The Old Tech-Chem Building
Blue Collar Tech-Chem and The Old Tech-Chem Building were displayed at the 2005 Venice Biennial, when Ed Ruscha represented the United States as the featured artist. The paintings show the transformation of an industrial building from a Tech-Chem facility (painted in 1992) into a parallel industrial building ambiguously named “Fat Boy.” Inspired by the nineteenth-century painter Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire cycle, Ruscha extends Cole’s meditation to the past and future of the United States. The transition depicted in the two works denotes a journey from darkness (as is the background of Blue Collar Tech-Chem) into a foreboding place highlighted by the crimson sky of The Old Tech-Chem Building. “Fat Boy,” the name of the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States military over Nagasaki, Japan during World War II, suggests that progress in America may rely on fundamentally dark truths.
Ed Ruscha was born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Oklahoma City. In 1956, he took Route 66 to California, which would become a central part of his story as an artist. Settling in Los Angeles, he studied art at Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) and had an early job as a commercial illustrator. In the 1960s, inspired by artists like Raymond Hains, René Magritte, Jasper Johns, and Kurt Schwitters, Ruscha became a vibrant part of the art scene surrounding Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.
Paramount to Ruscha’s work is that the changing nature of language —as its meaning shifts as a function of font, color, composition, and other visual effects—can be a subject for painting and drawing. He often repeats the same phrase or word in artworks over the course of many years. Often, his words and phrases have a vernacular, familiar tone, but an unfamiliar reference. Along the way, Ruscha teases out and accumulates new meanings from the expression. Though words typically take a secondary role in the history of art, Ruscha places language at the center of his practice, reflecting on contemporary life, especially in Los Angeles, with candor and humor.
Ruscha’s interest in language is frequently coupled with an interest in landscape, especially that of the American west. His words appear on road signs, buildings, and mountains, and across open skies and horizons. At times, words are strangely present through their disappearance. In early photographic work, Ruscha created documentary images and books full of swimming pools, parking lots, buildings on Sunset Boulevard, gas stations, and many other features of L.A. life. In his paintings and drawings, these same subjects combine with language to poetically evoke the changing fabric of the city through themes of evolution and destruction.
Ruscha has been living and working in the L.A. area for over sixty years. Through his innovative approach to painting, drawing, and photography, Ruscha has influenced artists worldwide and is considered to be one of the most important figures in contemporary art today.