According to the New Yorker, artist Ed Ruscha has left the studio in Venice that he occupied for the past twenty-six years, a nine-thousand-square-foot former Coors-beer warehouse on Electric Avenue, where the railroad used to run. “This ceiling is thirty feet,” Ruscha said, surveying the place the other day. He was wearing black suspenders over a paint-spattered striped shirt, jeans, and a pair of New Balance sneakers. “My new place—a warehouse in Culver City—is only about twenty.” The move is not entirely by choice. Ruscha paints en plein air behind the building, on land owned by the city of Los Angeles, which plans to build a parking lot there.
Ruscha is best known for his paintings of words, which he started doing in the sixties. (He worked for a printer and learned to set type; the word paintings, he says, were like designing book jackets.) Since around 1980, he has used exclusively an angular font he designed and calls Boy Scout Utility Modern (he was a Tenderfoot). “I wanted to come up with a typeface that didn’t have any curves in it,” he said. Then again, a word he likes to paint repeatedly is “so.” “I’ve done it several times,” he said. “I like looking at the word long enough to lose the meaning. It’s the shape of the letters—it gives good shape, that word, real curvy.”
His latest undertaking is a series of trashscapes, “Psycho Spaghetti Westerns,” Nos. 1 through 10. “They’re studies of debris,” he said. “Litter on the landscape, castaways.” He walked along a row of large canvases he had prepared for a show at the Gagosian gallery. One depicted a loop-the-loop of tire tread. “That’s a gator—truck drivers call ’em that,” he said. “I started seeing these things on the highway and I thought, It’s the perfect excuse to make a picture.” He went on, “I like open road and driving on the highway, especially in the Western U.S. I always liked the Pasadena Freeway. It was built in 1938 and is the oldest freeway in the United States. It has treacherous off-ramps.” (Ruscha was born in 1937.)
Behind a painting of rusty coffee cans and other junk, there was a broken sign that Ruscha had scavenged from a construction site. The next painting over showed it rendered in lifelike detail, on a foreground of grass.
“This is just a pile of debris here,” he said, pointing to the mass on the left side of the canvas, a heap of tangled clothing, bedroom furniture, and dried-up palm fronds. In the heap there was also a brightly colored comic book, “Popular Western,” which had blown in from a decades-old Ruscha painting of a gas station. “Sometimes I reuse things,” he said. “I just kind of coax it into being, start with a little notion and go from there. That”—he indicated a form on the right side of the canvas—“is a lamp that’s been walked on and crushed. It’s particularly hideous. I got that in a secondhand store and knew I was going to smash it and make something else out of it.”
On the concrete wall behind the painting were the shadows of paintings past—swaths of cobalt, mauve, and phthalo, a deep Prussian blue that is one of Ruscha’s favorites. “I hate to move out, ’cause I love it here,” he said. The sky, a blasted powdery blue out of a Ruscha painting, was marked with purple clouds. Before long, the yard would be home to a spectacular pile of garbage, and then one more parking lot.