawings also relate to a 35mm film made by Ruscha in 1975, also titled Miracle. The plot concerns a car mechanic; during the course of the short film, the grubby, oil-smeared overalls he wears are gradually transformed into a gleaming white version. This transition from dirtiness to sparkling cleanliness echoes the illumination of the beam in the drawing, opening up the darkened space to a cleansing light. Ruscha has commented on the Miracle film that: ‘It’s more like a blend and I like blends of things. The blend of things between one thing and another to me is like incompetency and almost a spiritual success, and all the blendings between, that’s my film, that’s “miracle”.’ (Ibid., p.81.) Blending is a crucial part of the application of pastel, and the artist’s use of the word ‘spiritual’ is telling. In addition to the filmic references, a beam of light is often associated with religious miracle, a link to the work’s title. A sense of mystery pervades the drawing. The artist, who was raised as a Catholic, has said: ‘There is a connection with my work and my experience with religious icons: the stations of the cross and the Church. Some of the flavours come over, like incense used in the Church, benediction … I liked the ritual. I liked the priest’s vestments – there was a deep mysterious thing that affected me.’ (Ibid., p.99.)
The visual motif of Miracle #64 reappears twenty years later in Ruscha’s Painting Without Words 1997 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), a twenty-six foot tall painting also of a vertical shaft of light, painted in acrylic on canvas (reproduced in Richards 2008, p.120). In a sketchbook page from 1997, the artist notes some preliminary ideas for this painting. At the very bottom of the page, a sentence reads: ‘I want a picture that is figurative but ageless’ (Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.346). In its duality of filmic and religious connotations, this description is equally applicable to Miracle #64.
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.34.
Edward Ruscha and Alexandra Schwartz (eds.), Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2002.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008, repr. p.121.