SMELLS LIKE BACK OF OLD HOT RADIO comprises the title words in white against a brown background arranged across three centred lines of bold, capitalised lettering, widely spaced apart on the paper surface. The neat letters display the untouched colour of the paper and are surrounded by dull brown pastel. The letters were not outlined by hand but were positioned on the paper with preparatory pencil markings before acetate stencils, in the sans serif typeface, were laid on the paper. Once these inverse stencils were in place, the powdery pastel was rubbed into the paper by hand and with rags. A fixative was then applied to maintain the crisp division between the text and the background. After this process was completed the acetate stencils were peeled back to reveal the bare, white paper surface of the individual letters, completing the drawing. In his reliance upon the technical aids of graphic design, Ed Ruscha subverts the common understanding of drawing as a medium of creative skill and self-expression. This drawing looks more like a printed reproduction than a unique creation of the artist’s hand. The flatness of the visual field, the floating text and banal 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 SMELLS LIKE BACK OF OLD HOT RADIO, ‘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 AR00053AR00059). 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.

Unlike many of the other ‘catch-phrase’ drawings, this work’s title phrase evokes not only a visual memory or association but also an olfactory experience. The artist has explained:

SMELLS LIKE BACK OF OLD HOT RADIO is based on a childhood experience: the aroma of a wooden-cased radio that has been turned on for an hour or so. It’s the declaration of a simple smell – the hot tubes within the radio mixing with the oils in the wood. Takes me back.
(Quoted in d’Offay 2009, p.80.)

This is reinforced by the dark and dull brown pastel Ruscha used for the background. It suggests the colour of an old radio, but it also registers as something burnt, a surface that through many years of use has been repeatedly overheated and charred. Across this coloured surface, the dust particles of the pastel medium are visible on the paper. It is not a uniform finish – in some areas more of the white paper shows through, creating a patchy, irregular tone, densely worked and yet somehow still preliminary.

The overlapping and confusion of senses is taken even further when Ruscha’s concept of ‘visual noise’ is considered. Sight, sound and smell are all permitted to interact, producing a space of experimentation and visual playfulness within the drawing. The artist has said:

I guess the idea of noise, of visual noise, somehow meant something to me, and still means something to me. The idea that you can say a lot in a small given area somehow has always intrigued me, and this seems to be one of the principal guidelines in my work. I never forget that I have a given space in which to make noise, or lose sight of the idea that it is going to echo whatever I feel.
(Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.301.)

Further reading
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.40.
Edward Ruscha and Alexandra Schwartz (eds.), Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, 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., issue 16, Summer 2009, pp.74–81.

Stephanie Straine
March 2010