Artist Ed Ruscha Reads From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a Short Film Celebrating His 1966 Photos of the Sunset Strip

In 1956, the Pop artist Ed Ruscha left Okla­homa City for Los Ange­les. “I could see I was just born for the job” of an artist, he would lat­er say, “born to watch paint dry.” The com­ment encap­su­lates Ruscha’s iron­ic use of cliché as a cen­ter­piece of his work. He called him­self an “abstract artist… who deals with sub­ject mat­ter.” Much of his sub­ject mat­ter has been com­mon­place words and phrases—decontextualized and fore­ground­ed in paint­ings and prints made with care­ful delib­er­a­tion, against the trend toward Abstract Expres­sion­ism and its ges­tur­al free­dom.

Anoth­er of Ruscha’s sub­jects comes with some­what less con­cep­tu­al bag­gage. His pho­to­graph­ic books cap­ture mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca gas sta­tions and the city he has called home for over 50 years. In his 1966 book, Every Build­ing on the Sun­set Strip, Ruscha “pho­tographed both sides of Sun­set Boule­vard from the back of a pick­up truck,” writes film­mak­er Matthew Miller. “He stitched the pho­tos togeth­er to make one long book that fold­ed out to 27 feet. That project turned into his larg­er Streets of Los Ange­les series, which spanned decades.”

Miller, inspired by work he did on a 2017 short film called Ed Ruscha: Build­ings and Words, decid­ed to bring togeth­er two of Ruscha’s long­stand­ing inspi­ra­tions: the city of L.A. and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Ker­ouac sup­pos­ed­ly wrote as a con­tin­u­ous 120-foot long scroll—a for­mat, Miller noticed, much like Every Build­ing on the Sun­set Strip. (Ruscha made his own artist’s book ver­sion of On the Road in 2009). Miller and edi­tor Sean Leonard cut Ruscha’s pho­tographs togeth­er in the mon­tage you see above, com­mis­sioned by the Get­ty Muse­um, while Ruscha him­self read selec­tions from the Ker­ouac clas­sic.

The con­nec­tion between their style and their use of lan­guage feels real­ly strong, but at the end of the day, I sim­ply thought it’d be great to hear Ed Ruscha read On the Road. Some­thing about Ed’s voice just feels right. Some­thing about his work just feels right. It’s like the images, the words, and the forms he makes were always meant to be togeth­er.”

Miller describes the painstak­ing process of select­ing the pho­tos and “con­struct­ing a mini nar­ra­tive that evoked Ed’s sen­si­bil­i­ties” at Vimeo. The artist’s “per­spec­tive seemed to speak to the sig­nage and archi­tec­ture of the city, while Kerouac’s voice felt like it was pulling in all the live­ly char­ac­ters of the street.” It’s easy to see why Ruscha would be so drawn to Ker­ouac. Both share a fas­ci­na­tion with ver­nac­u­lar Amer­i­can speech and icon­ic Amer­i­can sub­jects of adver­tis­ing, the auto­mo­bile, and the free­doms of the road.

But where Ruscha turns to words for their visu­al impact, Ker­ouac rel­ished them for their music. “For a while,” Miller writes of his project, “it felt like the footage want­ed one thing and the voiceover want­ed anoth­er.” But he and Leonard, who also did the sound design, were able to bring image and voice togeth­er in a short film that frames both artists as mid-cen­tu­ry vision­ar­ies who turned the ordi­nary and seem­ing­ly unre­mark­able into an expe­ri­ence of the ecsta­t­ic.

173 works by Ruscha can be viewed on MoMA’s web­site.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Music from Jack Kerouac’s Clas­sic Beat Nov­el On the Road: Stream Tracks by Miles Davis, Dex­ter Gor­don & Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends

Roy Licht­en­stein and Andy Warhol Demys­ti­fy Their Pop Art in Vin­tage 1966 Film

A Brief His­to­ry of John Baldessari, Nar­rat­ed by Tom Waits

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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