Ed Ruscha’s On The Road By Danielle Mulein

Ed Ruscha: On The Road

Ed Ruscha’s On The Road, previously at the Denver Art Museum, is based on the experiences and adventures referenced in Jack Kerouac’s novel about his 1951 cross- country road trip. Both Ruscha and Kerouac are considered profound voices of the Beat Generation; a cultural phenomenon affiliated with an underground anti-conformist youth movement, usually associated with drug experimentation, androgynous sexuality, non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.

Kerouac’s novel On The Road is considered a defining work of the beat generation because of its underlying quest for meaning and belonging during a time when most were just seeking to navigate the world. Ed Ruscha, born in Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma, consistently uses language and landscape as common threads throughout his career. Specifically to this exhibit, On The Road, Ruscha comments on the changing cultural landscape of America.

 The small exhibit consisted of large canvases displaying colorful and jagged Rocky Mountain peaks covered in phrases and statements extracted from Kerouac’s novel. Another section of the show had framed excerpts of the novel paralleled by photographic images that correlates with the specific passage.

From the framed excerpt section, three images distinctly stood out to me. The first was a photograph of cracks in the asphalt of a deserted two-lane highway. These cracks embody the marking and creation of the west. The distortion of such a strong substance comments on the ever-changing ability of land and society, especially during an era of such considerable change. Another photo and passage pair that captured me was the interior drivers-side of Kerouac’s Cadillac, specifically the seat and steering wheel. Opposite the image a sentence from the text read, “back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes”. The imagery of the Cadillac along with the melodic phrasing of Kerouac’s words seamlessly complement one another. Combined, they create a beautifully woven image of solitude and complexity. Sal, Kerouac’s character, alone to the night, driving through the Nebraska scenery yet there is an understanding of the materialistic necessity of a car to witness such stillness.

The final pairing from this section also narrates one of the large canvas pieces in the show. The photograph is a simple stack of twenty slices of bread on a plate. The text to the left read, “First I bought a loaf of bread and salami and made myself ten sandwiches to cross the country on”. Centered on a larger acrylic museum board across from the photograph and text, reads the above phrase in capital letters. The background of this board, unlike most others with mountain summits, is a Jackson Pollock-esque splattering of gray paint. The dullness of the board allows the viewer to focus on the words plastered on it.  The repetitiveness of the ‘Ten Sandwiches’ in the exhibit and the absence of land in the background led me to see it is an important start to the journey. Prior to the confrontation of the changing landscapes and cultural evolution, the ‘Ten Sandwiches’ marks the quiet space where as humans we first focus on sustaining the simplest form of life, nourishment. This piece reflects on the basic and simple items of necessity.     

The large canvases, which took up most of the exhibit, had bright and dull colored backgrounds all accompanied with a summit or peak. For Ed Ruscha, his textural and flat paintings of landscape, which are extremely influential for the pop art movement and of course, the beat generation, take on a life of their own in this exhibit. For each of the canvases I will discuss I wanted to note that the mountain peaks are implanted within the canvas. The mountains never extend to the sides of the board or intersect with other peaks, but stay centered and untouched. There is a level of disconnect within his work that is true to the pop art movement, where works are removed from their accepted context, isolated and combined with extraneous material.

            On an ombre canvas of black and turquoise reads, “GREATEST SEVENTY-YARD PASSER IN THE HISTORY OF NEW MEXICO STATE REFORMATORY”. The acrylic on canvas painting “Greatest Passer” from 2010 has a white glacial-like range in the background on the bottom of the painting. This range, like mentioned above, does not meet either end of the canvas but sits a bit to the right blending with the last word ‘reformatory’. Although the statement in its entirety is lost to me, I find it intriguing the one word that is barely legible through the glacial gleam of blues and grays is ‘reformatory’. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines reformatory as, “a penal institution to which especially young or first offenders are committed for reformation”. ‘Reformatory’ constrained by the mountain peaks correlates with the youthful generation of the beat or pop movement trying to release themselves from the grasps of elitist society.

 Then there is “Manana,” a 2009 acrylic on canvas painting with a simple yet vibrant and inviting blue sky as its background. A small crest, which looks as if it has been dipped in hues of reds, blues, blacks and grays, resides in the bottom center of the piece. Also, artificially inserted into the piece, the mountain dusted in snow, is only a small portion of the work. Again in large capital white letters reads the phrase, “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”. Manana is the Spanish word for tomorrow, a time in the future, a time that has yet to come. Regardless of age, every single person to view this canvas can relate. The possibility and unknown of the future is a beautiful thing that Ruscha tries to bring out in his audience. To help them understand that life continues, there is always tomorrow.


The final piece that made me pause was outside of the actual exhibit. On an exterior wall one passes as they enter the world of Ruscha and Kerouac is a dark black and grey canvas. “California Grapeskins” is a 2009 acrylic on canvas piece that has the statement, “IN CALIFORNIA YOU CHEW THE JUICE OUT OF GRAPES AND SPIT THE SKIN AWAY, A REAL LUXORY” written in white capital lettering. My interest in this piece was initially biased. I am a California native who flocks to anything remotely resembling or mentioning my great state, hence my original fascination. The darker canvas has a memento mori feeling to it when clashed with the dirty mountain. The glacial mountain in the bottom center of the piece has shades of blue, streaking down the mountain, reminding me of crushed grapes, while grays and whites weave together to form a sinister image. Kerouac’s phrasing along with Ruscha’s coloring makes it seem as if the peeling and chewing of the grapes is not actually a luxury but a burden. That no matter where you travel or how far you may go, you can’t escape the inevitable.


I thoroughly enjoyed Ruscha’s interpretation of Jack Kerouac’s famous beatnik novel On The Road. Ruscha’s combination of language and landscape is a brilliant way to connect the elusive with the tangible. 

One Response

  1. Great analysis. I especially like your attention to the general themes and ideas that drove the beat-generation. As Allen Ginsburg said, “All writing is political,” and in that same light, it seems that all art is political, in that it is motivated and surrounded by politics at all times during its conceivement, creation, and existence. Thanks for staying in-tune with the motivators and drives of Ruscha’s work and the movement as a whole.

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