Ed Ruscha and the Internet
and the Internet Superhighway
by Dan Boehl
Pastel on paper
23 x 29 inches
I was 22 in 2000, the year I saw Ed Ruscha’s retrospective at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in DC. At the time I had no real grasp on the concepts of authorship or appropriation, but because of my interests in image and language, Ruscha’s Sin (1967) (gunpowder on paper), blew me away. I drew it in my notebook. Then I drew other paintings: Smash (1963), City (1968) and Sea Of Desire (1983). I understood neither the work nor my fascination with them. Something about the mixture of design and text appealed to me, but because the disembodied words seemed to serve no useful function, that is, they were not trying to sell me anything though they looked like they should be, the work baffled me. It was not until very recently, when I began using Google reader to look at hundreds of images a day, that I realized that Internet mash-up image culture’s use of appropriation of public imagery owes much of its style and composition to Ruscha’s work.
On Ruscha’s maiden drive from Oklahoma, he experienced the dying west; the west as a space rapidly disappearing into Post-War boom. There were the gas stations and dinners, of course, but more effecting to Ruscha’s work were the homespun billboards coaxing travelers to stop and rest awhile. Eventually the western frontier gave way to the design and advertising frontiers of the 60’s, where empty spaces filled with the accoutrements of the time, and each item, let’s say Ovaltine or a can of Spam, was presented to consumers as the necessary addition to their modern lives in the spreads of Good Housekeeping or on prime time television.
In 2000, the Internet probably looked to me a lot like Route 66 to Ruscha in 1956. Though businesses created savvy commercial pages, most websites looked like those DIY road signs that Ruscha passed on his way to LA: Geocities and Angelfire websites cobbled together with low-res jpegs and gifs. And as years later, Ruscha was painting the slick, commercial paintings for which he became known, in 2010 the Internet has become a place where image reigns supreme, mixing high design with cool exuberance. The 60’s sold us on the notion of image as affluence, and so have the 00’s, but by way of the Internet, a frontier that is filling up with the ubiquity of public imagery.
Route 66 presented a powerfully empty landscape where the ads promised to take care of travelers’ needs, but the larger advertising landscape was being filled with corporate images focused on better living through modernism. Ruscha appropriated both the landscape and the lingo of corporate advertising to cast a light on the incongruity between these two competing cultural forces. In essence, his work overlays the promise of economic progress with the ideal of the American frontier. In in this way, Ruscha anticipated the internet’s use of American image culture without being explicitly drawn from advertising.
Dan Boehl is a workshop fellow in the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. His chapbook Les MISERES ET LES MAL-HEURS DE LA GUERRE is now available from Greying Ghost.