Response to Ed Ruscha Exhibition (Franklin Perry Martin)

Response to Ed Ruscha’s exhibition at the Denver Art Museum:

Prior to attending this exhibition, I had been unaware of who Ed Ruscha was.  At first when we entered the room containing his works, I was a little disappointed.  I assumed that his presentation of seemingly unrelated quotes on various backgrounds was relatively uncreative and not thought-provoking.  My opinion changed however, when I learned that this exhibition was a collection of quotes chosen for their profundity and pulled from On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  Upon doing some research, I discovered that Ruscha is a prominent artist associated with the pop art movement and has been inspired, in this case especially, by the beat generation.  He has experimented with many mediums and presentation styles in his time including painting, photography, printmaking, drawing, and film (Wikipedia).  This fascinates me, as I generally lose interest in things quickly and therefore find myself jumping around a lot, and have also experimented in film, photography, and drawing myself.

Perhaps the most interesting connection I share with Ruscha is his persistence in creation of ‘word paintings.’  He has been observed creating and presenting “oddly comic and satirical sayings alluding to the popular culture and life in L.A. (Wikipedia).”  In terms of my own artistic creations, I find myself often writing down quotes and sayings I find interesting or funny, and recreating them in various areas whether it’s doodles in my notes or accompanying a drawing.  I find that a phrase presented out of context opens itself to the possibility for many different interpretations, and this idea interests me, as each unique individual will perceive a given sentence differently regardless of context.  This idea of loosening the limitations on a phrase and its meaning also interplay with the new limitations of presenting the phrase in a new medium.

This was evident in Ruscha’s exhibition.  He presents the quotes out of context on unique and various background images that don’t necessarily seem to relate to the text.  This pulls the quote away from its roots in Kerouac’s book, and allows the audience to interpret them as though they exist as a singular entity, which in the case of their presentation, they do.  At the same time the audience is aware of the fact that these quotes have been removed from On the Road.  Therefore the idea that they are being witnessed as autonomous, but serve as a connection between two thoughts within the novel, is also influential on their perceived meaning.

In order to demonstrate this permanent connection with Kerouac’s novel, Ruscha has provided the exhibit with approximately 40 pages of text, removed from On the Road, and each containing one of the quotes he has removed and recreated.  These pages are accompanied by an image- a photograph that exemplifies the quote chosen.  For instance one of Ruscha’s chosen quotes is “IN CALIFORNIA YOU CHEW THE JUICE OUT OF THE GRAPES AND SPIT THE SKIN AWAY, A REAL LUXURY (he presents the phrases in all caps so I chose to as well).”  This image is set on a gray background with a white-capped snowy mountain underneath.  The background and the quote are seemingly unrelated, however the presence of the gray to black color scheme with the snowy mountain has an interesting effect on the quote itself.

Aside from this image, the page of text from Kerouac’s novel is set in a frame next to an image of grapes.  The collection of framed pages and photographs is set in a different area of the exhibition, and can therefore be removed contextually from the quotes presented on their own.  However the presentation of the context of the chosen quotes provides depth to the process of picking them in the first place.  The wall of framed pages from On the Road serves as almost a map for navigating the sea of phrases chosen by Ruscha.

Another phrase Ruscha has chosen reads “COLD BEER BEAUTIFUL GIRLS.”  This phrase is set on an ethereal background of clouds, also on a gray to black to white scale.  It was at this point that I noticed the backgrounds for his quotes are usually mountains or cloud-like imagery.  This creates a feeling associated with travel, experience, observation, and simultaneously provides each quote with a muted background that adds to the image without subverting the value of the quote.  I feel that this style of presentation was also inspired by the impression Ruscha must have gotten from reading On the Road.  This makes me curious about Kerouac’s book, and I’ve added it to my list of novels to read.

At the exhibition there was a book with a collection of Ruscha’s other works.  It was interesting to see the progression of his style through ‘writing’ with liquid words, and using illustration and painting to create images as if liquids or ribbons of paper were spelling words.  Through viewing these earlier works, it was possible to witness the process that led Ruscha to creating his all caps type face for his later work, which is called “Boy Scout Utility Modern (Wikipedia).”

Overall I really enjoyed Ruscha’s exhibition.  Once I had realized that there was a long line of inspired stylistic progression behind the presentation of his works I began to respect his creative process.  It is interesting to me to discover what it is about artistic expression that inspires me, and in the case of Ed Ruscha, I notice an enthusiasm relative to creation that appears as though there is no motive to communicate some greater meaning to an audience.  To me, it seems as though Ruscha chose to pursue to facets of art that he gained the most satisfaction from interacting with.  I feel as though many artists, contemporary or not, possess the ulterior motive of expressing some greater and profound discovery that transcends the presentation of their pieces.  In Ruscha’s case, and regarding his tribute to Kerouac, I observe an interest in the material, and inspiration to present the pieces of On the Road that were meaningful to him.  I appreciate this apparent simplicity of expression.




“Edward Ruscha.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2012. <;.

3 Responses

  1. I liked your review of this exhibition. I too was able to view this exhibition and had a similar experience with the out of context phrases. It was interesting how you could read the phrases on the pages of Kerouacs book and have a totally different experience than when you read the phrases on the Ruscha paintings. I thought you should have gone more into depth about the effect that the “IN CALIFORNIA YOU CHEW THE JUICE OUT OF THE GRAPES AND SPIT THE SKIN AWAY, A REAL LUXURY” quote had on you. For me it seemed to be a criticism of what the west had become in contrast to what the west was. The image of the mountain seemed almost to be disappearing in the darkness of the future.

  2. I agree with being disappointed at first when walking into the very small gallery. I was expecting some huge room, but that was not the case. I really think knowing more about the artist and the work really helps the view point on the show. I am right there with you with appreciating the work after doing some more research. It sure does help a lot! Nicely written :)

  3. I think it is interesting to consider how important it may be to have background knowledge of the artists and the exhibit before seeing it. As you said, you originally perceived the show to be disappointing until you learn the quotes were from On The Road and more about Ruscha as an artist. For me personally this information did not change my mind about the show, because I still found it to be visually unpleasing. As an english major I felt that Kerouac’s quotes are overused and that On The Road is undeserving of its extreme popularity. I agree with you that the most enjoyable part of the show is understanding Ruscha’s stylistic process and the way he has continued to pursue ‘word paintings’

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