Show Review of Ed Ruscha: On the Road

Maddie Rupp
Show Review
25 April 2012

‘Ed Ruscha: On the Road’ at the Denver Art Museum

Rugged freedom, wild independence, and poetic self-realization.  Roaming, exploring, and experiencing.  The American West has captivated the fantasies of many generations of young people, artists and adventurers alike.  The Denver Art Museum’s recent exhibition, Ed Ruscha: On the Road, showcases the work of two artists who have hugely shaped the image of the West.  The show features Ed Ruscha’s 2009 collaged edition of Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road, including pages from the 2009 publication and a number of Ruscha’s signature text-style paintings.  The show highlights how both artists use text to chronicle the values and contradictions of their time- Ruscha is known for using text to comment on symbols of the American lifestyle, and Kerouac is known as one of the Beat Generation writers, whose work channeled the spirit of American youth in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Lastly, Ed Ruscha: On the Road reflects on how visual arts and literature can intertwine to capture the art that lies within experience.  Here, this is specifically the creative experience of being young and free.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a classic example of Beat literature, and it captured the spirit of a generation of young thinkers.  Through rhythmic storytelling, On the Road tells of Kerouac’s road trips throughout the United States and Mexico in the late 1940s.  It is autobiographical, but Kerouac changed his own name (as the protagonist, Sal) and the names of his friends within the book.  The five-part novel narrates stories of experiencing poetry, music, drugs, parties, love, sex, and of course, the freedom of the road.  It reveals the author’s search for self-revelation, friendship, and adventure in postwar America, which was a time of great confusion for many young people.  Kerouac was a pioneer of the Beat Generation, which was an artistic movement inspired by jazz, poetry, drugs, and the challenges of the time.  Beat writers celebrated creativity and individualism, Eastern philosophy and religion, liberated sexuality, and spontaneous living.  These were all concerns of American youth culture at the time, and in turn are each reflected in the book.  Written in 1951 and published in 1957, the book was deemed an instant classic; the New York times celebrated it as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as “beat,” and whose principal avatar he is.” (Millstein, para. 4)

Ed Ruscha is a multimedia artist, typically classified under the Pop Art movement, whose work revolves around the artist’s interest in text.  Like the Pop icon Andy Warhol, Ruscha got his start in advertising.  From this experience, Ruscha became fascinated with how words and images shape people today’s experiences.  His signature style is highly two-dimensional paintings containing phrases that sharply reflect on pop culture and everyday life.  The background is usually an abstract texture, or a landscape, but background choice has been evolving constantly throughout his five-decade career (Wagley, para. 3).  Ruscha uses a variety of other mediums, including photo, light installations, and printmaking; his interest in text has also led him to pursue bookmaking.  Ruscha’s work “holds the mirror up to the banality of urban life and gives order to the barrage of mass media-fed images and information that confronts us daily.”  (Ed Ruscha Official Website, para. 2) In other words, Ruscha’s paintings use language to subvert and question our mediated experience of modern life, as well as the icons that symbolize this experience.

The body of work revolves around Ruscha’s recreation of On the Road, and draws upon how this book symbolizes the American West at the middle of the century.  There are two main strategies for representing Kerouac’s book: framed pages from Ruscha’s edition of On the Road, and a selection of Ruscha’s letter paintings (and drawings) with passages from the novel itself.  Ruscha first published the book in collaboration with Gagosian Gallery and Steidl publishers, and it was first shown in 2009 at London’s Hayward Gallery (Steidl publishers, para. 1).  In the recreated book pages Ruscha juxtaposes the actual novel with photographs that he found, took, or commissioned, giving visual emphasis on pertinent imagery within the book.  In the paintings, Ruscha uses his signature, crisp white all-caps lettering to convey key quotes from On the Road.  These quotes reveal an evocative and poignant portrait of mid-Century America, and (typical of Ruscha’s taste) the artist chooses quotes that offer a frank critique of the time and culture.  The quotes are set against backgrounds of either abstract textures, or hyper-realistic images of mountains (mountains are a somewhat iconic feature of Ruscha’s more recent work, used as a jibe on American landscape painting).  These paintings form a cohesive landscape  of the West that is both literal and figurative- the mountains in the background are a literal reference to the West’s mountainous geography, and the quotes are figurative, acting as a cultural map of the Western US.

One of the most striking paintings is California Grapeskins.  The all-caps white text reads “In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury,” and this is painted over a gray background (deepening in shade at the top) with the snow-capped tip of a mountain just peeking over the bottom edge of the painting.  It is a simple statement, but tells a lot about American culture.  First of all, it reflects the huge optimism with which people viewed the standard of living in California.  Throughout American history, the West has been seen as a place of abundance and opportunity.  It also creates a value statement of what ‘real luxury’ must be: grapes are an expensive fruit (abundant in California), and to have the means to enjoy the juice and not eat the whole thing (for caloric value, to avoid wastefulness) would be an uncommon indulgence.  Therefore, we can infer that a ‘real luxury’ could really be as simple as an indulgence.  The background acts to place the work, one can infer the West from the mountainous landscape.  The deepening gray of the background creates a gloomy feel, which also communicates a somber disapproval of the message in the text.  It is a grim picture of the culture at the time, and by choosing to paint this quote Ruscha critiques the American standard of luxury.

Another captivating piece is Maňana, which reads: “Sure, baby, maňana.  It was always maňana.  For the next week that was all I heard- maňana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven”.  The text is of course done in Ruscha’s all white, all-caps font, and is set on a background of a sunny blue sky with a snowy mountaintop protruding at the bottom behind the text.  The word ‘maňana,’ which is repeated three times, is underlined.  Not only does this visually emphasize the word, it gives rhythm for the viewer reading the quote.  In this part of the book, Sal (the name Kerouac gives his own character in the book) is in the middle of a week-long romance with a Mexican girl named Terry, and living with her family picking cotton in Southern Texas.  Sal does not know that ‘maňana’ translates to ‘tomorrow’ in English, but because the word has only been used in talking about hopes for the future, Sal thinks it must mean heaven.  Even the background insinuates the optimism with which Sal views the word ‘maňana’; the sky is a sunny blue, and there are only wisps of clouds.  The quote shows that the girl and her family have huge hopes, and use these hopes to escape from present hardship.  But the mistranslation also emphasizes the gap between the present and the hoped-for future, making the family’s aspirations seem unattainable when compared to their present situation.  It is ironic, but in a painful way because of the cruel difference between reality and the so-called heaven that is actually the future.  By choosing to paint this quote, Ruscha reflects on misguided optimism, and how it often ends in disappointment.  A person can have dreams and hopes of a better tomorrow, but these dreams are not always realized.  The conditions of tomorrow will not always match the imagined conditions of heaven.

A final painting that stands out is Greatest Passers, 2010, which reads “Greatest seventy-yard passer in the history of New Mexico State Reformatory.”  The background is an emerald green, and deepens near the top of the painting.  The mountain scenery here is completely snow-covered and the slopes are somewhat gentler.  In addition, the mountains reach up to nearly a third of the height of the overall composition, which is higher than the mountains in most of the other paintings.  The text celebrates football as a revered sport, which reflects an aspect of American culture that is still true today.  But the latter part of the text has a twist: this great seventy-yard passer is the best, but only within the jail in which he’s doing time.  This is ironic because the man’s his athletic skills are what he is known for and how he is identified, rather than his status of being an imprisoned criminal.  It shows what people really valued during this time, the hyper-masculine glory of being a sports star, rather than one’s morals or the ethics of one’s past decisions.  Unfortunately, it seems that this value system persists in American culture today: the superficial often trumps the meaningful.  By painting this quote, Ruscha reflects on this paradox.

The exhibition is overall successful because it engages the viewer.  First of all, it makes sense that Ed Ruscha: On the Road is being shown in Denver, seeing that good deal of the novel actually takes place in post-World War II lower downtown Denver (Gagosian, para. 1).  For fans of the book who would know this, it almost adds a sense of hometown pride.  Within the museum, it is placed in its own gallery in the Contemporary and Modern Wing.  The separate area has tall ceilings and bright white walls, typical of a museum space.

What is unusual is that the room has two entry points that are very open, which allows visitors to flow freely.  The openness is convenient, but distracting, and it leaves the viewer unsure of where to begin.  This is only exacerbated when the museum is crowded.  While this lack of guidance could be intentional as a removal of the curator’s touch, it does not seem to fit, possibly because the art’s content deals with a chronology-based narrative.  At the same time, the paintings are not arranged based on the location of the quotes within the book, so the assumed path around the room (and the resulting order in which one views the paintings) might have been considered less important.  Either way, viewing the work was more chaotic due to the directionless floorplan.

The art itself is generally displayed in a group based on the two formats mentioned earlier: paintings, and framed book pages.  The book pages are framed continuously in rows along the walls so that the photographs that Ruscha added are in plain sight.  While it is doubtful that any museum-goer would take the time to read every page, the setup allows the viewer to choose where to pick up and read, as well as where to stop and move on.  It lets you find your own interesting phrases or quotes, rather than relying on Ruscha’s choices in the paintings.  Here, the viewer has the freedom to make their own decisions about the text, and what it might say about American culture.  One issue that I found with this arrangement is that I was drawn to the pages that were coupled with more interesting photographs, and usually passed the pages with boring ones and probably missed some meaningful content within the text.  The photographs became more important than the words, therefore putting Ruscha’s visual additions above Kerouac’s original work.  This might have been a strategy within Ruscha’s concept (since most of his work deals with the tension between image and text) but in using Kerouac’s work as a means to communicate this tension, I feel that Ruscha is doing Kerouac a disservice.  It makes me wonder, is a picture really worth a thousand words?  Does a photograph or novel really represent an entire culture?  Does an image or symbol truly communicate something meaningful?  This body of work answers each of these questions with a sardonic ‘Yes.’As one can see, Ruscha’s work undermines the way that people’s image-mediated experience of the world in a number of cunning ways.

It is fitting that Ruscha decided to take on this project of recreating On the Road.  At the surface level, both Jack Kerouac and Ed Ruscha are masters at manipulating language as a tool for social commentary.  On a personal level, Ruscha had always loved the book. The storyline must have had personal resonance- On the Road was published the year after Ruscha graduated high school in Oklahoma and drove west to California (Wagley, para. 2).   On a cultural-historical level, Ruscha and Kerouac each work within their mediums to reflect on the ordinary, yet deeply telling, products of American culture.  According to Douglas Fogle (head curator of the Hammer Museum, where the show travelled in 2011):

“In many ways Ruscha’s entire career has offered an artistic corollary to Kerouac’s linguistic portrait of the American landscape, giving concrete visual form to the poetry of our vernacular roadside. These new works… channel one of the greatest chroniclers of the American landscape by appropriating and artistically framing fragmented instances of Kerouac’s language” (Hammer Museum Official Website, para. 4).

Ruscha’s paintings have often been understood in reference to the West, specifically Los Angeles; Kerouac’s work is usually set in (and highly descriptive of) the West as well.  By citing On the Road, Ruscha at once complements the literary genius of Jack Kerouac, comments on the perception of the American west, and reflects on how language can both shape and define today’s culture.
Kerouac’s On the Road is absolutely timeless, as Ed Ruscha: On the Road easily proves.  Ruscha’s fresh take on this literary classic exhibits the artistic beauty of an iconic American tale, and reflects on how this novel still stands as a symbol of the American West.  Readers and viewers alike can enjoy this show at the  Denver Art Museum, showing the degree of success that this body of work has achieved.  The tension between text and image is clear in Ruscha’s use of Kerouac’s words this body of work.  The book continues to inspire young people today, creating a new generation of artists to follow Ruscha’s footsteps and apply this story to their own generation.

Works Cited

“Biography.”  Ed Ruscha Official Website. n.d. Web.  1 April 2012. <http://www.edruscha.com/site/biography.cfm>

“Ed Ruscha: On the Road.” Denver Art Museum.  n.d. Web.  1 April 2012 <http://www.denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/ed-ruscha-road>

“Ed Ruscha: On the Road at the Denver Art Museum.  Gagosian Gallery.  n.d.  Web.  1 April 2012 <http://www.gagosian.com/news/2012/02/01/392>

“Exhibitions: Ed Ruscha: On the Road.”  Hammer Museum Official Website.  Hammer Museum.  n.d. Web.  1 April 2012 <http://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/detail/exhibition_id/201

Frank, Priscilla.  “Ed Ruscha: On the Road comes to Denver Art Museum.”  Huffington Post.  n.d.  22 March 2012.  Web.  1 April 2012 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/22/ed-ruscha-on-the-road_n_1373016.html#s804905>

“Jack Kerouac On the Road.”  Steidl Publishers. n.d.  Web.  1 April 2012 <http://www.steidlville.com/books/1012-Jack-Kerouac-On-the-Road.html>

Millstein, Gilbert.  “Book of the Times.”  NY Times.  n.d. Web.  1 April 2012 <http://graphics.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/kerouac-millstein.pdf >

Wagley, Catherine.  “Ed Ruscha: On the Road at Hammer Museum.”  LA Weekly.  4 Aug 2011.  Web.  1 April 2012 <http://www.laweekly.com/2011-08-04/art-books/ed-ruscha-on-the-road-at-hammer-museum/ >

One Response

  1. I liked your overall analysis of Ruscha’s exhibit. The connections you explored between the images and the text of Kerouac’s book were pretty solid, and quite believable. Your claim that the exhibit produced a sense of hometown pride was certainly accurate, and was something I experienced as well. One critique I have is that you say Kerouac and Ruscha are capable of using language for social commentary. I believe this is true, however I feel that it is accomplished in different ways. Kerouac uses words for their cerebral interpretation while Ruscha uses the visual effect words can have. This is what made this exhibit interesting for me. Kerouac’s silky kind of writing mixed with Ruscha’s visual manipulation had quite the effect on the viewer.

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