Ed Ruscha: A man of his words

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Hayward Gallery's retrospective of the American pop artist Ed Ruscha reveals an enigmatic marriage of text and image. Tom Lubbock attempts to spell it all out

There's a picture by the Renaissance Venetian artist Giorgione called The Tempest. It's famous for being baffling. It shows a landscape and a town, a flash of lightning in the sky, two isolated pillars, a soldier, a naked woman and a baby – an all too meaningful ensemble. But what on earth does it mean? A story? An allegory? Art historians have wondered, and no answer has been found.

It's hard to know even what the problem is. Perhaps the meaning was perfectly clear once, but now it eludes us. Perhaps there was never a meaning, only a dreamy poetical scene. And there are other possibles. It could be a puzzle-picture, with clues to be deciphered. It could be a trick, a pseudo-puzzle with no solution, designed to waste your time. It could be a conscious tease, which asks to be enjoyed precisely for its brilliantly constructed mysteriousness.

Though remote in many ways, The Tempest reminds me of Ed Ruscha's art. This West Coast painter is a master of mystery. To use that notorious phrase, his work is full of unknown unknowns. Take his picture from 1998 entitled The Mountain. It shows, unsurprisingly, a rising snowy peak. But then, superimposed on this view, is a word, three letters, upper case: the. The?

And at once, you're puzzling. You might say, well here are two ways of saying the same thing: one verbal, as in the title, one verbal-plus-visual, as in the painting. The. Mountain. But the way the letters are superimposed makes the the look more like a definition of the mountain, or as if the mountain was the very essence of The-ness. And see how the t on the the is much bigger than the other letters. Something deeply odd is going on between word and image. What does it all mean?

Ruscha – incidentally, you pronounce it Roo-shay – is in his early seventies. About 50 years of his work can be seen at the Hayward Gallery, 50 years of carefully composed enigmas. It begins with words.

Around 1960, many American painters were looking for a way out of pure abstraction. Ruscha took the way of letters. He painted words, often single words, drawing inspiration specifically from public lettering – from shop fronts and signboards, and product advertising with its trademark type-faces. There are pictures with bold and punchy logos: war surplus, boss or oof. There are pictures based on the 20th Century Fox emblem and the Hollywood sign on the Hollywood Hills.

In these word paintings, words don't perform as they normally do. They don't communicate. They go dumb. It's like that odd speech phenomenon, technically called "semantic satiation" or "semantic saturation", which happens when a word or phrase is repeated so much that it loses its meaning, and becomes just an empty sound. That's what Ruscha's early paintings do to the printed word. Their letters become semantically null, just a formation of cut-out coloured shapes.

Or rather (and this is the tantalizing thing) the words don't become totally abstract. They don't forget their sense entirely. Rather, they do and they don't. This is why "semantic satiation" – printed or spoken – feels so weird. It hovers between the meaningful and the unmeaningful. And that is an ambiguity you find throughout Ruscha's work.

But the next two decades were not so productive. It's as if he'd got his essential idea, but hadn't found ways to bring it out. Ruscha played games with words, some of them silly (the word boss again, but with the letters squeezed by vices), some very laconic (the phrase sand in the vaseline painted gold in grey). He introduced images too, and found a way to make them feel semi-meaningless, as he had with words.

The trick with images is to paint some object (pills, a building) in a rather precise and illustrational manner – but to set it, in isolation, against a blurry and almost blank background. It puts the object in quotations. You see it as an opaque piece of painting. You don't see through it, to the thing that it depicts. Or rather, again, you do and you don't.

Then, in the early 1980s, Ruscha devised what became his signature device: words floating over a view. You might say this device was borrowed from magazine ads or book covers or title sequences of films, except the paintings don't look much like any of these. Their words often use Ruscha's personal typeface, a clunky, curve-free font (the O is an octagon). And the relationships between the words and the views behind – well – they're absolutely gnomic.

not a bad world is it? floats over a kitschy sunset landscape, that looks like a vision of heaven from a Jehovah Witness leaflet. Meanwhile, over a cityscape at night, with its grid of lit streets, talk radio is sharply written in neon. And then american tool supply is superimposed on a picture postcard snowy mountain range. Or sometimes it's not words but an object that takes the foreground. Five Past Eleven shows a very large close-up section of an old Roman-numeral clock-face; floating over it, a very fine length of bamboo cane.

What connects these juxtapositions? Irony, surrealism, specialist history, a private memory? Who knows? And Ruscha has other tricks of obscurity. His phrases are plucked from some unimaginable context, like the charming faster than a speeding beanstalk. Figures are shown in such blurred silhouette that they almost retreat into invisibility (see the magnificent coyote in Howl), or likewise in a dazzling glare. Cartoon caption boxes appear, but with no words in them. They all go into the mix.

You might think of the game of word-non-association. Each player has to say a word in turn, and it must have nothing to do with the word said by the last. It's strangely difficult. Words have their gravitation. Ruscha is like an expert player of this game – but with this refinement, that each time he seems to have fallen into an association, yet when you try to work out where the association is, you can't.

That's how his pictures work. They're painted so clearly, and they seem to add up so clearly, that you smile. It's obvious. But when you try to put your finger on it, the meaning eludes you, just, but completely. I'd especially recommend (though I couldn't get it across) the picture called Oldsmobile. There's a meaning there, surely, but utterly out of your grasp.

And along with this elusiveness, and stranger still, there are open hints of the transcendental. True, it's not Ruscha's only subject. His images and words refer to industry, city life, the big highway. But there's enough to make you wonder. There's the ghostliness of his blurs, the blaze of illuminations. There are the soaring mountains and the heavenly clouds. There's the explicit religiosity in his words: 90% angel 10% devil, a particular kind of heaven, hell heaven, sin. Perhaps the strangest image here is words without thoughts never to heaven go, arranged in a neon ring against darkness, the words diminishing as they go round. It's from Hamlet, Claudius trying hopelessly to pray.

So the final enigma of Ruscha's enigma variations is where their mystery stands. Is this art, with all its ungraspable beyonds, a kind of religious art? It presents us with appearances and signs. It asks whether there's something or nothing behind its words and its images. His hieroglyphic images constantly provoke and defeat our attempts at interpretation. Are they blank, empty facades? Or do they imply sublime inarticulable depths? Don't worry, you'll never know.



Ed Ruscha: 50 Years of Painting, Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0871 663 2500; www.southbankcentre.co.uk) tomorrow to 10 January

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence