Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire
Welcome to Norms! Where life happens, 24/7.
[AUDIO: surf music, vocalizations, begins and continues under Narrator speaking]
Every resident of Los Angeles knows that slogan, and just about everyone knows the place—it was recently declared a historic landmark. In the 1960s, Ed Ruscha often walked the few blocks from the iconic Ferus Gallery to Norms to grab a bite.
[SOUNDFX: diner background noise, with people chatting, silverware clinking against plates]
Ruscha’s work is dedicated to Americana, and particularly the landscape of southern California—the open skies and the open road—the attitude and aesthetic born out of the promise of the west.
Here we see the restaurant burning while its trademark neon sign gloriously proclaims its name. In a perfect balance of nihilism and optimism, irony and sincerity, the points of the sign are defined and mimicked by the flames. The extreme perspective of the building along with the blaze, thrust diagonally across the canvas.
There is a set of pencil marks or lines in the areas that at first glance appear to be unfinished or unpainted in this painting. And that's very much a deliberate strategy of his. This sort of slippage between a lushly-painted area of the canvas and then, this sort of moment that's just line drawing.
Norm’s diner is a roadside icon, one of a number of twenty-four-hour restaurants that populates Southern California, slinging pancakes to paying customers. For Ed Ruscha, Norm’s carried the same graphic status as the Hollywood sign, the titles at the beginning of movies, or the bright gasoline signs of Standard Oil Company, all of which became subjects for the artist’s work in the 1960s, all symbols of the American landscape, atmosphere, and even the particular idiom of English that Americans speak. Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire is the first painting by Ruscha of a building set ablaze. The fire brings a surreal edge to the classical, archetypal scene, burning with an almost comic enthusiasm, a moment of expressive energy and even melodrama in a clean, well-lit world.
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.