Hayward Gallery 14 October-10 January Review published in Blueprint 285 December 2009

It’s not often that a graphic designer grows up to become a world-renowned painter. But that’s just what Ed Ruscha has achieved. Unlike Warhol, Ruscha started out in the world of print and commercial graphics, not illustration. His early design training runs like a thread through all his work. Rather than make this connection directly, the Hayward’s Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting concentrates purely on his painted output. This means we don’t get the benefit of seeing the process of his thinking and practice, but oddly it seems to emphasise the rollover effect from graphic media to fine art.

I can clearly imagine Ruscha in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, setting type at the Plantin Press, or working on layouts and paste-ups in the Carson/Roberts ad agency a few years later. The meticulous process of working directly with type, enlarging images, tracing lettering and laying flat colours can detach you from the purpose of the work in hand. While learning the craft it seems likely that Ruscha’s mind was elsewhere. As soon as he was able to concentrate on his own work he took type, lettering and logos out of their real world contexts. Voiding them of commercial purpose, he let them stand ‘suspended in space as well as meaning’, as he put it. The transition from ‘designed’ context to paint on canvas disrupts our interpretation on a number of levels – we see the word as an image in its own right, we examine and reflect on language and how its meaning is transformed, we look at the shape of letters and how they are painted, rather than how we are used to seeing them, reproduced as print or signs.

As his 50 year career demonstrates, Ruscha didn’t stop with type. His observational reach encompasses landscape, architecture and cinema. Small objects, such as tablets and pills suspended in space as still life compositions, become subtle commentaries. He changes focus from micro to macro, from formal titles (‘The study of friction and wear on mating surfaces’) to snatched conversation (‘Wen out for cigrets n never came back’). His juxtapositions are by turns wry, uplifting, engaging and enigmatic. His vision stretches across half a century and a whole continent, bringing a scale and boldness we have come to associate with much American art, at the same time providing a knowing critique of urban life on the West Coast.

He prompts our memories and feeds our imaginations: flying into LA at night, the patchwork grid of lights below us seen through an atmospheric haze; the scratchy black and white film, flickering to a standstill (‘The End’), projector still whirring; and, of course, the gas stations seen from ground level: staging posts across the West, recast as retail architecture.

There’s much in this impressive show of what Ruscha calls his ‘information age art’ to feast our eyes on, interrogate and scratch our heads about, but its playfulness guarantees enjoyment. At least for this graphic designer.