Ed Rushca- On the Road.

Bryce Johnson

ARTH 3539

Ed Ruscha: On the Road

Exhibition review


“On the Road,” is an exhibition of Ed Ruscha’s work as a commentary on the novel written by Jack Kerouac. This pairing of artists from two different mediums seems to work very well at this show. Kerouac is known to be a key figure in the Beat Generation of writers. His work has inspired countless individuals, including myself. Literature and words have been the subject matter for many of Ed Ruscha’s works since the 1960’s. Kerouac clearly inspired Ed. They shared a great interest in the American west, which can be seen in their works.


Ed was born in 1937. He grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1956, to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He worked in the graphic arts when he graduated. Typography is one of his main influences in his work, with paintings ranging from single words to whole phrases. He started using painted typography as a way to express his interest in pop-culture, especially referencing the culture that he was surrounded by in L.A. The combinations of his interest lead him to be categorized in the pop art movement. These paintings define what has come to be known as Ed’s signature style.


Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell Massachusetts on October 21st, 1969. He was a poet and a writer who inspired a new style of writing and is associated with being a leader of Beat Generation. Beat Generation writers had poetic writing style that was very raw and very much about expression. These writers were inspired by drug culture, materialism, and the rejection of materials, all things that were very much a part of the culture that Ed Ruscha was encountering living in LA.  Kerouac and Ruscha have shared experiences, which they can relate to either of their works. At age 14, Ed hitchhiked with a friend from Oklahoma to Miami. A wild experience for a pair of 14-year-old boys I am sure.  Kerouac’s “One the Road,” was inspired by his own travels westward across the United States. As you read the book you realize that he too had a pretty wild experience.


The exhibition displays visually, exactly how Ed Ruscha relates to the adventures of Kerouac and his reflection on the words that defined the styling of the Beat Generation. The gallery space for the exhibition had a very open floor plan with two very large openings on either end of the space. This layout did not help the exhibition in my opinion. It gave the space no distinct flow, so some pieces I viewed lacked a correlation to the next. A larger rectangular room would have made viewing easier. The exhibition contained an illustrated version of Kerouac’s book, including picture references to cigarette butts, road signs, scantily dressed women, beer cans, and car parts.  Along with that piece there were about ten of Ruscha’s signature text on canvas paintings.


The illustrated version of Kerouac’s book, contained about 40 pages of the novel juxtaposed to an image, inspired by the words on the page. I found the images to be simple references to the story on the page and that the images alone would be uninteresting. He had the pictures displayed on raised paper. That alone made the piece interesting and strengthened the suggested reference to the storyline on the opposing side of the display. The image would then be continued to the next display by being an impression on the pages of text on the following page. It was a subtle way to keep the viewer thinking about the storyline and also the importance of the image such as a cigarette butt. The images that Ed used in this piece must have been images that he found to be a vivid part of the narrative provided by Jack. This piece is a fusion of the two different artists, and it makes me think what Jack would take from Ed’s interpretation. About half of the wall space for the gallery was taken up by this piece and its display. Ruscha is very interested and inspired by text. He has done a few book projects and clearly has an intimate relation to writing as an art form.


The rest of the gallery space is occupied by about ten of Ruscha’s signature style word paintings. These paintings were done with words taken from the writings of “On the Road.” There did not seem to be relevance between the words written on the painting and where the painting was displayed. In other words they did not seem to be displayed in a chronological order as was done with the illustrated book piece. This made viewing the show as a whole slightly difficult and it added to the distraction of the gallery space. These words and phrases are taken from the book and are viewed out of context. Taking phrases out of context and displaying them is part of Ed’s signature style. Viewing the phrases out of context allows for the phrases to be taken at face value and can only be given the poetic value of the phrase on display. This makes the subject matter ambiguous  in most of the paintings. He pairs the phrases with an abstract subtle background or of mountain peaks.


A successful piece that was done in this styling that appealed to me was, Greatest Passer, 2010. This work had the phrase, “GREATEST SEVENTY-YARD PASSER IN THE HISTORY OF NEW MEXICO STATE REFORMATROY.” This phrase is displayed in all caps, which could singnal the importance of the phrase. The passage is displayed on top of a snow-capped mountain with a green and black background. The mountain peaks are just that, peaks at the bottom of the painting, giving more emphasis on the sky. There is a gradient happening from the top of the painting to the top of the mountains, moving from black to a beautiful tone of green. The sky being the emphasis of the work sets the tone and makes the viewer understand the phrase in a certain way. It is an ominous  looking sky that because of its colors, sets off a surrealist vibe and makes the viewer think about the phrase rather than just taking it a face value.


Manana, 2009, is another work that I really enjoyed. I feel that this piece lines up with my view and relation to what the exhibition was going to be about. This work has 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.” This is also displayed in all caps. Again with this work the sky seems to be a large part of the compositon, giving it significance. The sky in this painting is very realistic, compared to the color palate of the piece I previously talked about. The mountain peaks at the bottom of this painting are also realistic and are iconic views of the west. I was expecting the show to push the idea of the west and the frontier because both men take their real life experiences as influences in their art. I understood the importance of the bright blue sky in this painting as Ed’s view of the west and the feelings of hope and adventure for things in the west. Blue skies are synonymous with Colorado and I felt the connection to the work, just because of that. The phrase that he uses in this piece, works well with the general mood that is conveyed by the piece. In the book you Jack’s character does not understand Spanish. He hears the Spanish people say the word ‘manana’ and gets the idea from the spirit in which the people are saying the word that it means heaven. This is one of the more poetic pieces that Ed had on display and I feel the play between the character not knowing the language and accepting it as something beautiful, lines up with Ruscha’s idea of taking the words out of context and having the viewer accept the painting as beautiful.


One of the word paintings that did not have mountains in it that I found particularly interesting was ‘Everything takes care of itself, 2009.’ It is interesting how different the word paintings are when they do not have a recognizable backdrop, such as the mountains in this exhibition. This piece has the text, ‘Everything takes care of itself. I could close my eyes and this old car would take care of itself’ written on top of layers of grays whites and blacks, that Ed applies in a way that vignettes the phrase. It makes the work more relatable for me for some reason. I think vignettes are soothing to look at as a viewer, you feel like you get an easy chance at observing, without feeling like an intruder. The combination of the text and the painting application and style make this work my favorite word painting without mountains.


Overall the gallery visit was a success. I only had slight background knowledge built up of Ed Ruscha and his work so getting a chance to view more of his work helped me see exactly what his style of communication methods and how they worked for him. Having read “On The Road,” it was nice to see how someone other than myself interpreted the visuals of the writing. It makes the whole exhibition more inviting to new viewers of Eds work having read the book, and for any fans of Jack to see how he inspires fellow artist.


Works Cited

“Biography.”  Ed Ruscha Official Website. n.d. Web.  1 April 2012. <http://www.edruscha.com/site/biography.cfm>

“Ed Ruscha: On the Road.” Denver Art Museum.  n.d. Web.  1 April 2012 <http://www.denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/ed-ruscha-road>

2 Responses

  1. This sounds like a really interesting exhibition and I wish I had gone to see it. However, you do a really good job of describing the overall feeling of the exhibit and it sounds like Rushca’s work complements Kerouac’s quite well. I’m a big fan of On The Road and I feel like the imagery you describe combined with Kerouac’s words creates a something entirely new. It’s pretty awesome to see how one work of art can produce endless inspiration. Furthermore, by placing the pictures and the words together it gives both of them new meaning. I hope to see this someday.

  2. This is a very well written paper about this exhibition; the amount of detail you have managed to pack in is very helpful and allows me to really get the jist of your exhibition experience. I was also captivated by the typography aspect of the show, as typography is one art form that I have always been very interested in. The pairing of imagery with written word is a very interesting dichotomy; the book is written to “paint pictures” in people’s mind with its words, yet this artist has painted pictures of the words, ironic.

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