Ed Ruscha!

Kevin Barrett Kane

Professor Kira Van Lil

Contemporary Art

31 January 2012





                  As a poet, I have always been interested in the process of ekphrasis, which is the process of writing about or into a work of art.  In the Fall of 2011, after visiting and writing a paper about the Clyfford Still Museum, I wrote a serious of ekphrastic poems that later became the workings for a larger manuscript that is still in progress.  Though ekphrasis is limited in its definition to “writing about art,” my belief that literature is a form of art allows another interpretation of ekphrasis, in which an artist may create a work based on or inspired by literature.  Ed Ruscha displays this notion quite wonderfully in his exhibition “On The Road,” displayed in the Denver Art Museum from December 2011 to April 2012.  The exhibition is directly influenced by, and worked into, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road.  The piece, as inspired by the book, focuses on themes of manhood and the various pulls of the American West.  It also loosely forms itself around the Beat Generation’s ideologies, including the exploration of sexual identity, jazz music, poetics, drug-use, and confessional-aesthetics.  In all, the exhibition effectively represents and reappropriates the text of Kerouac in an exciting and aesthetically interesting new way. 

                  The most prominent of pieces in the exhibition are the numerous text-and-image compilations, which feature a white sans-serif Gothic typeface of text from Kerouac’s book overlying images of nearly-geometric mountain-top images in front of the sky.  The use of a Gothic-based font is intentional here, as it is in direct reference to the Underwood typewriter used by Jack Kerouac to write On The Road, which he did so in 1951 following a trip around the American Southwest.  It is said that the entire book was written on a single roll of Teletype paper over the course of three weeks.  The original manuscript was written in all caps and incorporated dashes rather than punctuation, as Ruscha has portrayed for viewers in these text-over-images pieces.  Gothic fonts are often associated with the American typewriter directly, for their extensive use of them throughout the history of its use in the States.  It is also a font that has direct lineage to government—Courier (a gothic font) was the official typeface of the US State Department until 2004.  The typeface was designed by Howard “Bud” Kettler in 1955, and it was later redrawn by Adrian Frutiger for the IBM Selectric Composer series of electric typewriters.  Its original design in 1955 is very important to Kerouac’s work and to Ruscha’s incorperation of it.  Though type-faces are widely taken for granted, much of the modern-day fonts we use daily have deep lineages spanning back through the invention of the printing press.  Ruscha’s use of the Geometric hybrid Gothic font in “On The Road” plays into this lineage in the fact that it is very young, by font-standards.  Having been set first in 1955, Kerouac and his contemporaries’ use of these kinds of fonts was revolutionary in the way we look at the modern book.  Type demographics aside, Ruscha’s placement of text is extremely leading in its purpose.  The type is completely capitalized, not only to preserve the integrity of Kerouac’s original work, but also to preserve the integrity of the composition of the piece, which is very symmetrical.  Inasmuch, each capital white letter embossed over the painting becomes a figure that owns its own subjectivity, and holds its own space.  In relation to my previous comment about books being works of art, this is exactly the kind of claim that I would make.  In reality, a text is not only a series of formed words and sentences from which we cognitively generate images and narratives, but rather it is a compilation of symbols, and these symbols, depending on their type, hold a certain weight on the page.  Ruscha is very much in comment of this theory of the importance of type and typesetting on his paintings. 

Looking deeper into these paintings, the text-over-image holds direct implications towards the nature of Kerouac’s journey West, and the Westward draw specifically.  These white letters, representative of the entirely-white beatnik generation movement, stand in stark contrast to, and on top of, images of the sky and the mountains, both of which are associated often with the American West.  Ruscha is claiming through these pieces that Kerouac and his followers never truly succeeded in incorporating themselves into the West, which is true to fact.  Rather, they were starkly out-of-touch with the American west, and proved that way through not only their bleached-white city-boy appearances, but also through their ignorance and disregard of the true nature of the West.  Kerouac stuck to roads and to towns, and did not venture into what some might call “the wild.” In his “exploration” of self and space, he only succeeded in finding something within himself, a journey and a story that would later become On The Road.  Ruscha does an incredible job here, I think, of showing viewers that Kerouac’s text, his book, was more important to him in the end than the actual West, which lives on with no emotional requisite to Kerouac’s and others’ ignorance and disregard to it. 

Moving further into the exhibition, it is clear that Ruscha understands the implications of Kerouac’s book, in that the text is extremely egotistical and self-focused.  Inasmuch, the second instillation of the exhibition focuses on the text (pages from Ruscha’s copy of On The Road), and includes paper cutouts of images discussed therein, which are then pasted sporadically throughout the displays.   These images draw attention to things that were within Kerouac’s grasp, and never include images of something extra-personal or profoundly outside of oneself.  Kerouac’s ego really shines through at this point, in the imagery displayed and displaced.  Not only are the images collaged around the room, but the cutouts—the blank spaces left by the cuts—are also displayed.  Given their identity within Kerouac’s journey, these images seem to be indicative of a larger objectivity on which the nature of the object is commented on.  Such objects have starting points, and current resting points, but they do not necessarily have an end-point.  They will always exist, in some shed, or some pile of junk, or as images in some museum.   This appears to me to be a breakdown of ego, as the book and these images live on while Jack Kerouac’s body degrades underneath the ground.  A sense of immortality, perhaps, but also an interesting reversal of such a notion.  No matter how hard these artists try to immortalize their images, they always end up dead somehow.  Morbid, I know. 

One Response

  1. Kevin –

    Your observations about both the color of the type, and the typeface itself are quite astute, as are your statements about the way Kerouac composed the manuscript for “On the Road”. I too believe that by transposing the same typeface and capitalization techniques Kerouac used in his book, Ruscha succeeds in accurately transferring more of the feeling present in Kerouac’s writing into visual forms. I think a multitude of meaning and feeling would have been lost had Ruscha not been more careful in his selection of typeface, color, and capitalization.

    Nice paper, good to hear a lit major’s perspective on things, very interesting read.

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