"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Ed Ruscha and Film

A B&W still from Ed Ruscha’s film Miracle [1975].

After catching Ed Ruscha’s rare early films at Anthology — two utterly sublime set pieces that riff on the American holy trinity of cars, food, and women — I wanted to gather together all of Ruscha’s art that directly referred to cinema. This proved to be an impossible task, for the L.A. artist absorbed movie aesthetics the way a sponge absorbs water. A certain disaffected cinematic consciousness imbues almost all his photographic work, especially his exercises his serialism [Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Thirtyfour Parking Lots]. These photographs could be establishing shots from an LA film noir, or alternately, Ruscha could be conceived as donning an industry role: the artist as location scout. I like Ruscha’s description of how movies made unknown places known to him, and virtually paved the way for his arrival.


When I first went to New York at about age 20 I felt like I was in a familiar land. Movies laid out the carpet that I would walk down to see the city. It was kind of like going to Oz. The same thing happened with LA. It seemed like movies initiated me to new lands. I can’t be exactly specific, but I’m inspired by the clichéd activities in films. For example, in movies from the 40s there was always a train that was depicted as a little spot in the lower right hand corner of the screen and it would always emerge with all of its whistles and steam in the upper left hand side of the frame. It was a bridge between plot action when people were moving from one place to another. It had a powerful, cinematic suggestion to me that directly came into my work as an artist. I still dig the diagonal (laughs). [Excerpted from an interview in Fabrik Magazine]


I dig the diagonal too, which is a powerful compositional element of not only Ruscha’s photographs but his drawings. Several of his most-lauded pieces play with angles and anamorphotics of famous cinematic landmarks and logos, such as the Hollywood sign as viewed from behind and from the side, where the stagecraft used to the erect the letters is revealed.



Hollywood as a metonym figures prominently in his text constructions as well, which are reminiscent of title cards, billboards, or signage. Of course Ruscha would write HOLLYWOOD IS A VERB, emerging from a smog made up of hazy graphite. ANOTHER HOLLYWOOD DREAM BUBBLE POPPED evokes a rosy-fingered mirage.



Ruscha loved the end credits, and that last title card appears in several of his later drawings. They specifically capture the materiality of cinema by showcasing the scratches and lines that characterize a worn-out film print. Part of the reason why Ruscha’s films are not well-known is because he insists that they be shown on film, insisting on their original medium (and perhaps damning them to obsolescence). One can almost hear the faint whirring of the projector as it reaches the end of the reel.


Category: art + video, design, photography

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