Witness Ed Ruscha and Tan Lin

Words inappropriate to the (p)age

Ruscha, Talk Radio 1987, Acrylic on canvas, private collection.
Ruscha, Talk Radio 1987, Acrylic on canvas, private collection.

What is a derelict void?

What does “museum studies” mean by “context”? What if it were “museological environment”? An artwork would be out of context until it was taken out of context. But what does it mean to take an object out of context? Or a non-object? It must be a kind of displacement that is more historical and geographical than it is temporal and spatial. Because the time of the piece must unfold in a serviceable manner, and the space must be arrayed contiguous to its virtuous features, the features that display “it,” the approximate museological environment conserves period and style. Old is good. “Modern” is bad, except as a paradigm. By paradigm here is meant “real-to-ready phenomena,” the kind that make my encounter with the object contemporaneous to it.

Boris Groys distinguishes between the traditionally “anonymous and neutral” exhibition space and that of the “curatorial project” in terms of the effect upon the artworks therein. Just as any encyclopedic museum’s permanent collection festers with significance, the fact that these pieces happen to find “rest” there renders them timeless. They could be anywhere, so they are as good as everywhere at any point whatsoever. Groys says the curatorial project, which includes those artworks we call “installations,” but whose museological zenith is the special exhibition, is different because it “inscribes the exhibited artworks in this contingent material space.”

Thus, stationary artworks of the traditional sort become temporalized, subjected to a certain scenario that changes the way they are perceived during the time of the installation because this perception is dependent on the context of their presentation—and this context begins to flow. Thus, ultimately, every curatorial project demonstrates its accidental, contingent, eventful, finite character—in other words, it enacts its own precariousness.

My interest in Ed Ruscha’s drawings and paintings of texts was renewed a few years ago when I made an unplanned visit to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, and happened into Ruscha’s Chocolate Room installation from 1970, which is held in their permanent collection. Groys’ terms “installation” and “curatorial project” are not entirely interchangeable, and Ruscha’s piece demonstrates one (admittedly fuzzy) reason why. The curator “inscribes” a given work, but Ruscha’s script went flush with its own pungent surface—an ironically Greenbergian move. Chocolate Room debuted at the Venice Biennale while many like-minded artists boycotted to protest the ongoing Vietnam War. What he offered by silk-screening chocolate panels along the walls was a replete void. I was overcome by the sensuality of the space at the same time as I felt a pleasant vacuum of sense. I was also drained of any memory of its supposed status as a protest gesture, relieved of both its political and aesthetic historicity. Of course the biggest difference is that Ruscha was given space. Curators are given space and works to fill it. Installation is both means and end, cause and effect.

What I loved about entering Chocolate Room was that humorous, even care-free sensation of the right fit. The mot juste. I warned you the reason was fuzzy. I quickly leafed through a catalog of his text works and hit upon that feeling again in Talk Radio. The fickle pairing of the phrase “talk radio” (itself a pair of referents: modern frequency modulation and postmodern media formatting) with a, for me, historically precise landscape (everyone with a window seat knows this image) nails it. Nails what? It. The point was to change it, said Marx. A lot of good that’s done. The problem is not in the direction we point that thing. Don’t point that thing at me, either. The problem is in the pointing.

What I tried to do next failed. I picked up a remaindered copy of They Called Her Styrene, Phaidon’s book of Ruscha’s works on paper, a book with practically nothing to read except a few hundred text works (scaled to the size of postcards). The back matter suggests that it can be read as a plotless novel. I thought I’d try to read it as a book, at least. In visual tone and linguistic theme, there are relations that momentarily suggest subsequence, action, and character to unite the two. But these relationships are surprisingly obvious, compared to the dazzling ambiguity of any one of the images. Example: “DREAMS / SEX / THE / FIX / NERVE / WE’RE THIS AND WE’RE THAT, AREN’T WE?” My hypothesis was that if reading the book worked—reading, not leafing through a catalog, mind you—I might find a platform for writing that is pointless and changing, and so revolutionary to the core. Unhappy with the results, I have faith that the forms of reading Tan Lin describes in his Ambient Stylistics series—particularly Seven Controlled Vocabularies—will be bookended by Lin himself. Perhaps only he could help me recapture my utterly bland feeling for the painted word.

Ruscha confirms Walter Hopps’ observation that the first words he painted were a bunch of place names, and then road signs, billboards and product packaging. He does it by referring to getting it right, “faithful reproduction,” which he manages “sometimes.” I want to underscore the fact that the sort of words that lead into his life’s work are fundamentally deictic. Place names are especially senseless without the capacity to be there; they put the there there. In Talk Radio, though, we are up and away, any place between nodal points that brew down to ports of call, called by that place, whatever it is called. In the language is an anarchy of exchange values.

Ruscha’s countercultural chops have never matched his drafting skill. The ambivalence operating in his text works extends to genre; maybe they are poems. His politics are equally ambivalent, acutely evident by his sense of gender politics. As Alexandra Schwartz puts it, Ruscha prefers “to satirize [his] swashbuckling Stud persona, to reinforce it, or (most likely) both.” Critics’ consensus is that he is artist most likely to do both. Erotic ferocity and conceptualist neutrality are there in equal measure—or, as his work progresses, I think, he graduates from ambivalence to equivocation, a studied sense of poise providing constant fodder for artworld discourse. There is always something clever to say about Ruscha’s work because we keep expecting it to tell us something. This equivocation as aesthetic texture reminds me not only of Lin, but of Gertrude Stein.

Notwithstanding the ways in which artists appropriate the literary field—yet poets are writers first and artists, or scholars, second, right?—the text works have a keen sense of camp. As a “Pop” artist, Ruscha lets this bleed through a carefully applied sheen. I think the combined effect owes to that point of “metaphysical subtleties” in our ocular processes described by Marx in the commodity fetish.

This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way  the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, a fantastic form of a relation between things.

And just as quickly, the work feels tepid. It insinuates contrariness but is really just culture. This is the effect of an epistemological ruse that exacts from the basic declarative thrust of the word(s) the sinisiter repleteness of a very partial view. Drawn or painted, any statement by Ruscha is contextualized by medium (gunpowder, oils, etc.). Chocolate Room is all medium. The relation of things is minimized and obfuscated by the pungency of its surface value. One wonders how the print shop survived, not how the artist came out clean. Text works, though, exalt the printed word as apparition. Even when liquidity is depicted, it is the manual fidelity to a font that matters.

Ruscha, Lips 1968, Oil on canvas, Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah

Talk Radio is a good example. It responds to rhetorical analysis. “Talk radio” acts as a nomative case figure for its backdrop. In the vocative case, it comes into its own (context). It beams up. Ruscha’s signature diagonal plane becomes a pun. Money talks. Or it speaks (volumes). Suddenly we’re in business class, semiocapital transmissions buoying us on a swift ascent. As Ken Allen has shown, this was an early achievement in view of the exigencies of “spectatorship in 1960s Los Angeles”; “Ruscha repeatedly addresses the dynamic between the pictorial space, the mental space, and the actual space that structures…encounters with works of art as objects.” Its spatio-temporal specificity is its ahistorical self-regard—and for reasons history teaches. This conclusion is kissing cousin to Olivier Berggruen’s claim that Ruscha extends Wittgenstein’s aspect blindness past Richard Willheim’s curative “twofoldness,” all the way to a threefold play between “the surface of the work, its representational content (aesthetic objects in the form of words) and the words as conduit to linguistic meaning.” The question of going beyond the relation of things to a social relation is only a semiotic one—a question for poetics—if these cultural and formalist triads can be superimposed, rendered as (rather than reduced to) a verbal phenomenon.

Though Rosalind Krauss argues that Ruscha explodes the dogma of medium-specificity, I am tempted to add that, in the terms of Prague School linguistics, he writes in so doing. Jifi Veltrusky asserts that the primary distinction between painting and language is that the former “uses material that is by no means exclusive to it,” while “the articulated sounds used in language are not used anywhere else.” In an attempt to transcend “iconology,” a thematic translation of “the pictorial sign” into “words,” he cites Matisse’s desire to convene alternatives “related to…quality.” Any “aspect” of a picture has a “differential value” that, unlike the linguistic sign, can be re-classified or “freely changed…by any single picture.” While usage is a limited response to Saussure’s closed, synchronic chain of arbitration, the modern painter creates intrinsic systems. A postmodern painter presumably enjoys this legacy to the extent that she can recontextualize found language. Even suggested by idle revery, a phrase stumbled upon is appropriated. Ruscha puts it this way: “When I first started painting it became an exercise in using, oh, guttural utterings…painting an environment for what the word sounded like and looked like at the same time.” Hence he never misspells a word, and “never wanted to.”. Hence the “backdrops” are “anonymous.” The system must present itself as a system. The words don’t name a thing.

Detail from Ruscha's Thirtyfour Parking Lots 1967

Let’s look at the modern system of naming per excellence, the book, but, taking a cue from Lin, turn it over so its back cover is facing us. We don’t have to. Reading Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies, this is done for us in photographs reproduced there, thankfully in small enough dimensions that anything printed on the covers is illegible. "Literature…is a method for extracting non-variable information at the moment before it is released… Reading a novel is like looking at a movie of a rainbow in order to get one's bearings." Seven Controlled Vocabularies distinguishes “books [that] function as labels rather than mirrors,” the former being “generic” such that “removing the jacket…is the best way to create a kind of empty enclosure…or closed parking garage without it…[T]here is no plot and/or character” to be indexed or with whom to identify, as one stands before their own (self-) image in a looking glass. Beside the “less than visible things beyond the book” which are infinitely available to indexical marks—the mirror is “manual” and the label is “digital." “One never really knows what is beside a parking lot or a book.” Does he have in mind Ruscha’s book of parking lots? He does like to write indexes to other people’s photographs—recently, those by Diana Kingsley.

Two thirds of the way through Seven Contolled Vocabularies comes a chapter entitled “Various Library Standards.” The chapter consists of the book’s acknowledgments, dedication, an appendix and prefaces. That is part of the overall design of the book, to raise the apparatus to the surface so that it is only “mildly operative,” so that you are looking at it instead of undertaking its directives. Even the front cover is the back. The other half of this chapter, though, provides bittersweet eye candy. It consists of images of pages from other books: first, the index to Roland Barthes’ Image-Music-Text; second, Laura Riding’s 1986 foreward to her magnum opus Rational Meaning, an argument that the days of connotation are through: “one word, one meaning.” How the lilt of the tongue or other utter nonsense intervenes is a false question. By offering the image of Riding’s forward, Lin forces me into iconology in order to quote what is said there. Riding insists that, despite appearances, Rational Meaning’s argument is “not of a kind to come under the heading ‘Linguistics,’ or any heading of ‘semantic’ reference (as ‘semiotics,’ ‘semiology’).” It’s a book about usage that, she finds, “presents the scene of the human mind” in a moral bind. The quest is for a “difficulty of thought executed with an earthly ease of speech the mind can love.” The bind means there is ample reason to reach the decision one is bound to make, between this form of relaxation and a devilish stupor.

I want to imagine that looking at a page of a page has prosodic value. This value sets the stakes in rhetoric, usage. Denigrating the role of the sign as she does puts this image face forward. I’m not saying I look at the page and hear the machine below the bed of the scanner, passing by. It’s not an index or icon of or for its making. Rather, its prosodic value is in its relevance to Lin’s own discursive treatment of the book containing said discourse, a discourse all about what poetry ought to aspire to. Relaxation. Ease, the ethos of his entire “ambient stylistics” series. Lin did not make the image. It is not drawn, nor apparently derived with an artisanal signature of any kind. The author’s voice is beside the point. If my vocal chords remain dormant, I have followed the cue perfectly.

Jerome McGann’s summation of the problem of usage that led Riding to pursue poetics by repudiating her practice as a poet underscores a distinction between making (“the inherited illusions of poiesis”) and telling. Telling, he says, “keeps the linguistic act in a conscious state of process”—ease of speech carries the “difficult” labor of thought along, as it were, utterly and tellingly. Intoned writing prevents what we sometimes call “closure.” And telling “prevents the reader from fetishing the work.” Maybe Lin’s point is that this can only be prevented if the reader is not told what to say by what it requires one to say. My sense is that prosody is only as interesting as it plays two simultaneous roles: it is the script as well as the score. Lin’s reproduction of pages calibrates these dual functions such that the viewer equivocates between looking and reading, until finally one suffices for the other. Ambient reading practices are satisfied with glancing at signals, just beneath the threshold of attention. A score shows one how it appears to be said. But here that appearance is entirely relational. The “text” shares our level and our kind of regard. Rational Meaning is “our book” to thrum through or across like a tale untethered to its host organism.

Front cover of Tan Lin's BIB., REV. ED.

When I teach Gertrude Stein, I bring into class a techno 12” and my copy of Making of Americans. I pass them around and ask students to look at both the grooved and inked patterns of these documents, and compare. We play a game of epistemological jukebox jury. This is how I read Lin’s BIB., REV. ED., short for bibliography, revised edition, a book that just shouldn’t exist as such. It is unabashedly redundant (unreadable?), a list of years worth of daily reading matter. “Reading is ambient,” writes Lin in BIB., REV. ED., “whether it takes place in an online or offline environment, and in both cases it forms the background and occasionally the foreground of our attention…” What for Riding was poetry’s spiritual “creed,” to make “forms intended for oral or written delivery” into attributes of truth becomes Lin’s litany of titles available for ocular or intellectual receipt. That’s the conceit of the exhaustive index. It’s a kind of cartridge music you tell yourself sounds like it looks. The index works well the more it distracts you.

A derelict void is one whose politics are impenetrable. A fan of designer food, Lin’s work helps me to inhabit Ruscha’s chocolate factory, really a print shop. There’s that terrible hemistich: the writing is on the wall. Of course, you just want to melt, and reenter the flow.