Ed Ruscha gets his Calvin Tompkins close-up

L.A. artist Ed Ruscha gets an in-depth profile by Calvin Tompkins in this week’s New Yorker. Tompkins is his usual thorough self, drawing connections between Los Angeles’s art history and Ruscha’s idiosyncratic, multi-media approach to making art. Tompkins lacks a point of view, though, which may be attributable to Ruscha’s evasive qualities. It’s a bit of a paradox to try to capture an artist whose defining characteristic is their ability to escape definition.

Ruscha, whose works can be cold and impersonal, has always been a hot personal influence on me. When I was a teenager, I fell in love with the painting he has at the Virginia Museum because it seemed to do something. It’s not a picture of something as much as it is a picture doing something.

It has ┬áminimum of elements. Their relationship is tenuous and must be supplied by the viewer, which must happen over time and thus creates a kind of narrative experience of the picture. The pencil that’s repeated gets broken and even the smallest parts of the broken pencil are painted on canvas as if you are watching the pencil break. The word “Noise” can be connected to the sound of a pencil breaking or leafing through the Western comic book. It can also be connected to the unbroken pencil, which makes no sound.

That sound of no sound is what I always settle on. In the end, I hear the sounds that are happening in the gallery when I look at this painting. This can’t be experienced online, when a thousand things are vying for your attention.

That word – Noise – is brought in with such aplomb! The perspective renders the lettering into a space that the rest of the painting, which is painting as flat as a board, resists. I see this painting coming out of abstract expressionism’s insistence on the painting surface as a place for action but heading towards the post-modern insistence on art as something conditioned and prepared in our heads. Good stuff.

The reproduction kills the effect, but just so you know the piece:

Ed Ruscha, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western, 1963. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Ed Ruscha, Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western,
1963. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
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