Ed Ruscha: On the Road

With its vast landscapes and mountainous topography the west has come to represent an unknown landscape with the promise of adventure. The American West was a large part of both Jack Kerouac and Ed Ruscha’s lives and translated into their works as well. The defining literary work by Jack Kerouac chronicled the protagonist’s journey back and forth across the west and came to define the beat generation. Ed Ruscha often explored the west and the changing landscape of America with work such as twenty-six gas stations and every building on sunset strip. The Ed Ruscha: On the Road exhibit is the visual combination of Kerouac’s novel and the art by Ed Ruscha. “Both artists utilize language as a form of social commentary, documenting the continuing shifts in the American cultural landscape. By superimposing passages from Kerouac’s epic 1957 novel onto images of snow-capped mountains or abstract backgrounds, Ruscha injects new life into the feverishly written words. Much of the novel, typed on a continuous 120-foot-long scroll, is set against the backdrop of post-World War II lower downtown Denver.” (Denver Art Museum exhibit)

The semi- autobiographical novel On the Road, by jack Kerouac, chronicled the journey of Sal and his friend Dean Morarity back and forth across the Midwest as they sought adventure. “The novel is actually a thinly veiled account of Kerouac’s own life in the late 1940s, when he fell under the spell of a charismatic drifter named Neal Cassady (represented by Moriarty in the novel). Every episode in the novel was inspired by real-life events. The book, which would probably be considered rather tame today, shocked readers in 1957 with its depiction of drug use and promiscuous sex. Many critics attacked the work as evidence of the increasing immorality of American youth. Other critics saw it as a groundbreaking work of originality. American readers, fascinated with the bohemian lifestyle of the characters, turned the novel into a bestseller.”(enotes.com)On the road was also unique in its writing style. “In 1951, Kerouac labored for twenty straight days at his typewriter composing on the road, a single scroll of a manuscript that resisted conventional literary form by abstaining from chapter, page, and paragraph breaks.”(Denver Art Museum exhibit)

Ed Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma and moved to Los Angles for art school. His background was originally in graphic design and advertising and he carried this into his art. Ruscha is known for images that often use words and phrases along with images or color fields to comment on the changing American landscape. “Ruscha has consistently combined the cityscape of his adopted hometown with vernacular language to communicate a particular urban experience. Encompassing painting, drawing, photography, and artist’s books, 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.com)

With his affinity for words and images and the personal connection to the book on the road, Ed Ruscha created a photographic book that accompanies Kerouac’s novel. The photographs correlate with descriptions in the novel and originate from several sources.  The exhibit at the Denver Art Museum exhibits both pages from Ed Ruscha’s On the Road companion novel and also several paintings he created that combine passages from on the road with various images. According to the exhibit “these paintings are Ruscha’s own version of Kerouac’s literary road trip. He pulled passages directly from on the road and artistically repurposed them to create his own exploration of an American cultural landscape now past. “

The majority of the paintings are a combination of idyllic mountain scenery and various phrases. One in particular that I really enjoyed was called Manana.  In his characteristic bold white lettering, Ruscha painted the quote “ sure, baby, manana. It was always manana for the next week that was all I heard- manana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.” Wherever manana is written, Ruscha underlined the word, which gives it more emphasis.  The words are painted over and idyllic mountaintop with an almost cloudless baby blue sky. Compared to many of the other paintings in the show, this one in particular in brighter and more airy which lends well to the idea of heaven and also a bit of naïveté in the misuse of the word, which actually translate to tomorrow rather than heaven. It is interesting that Ruscha chose to use white lettering over a mountaintop that is snow covered. From far away, the word “probably” seems to fade into the mountain and change the sentence from “one that probably means heaven,” to “ one that means heaven.” There is a certain blind optimism that seems to accompany the image, especially the combination of image and words.

In contrast, the painting California Grape Skin is much darker.  The surrounding sky is in blacks, grays, and a bit of purple and the overlaying white text reads, “in California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury.” Ruscha makes an interesting comment on the idea of abundance by utilizing juxtaposition. The ability to discard a part of the fruit that would normally be eaten is seen as a privilege and luxury, something people often aspire to achieve. On the other hand, the dark colors and somber tone of the painting suggests a disapproval or rejection of such ideals. American consumerist society is built on the idea of abundance and striving for luxury and material success, but this desire might not always bring about the best life.

A Few of the works did not include mountain scenery, but were instead splattered with paint and included quotes. One of my favorite pieces was titled ’49 Hudson. The background was a light pink color that was darker near the edges of the paintings and became lighter towards the center. The quote “a mud spattered ’49 Hudson” was painted in capitalized white lettering and dots of grey were spattered throughout. I think the imagery create an interesting contrast because although the spatters allude to the car and the dirtiness of the vehicle, the image is rather clear. The description solicits an image of something very unclean, yet the color use and light sprays of gray are muddied but airy at the same time.

Overall I think the exhibit was successful. I have never read On the Road and have a limited knowledge of the novel but I think it was interesting project for Ed Ruscha to take on and the relationship between the text and images created very intriguing pieces. I like that the curator chose to include pages from Ed Ruscha’s accompanying photo book because it elaborates more on the relationship Ruscha had to the novel. The only criticism I would have is that the exhibit space was a little too open. Some paintings were in a separate room but there were others placed by the door so it was a little confusing in terms of the narrative. Regardless, I think Denver is the perfect location for the exhibit because much of on the road takes place in Denver and I think this in itself continues to perpetuate some of the notions of the west.

Spark Notes http://books.google.com/books?id=Jr5jsdYci2EC&pg=PT221&lpg=PT221&dq=a+mud+spattered+’49+hudson&source=bl&ots=0v7lX_ZbAU&sig=A9ZCblaGVnGY3jJvYfNFHmCInOg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4vueT_P2N–r2AXwsJiHDw&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=a%20mud%20spattered%20’49%20hudson&f=false



Denver Art Museum


Ed Ruscha. Com


6 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed reading your review of the “On the Road” exhibition. I also chose to go to the exhibition and write up a review so it was interesting to read another point of view and your reactions to each piece, as well as the exhibition as a whole.

  2. I chose to write my exhibition review on “On the Road” as well and think you did an excellent job at reviewing the exhibit. You went into such great detail and included very important information on the work. Good Job! I enjoyed reading someone else’s perspective of the exhibition.

  3. You wrote a wonderful review of the show. I went twice, as Ed Rusha is one of my favorite artists, and On the Road is one of my favorite novels. It’s too bad you weren’t able to read the novel before seeing the show, becuase I think it adds a great deal to the experience. The only complaint I have of the show is that I wish it was bigger and more extensive. However, seeing some of the original scroll was very, very cool. I also agree that Denver is the perfect place to house this exhibition, as Kerouac himself spent a lot of time in Denver, and much of the novel is set in Denver. It seems to me that Ruscha intentionaly used many of the visual cliches of the west and incorperated them into one of the greatest literary studies of the west (On the Road), blending imagery and text seamlessly.

    Great review, but definitely read the book if you ever have a chance!

  4. Your review was quite enjoyable, but I wish you had proofread your essay or had someone help you with it. Ed Ruscha is one of my least favorite artists and still remains that. I have tried viewing his art several times, including this show and yet I still find something to be desired when viewing his work. You did have excellent descriptions of the work and I also agree that the space is not adequate for the paintings.

  5. Your review was well written and i think you did a good job of describing both Ruscha’s work and the space in which is was exhibited. You provided good descriptions of the work and i like that you included which were your favorites and the emotions they elicited. Overall i think it was a well thought out and comprehensive review.

  6. You did a great job describing the exhibit. I think its great that you noticed that the space the exhibit was in was too open. Normally I don’t notice when its too open, but I always notice if it’s to small or cramped. Your description of California Grape Skin was really interesting to me and I think you described it perfectly. I googled it while reading your paper and looked at your description and the piece side by side.

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