Ed Ruscha’s “On the Road” Exhibition Review by Jordan Dawson

Ed Ruscha’s “On the Road” exhibit felt more like a fervent advertising campaign for Jack Kerouac’s novel than an autonomous work of visual art. At first, it seemed to me like a reasonably artistic fan boy had created an effigy of his favorite American author in the middle of the Denver Art Museum. But it was his sheer dedication to this fan boyish sentiment that made me see his art’s true beauty. Ruscha forces you to believe that he’s Kerouac’s #1 fan, and in doing so, he successfully makes his audience a bunch of fan boys as well. But Ruscha also creates this bizarre meta-perspective of “On the Road” by picking and choosing which aspects of the novel he finds most important or interesting.

Ed Ruscha is often associated with the Pop Art movement, given his participation in similar shows as Andy Warhol and his own artwork.  Ed is particularly fascinated by phrases and interesting sounding words too, and by representing these words in a visually stimulating way, he’s making those words his own. Thus, by carefully quoting and saluting Kerouac, Ruscha produces his own angle of the story. It’s Ed’s very own Great American Road Trip novel.

Ruscha’s quote paintings are a minimalist’s attempt at praising an author who has come to define almost the exact opposite of minimalism through his beat culture influenced “stream of consciousness” style. The quotes are never provided with any sort of context or background, so each one lends itself to a certain amount of personal interpretation. This makes each painting open-ended and broader in meaning, allowing for a more massive and diverse audience. In some of these quote paintings, abstract ink splats provide the backdrop for a brief Kerouac quote, such as “Use Cooper’s Paint.” It looks like the grit and grime left on a car after a long road trip and emphasizes the simplicity of that rambling-man sort of lifestyle. I immediately longed for the endless highways of the West coast and the rugged landscapes of Arizona, Utah and Nevada that I used to travel through as a kid. The ink splat paintings had an overwhelmingly nostalgic and melancholy effect over me, and I think that’s exactly what Ruscha was aiming for.

Another version of the quote paintings had mountain landscapes piercing through huge, vibrant skies as the backdrop to more Kerouac quotes, including the magnificent “Green-well Muzz-sippy.” It seemed to symbolize the profound grandiosity found in Kerouac’s humble, simplistic words. We only see the mountain’s peak penetrating the deep expanse of American sky, giving the impression that Kerouac’s words can release us from the mountain and elevate us into the vast consciousness beyond. It also seemed to be a respectful nod to Western geography. It was an appreciation of something that is already good enough. Ruscha’s work as a whole might be just that: appreciating something enough to let its own inherent beauty take over. He’s just spreading the word.

Another version of the Ruscha quote paintings has a minimalist, blurred backdrop set to even more Kerouac quotes. It reminded me of my parent’s old Nissan Pathfinder, as its headlights sliced through the dark and dusty side roads of the rural west, illuminating the secret nightlife of the elk and the coyotes. It could be saying that Kerouac’s words were a moment of clarity in the vast darkness of American culture during the 1950’s, as his words are superimposed with obscure, gray outlines that contrast the theme of light and beauty nicely. “Maw, Rustle Me Up” features a quote that is whimsical and fun but is juxtaposed greatly with the fuzzy and dark borders of the painting.

Besides the quote paintings, Ruscha also presented “Annotated Passages from the Road”… and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Although very extensive, the work is remarkably cohesive and straightforward. Each Kerouac passage is paired with black and white, sepia littered photos that refer to some aspect of the passage, which Ed presumably deems to be important. It is very American; emphasizing car culture, diners, lug nuts, nude women, alcohol and rock n’ roll. The presentation is very hip and safe, but it also packs a heavy emotional punch.

It made me yearn for the good life: working an honest job as a mechanic, eating at the local diner every day, and going to the same damn bar with the same damn people over and over again. As I mentioned before, Ruscha seems simply to be highlighting the most pleasurable and nostalgic subject matter associated with American culture, illustrating its natural beauty. Some of the cutouts are whited-out as well, which may mean that the culture is fading out of memory or consciousness. I couldn’t relate as much with this particular body of work though, perhaps because they were smaller and less overwhelming, or maybe because they weren’t as vibrant or stimulating given the simple black and white style.

Ed Ruscha’s foremost ambition is to endorse the beauty and the filth of certain words. He does not aim to find exterior recognition of his own work, but instead to help his audience recognize what he deems to be important. He is an ad artist, one who promotes beauty. And I must say that he’s created the most beautiful ad I’ve ever seen. Although it is true that Ed has made the story his own by carefully citing it, he has above all else informed the world about how beautiful Kerouac and his novel are.

3 Responses

  1. I too thought the exhibit was a bit like an advertisement for Kerouac’s novel. I also thought your interpretation of the “Annotated Passages from the Road..” was interesting especially when you discuss your ideas for the meaning of the white-out cutouts.

  2. This exhibition sounds interesting and your essay made me curious about this idea of art as advertisement for another form of art. You mention Rusha’s exploration of words and “making the words his own” through their visual display, I wish you had delved further into how the words evolve when they are presented as something more than text. I’m also curious about the size of these photos, it seems like that would be pretty important to their impact.

  3. onsidering you find his works to be similar to andy warhol’s, it really makes me want to learn more about him and see some of his works. i know some people find warhol’s works to be controversial considering he did a lot of prints and easy reproduction but i find those works to be essential in art history. i wish you would have posted a picture of some of your favorite works, but thats ok.. it leads me to want to further explore Ed Ruscha on my own :) ! i like the idea of making quotes into art. i am always looking for the right words to describe my feelings in an artistic way, and i feel quotes are already put into such poetic flowing ways. i love how Ruscha makes quotes into visible art.

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