Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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8 / Writing

Artist / Origin Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937)
Region: North America
Date 1962, reworked 1963
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 71 ½ in. (181.6 cm.), W: 67 in. (170.1 cm.)
Location The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Credit © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo courtesy of Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Sylvia WolfDirector of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle


» Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937)

expert perspective

Sylvia Wolf Sylvia Wolf Director of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle

When Ed Ruscha was a boy he was fascinated with cartoons, he drew cartoons. Dick Tracy was one of his favorite comic books. And so typography and how, not just the words and what they mean, but how they look and how they are structured graphically, have long been very important for him.

A number of the conceptualists who were working in the sixties and seventies were asking questions about where does the idea begin. And is art the idea? If you think about Conceptualism as a form of art that privileges the idea more so than the form—more than the aesthetic form, I would say—that is a period that is very rich in visual arts that utilize words. We could go decade by decade and trace from Futurism, where the words did have meaning, to Dada, where the nonsensical nature of words was the meaning of the use of the words. I think the excerpt and the abstraction is a key part of this. If an artist takes a word, like Ruscha, and puts it away from any reference to a text or meaning, and paints it on a canvas, what does it mean?

If we think about how easily we utilize vocabulary for the written word to describe visual arts, we talk about a vocabulary in painting, we talk about form and shape and meaning and content and all kinds of things that we would normally associate with information-based systems—language-based systems. And I think one of the things that has become quite clear and even more characteristic of the twentieth century is this idea of pictures and words as being systems—language as a system, action as a way of making art, language as instruction. So the art is a compilation of all of these things. How can you not stand in front of that painting, how can you not say ‘oof?’ O-O-F. It’s the ‘huh?’ factor that Ed Ruscha is looking for. If people look at it and they can’t quite figure out what’s this about and what am I supposed to make of it, then he feels that he has succeeded.” 


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