This drawing comprises a seven-word phrase that slightly, but significantly, expands upon the work’s four-word title. The text ‘SOME PRETTY EYES AND SOME ELECTRIC BILLS’ is arranged over three centred lines of three, then one, then three words, in the top half of the horizontally aligned sheet of paper. The neat letters display the untouched, off-white colour of the paper and are surrounded by a bright blue pastel background. These letters were not outlined by hand but were positioned on the paper using acetate stencils in the sans serif typeface. Once these inverse stencils were in place, the powdery pastel background 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 particles of blue pastel. A fixative was then applied to maintain the crisp division between the text and the 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. This mechanical severity is then purposefully undermined by the sensuous application of pastel, a traditional medium of fine art, together with its hazy blue colour which brings to mind a bright sunny sky and the drawing’s horizontal format which also has a landscape association.
In this drawing, the juxtaposition of the phrases ‘PRETTY EYES’ and ‘ELECTRIC BILLS’ is incongruous; the first conjures romantic and evocative images while the second makes reference to a mundane chore. The artist has explained his own view of this drawing, stating: ‘Pretty Eyes, Electric Bills is my way of separating two subjects that are on the far end of the world from each other. This somehow gets to be the reason that I want to make a work of art of this discord.’ (Quoted in d’Offay 2009, p.80.)
These disparate statements are linked by the repetition of the word ‘some’ that precedes both phrases. As a qualifier, it is imprecise and vague – it does not reveal if these ‘pretty eyes’ belong to more than one person and it does not tell the viewer precisely how many ‘electric bills’ there are. As Ruscha himself has said, ‘I’ve always had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things that cannot be explained. Explanations seem to me to sort of finish things off’ (Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.305). Accepting the mystery of this dual statement is therefore paramount. The viewer can never hope to know for certain what it means: in all likelihood, there is no specific meaning, or only a very personal or anecdotal one.
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 PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS, ‘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 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.’ (Anthony d’Offay Gallery 1998, p.33.) By maintaining this duality of material and concept, Ruscha’s words both engage with and escape linguistic signification, toying with the absurdity of language.
Likening the space of Ruscha’s word drawings to the endless landscapes of the western United States, the curator Neville Wakefield has commented: ‘The semaphore of fragmented messages that appear, disappear, and reappear across these deserted fields are drawn from the collective memory bank of songs, advertisements, billboards, brand names, platitudes, and the other disembodied voices that make up the langue trouvé of the motile world.’ (Ibid., p.28.) This suggests that the juxtaposition of the two unrelated phrases in PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS is a fleeting occurrence that has no concrete or long-lasting meaning. The phrases may have just landed there, beside each other, in the vast imaginative space of Ruscha’s abstract field of colour.
Ed Ruscha: New Paintings and a Retrospective of the Works on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1998.
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.
Anthony d’Offay and others, ‘Me, You, Us: Anthony d’Offay and others on ARTIST ROOMS’, TATE ETC., no.16, Summer 2009, pp.74–81.