Ed Ruscha, 'I'm Amazed' (from 14 big prints), 1971. Screenprint, Edition of 100. 101.6 x 152.4 cms (40 x 60 ins). Print and printmaking has been as integral to the career of American artist Ed Ruscha as painting; the Los Angeleno and Honorary Royal Academician developed his obsession with the appearance of words while working as a typesetter at an advertising agency in the 1960s, and he has long produced books, book art, screenprints and lithographs alongside canvases.
A new show at Bernard Jacobsen Gallery,
on Cork Street behind the Royal Academy, brings together a wide range of his graphic output, which ranges from works that adeptly represent physical things (insects, gas stations, a dish) to those that that represent words less as conventional texts and more as ‘word images’: pictures of words where the formal, aesthetic qualities of the letters are to forefront.
Ed Ruscha, 'Pepto - Caviar Hollywood' (pale beige), 1971. Lithograph, Edition 50. 37.5 x 107 cms (14 3/4 x 42 ins).
Landscape is a common preoccupation in these prints. The three letters of screenprint Raw (1971) are shown from an aerial perspective, while the serif letters of lithographs Etc., IF and Question & Answer (all 1991) stand out proudly from a horizon line like oak trees. Ruscha’s longstanding love of signs – words as sculptures – is also in evidence in works like the two-tone Pepto – Caviar Hollywood (1970), where the famous Hollywood sign is stripped of its heroism, sitting almost nestled in the flat landscape.
Ed Ruscha, 'If', 1991. Lithograph, Edition of 50. 38.1 x 45.7 cms (15 x 18 ins). The artist treats words like readymades, found objects to be shown in new ways, denuded of their previous meanings. He has explained that he likes to make “them official, glorifying them, putting them on stage.’ If these words are on stage, we continue to typecast them as actors – we can’t help but bring our past understandings of their characters to bear on their present representations. For example, the word ‘lisp’, whose letters are formed by spilled liquid in a lithograph of 1970, carries associations of the wet mouth, and one imagines the liquid might be saliva. But Ruscha parodies these associations with which we approach words with the screenprint Evil (1973), where thick black dominate from a ground of bright red.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine