Q&A with American artist Ed Ruscha

by Natalia Ciolko

When my dad visited recently, I placed Ed Ruscha's retrospective (called "I Don't Want No Retrospective") within reach of the toilet.

He went in, emerged what seemed hours later, and handed the book back to me with a grunt. I asked him what he'd thought.

"More of that pop art shit."

But is this pop? Ed Ruscha, the painter and printmaker, is often mentioned in the same breath as artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, but his work departs from theirs in its lack of agenda. While their work implies a conversation with the society at large, Ruscha always seems in conversation with himself. As he's said in interviews, "if you work for yourself the audience will take care of itself."

His series of 26 Gasoline Stations draws parallels to the Beat movement of the 1960s, as the interstate highway became an icon of wandering discovery and freedom. Ruscha's own journey between his Oklahoma City origins to and from Los Angeles were the source of the images, and a sense of openness and emptiness still defines his work.

His prints and paintings, which often use text as the focus, are cool in execution but loaded with meaning, different for each who looks upon it. The visual impact of the letterforms is as important as the words' they create, forcing multiple readings of the paintings. They're as frustratingly enigmatic as the man himself, which is what keeps you coming back. (After reading a volume of his interviews, you're left with more questions than answers.)

Ruscha was well-known by his mid-twenties, and has always relished the artistic "freedom to insult people or assault people," yet never resorts to spectacle. A fan of chili, country music and open spaces, Ruscha acts more the lonesome cowboy than L.A. art star. Today he works in a Venice Beach studio, with over 30 works sitting in Museum of Contemporary Art's permanent collection.

Ruscha is speaking tonight on the topics of his life and work at the Harry Ransom Center at 7 p.m., and doors will open 30 minutes in advance. Below is a Q&A with the artist, in a rare display of artistic cooperation.

Q&A

You once said "success means death," a surprising remark for a Walt Disney fan. How do you feel about success now?

That is a drastic thing to say. Did I actually say that? Nevertheless, I think success can bite or not bite – the latter being much better. We know one thing – it’s an illusion.

Was there ever an art form you couldn't conquer, or never cared to try?

I never cared to try sculpture but often thought that even flat paper and books and paintings are still 3-dimensional – so that makes them sculpture.

Is there a book idea on your mind now, and will you tell us about it?

I’ve had a long-standing dream to make a book out of the novel “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac – maybe some day.

What are you working on? Reading? Listening to?

Am always painting, drawing. Reading the Life of Edgar Allen Poe and listening to blue singer Sleepy John Estes.

If you would, tell us a scene from your first teaching job in 1969.

I taught for one year at UCLA and regretted the time away from my studio. I envied people who could teach art and finally, the best students seemed to be the skeptics.

What's your personal motto?

Do unto others as……..no kidding!

Do you like to cook, and what's your best dish?

I cook chili – recipe enclosed.

What's your studio's #1 rule?

#1 rule is that there are no rules

What advice to student artists would you offer?

Be influenced by things you don’t like.

Ed Ruscha's Chili Recipe

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Article originally published in The Daily Texan, February 2009