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Insects 1972

Insects [44/100] 1972

Ed Ruscha has regularly produced work for the gallerist Marian Goodman’s imprint Multiples, Inc., New York. In 1970 he contributed the photographic book Babycakes with weights to the portfolio Artists and photographs. In 1973 he produced the lithograph and screenprint Insect slant for the portfolio Reality and paradoxes. The following year the Domestic tranquillity series of four lithographs was printed by Cirrus Editions for Multiples, Inc. This followed the earlier portfolio of six screenprints Insects 1972, printed for the publisher by Styria Studios in New York.[1]

Although insects do not feature in Ruscha’s paintings and drawings,[2] they provided the subject for graphic work on a number of occasions prior to the Insects portfolio. A hand-coloured, trompe-l’oeil fly crawls over the lower left-hand corner of his 1967 Gemini GEL print 1984 (NGA 73.1176). In 1969, at Tamarind Press, Ruscha produced two liquid-word lithographs of the word ‘carp’.[3] Each print is, with some slight variation in tonal gradation, the same, except for a small, trompe-l’oeil fly that crawls inside the lower edge of the letter C in the second version. The Tamarind lithograph Rodeo 1969 has a fly crawling along the left-hand edge of the sheet, while a fly crawls along the right-hand edge of Boiling blood, fly 1969. Around this time, insects also began to feature as primary subject matter in prints: in Flies and frogs 1969, a collaboration with fellow Ferus artist Ken Price, hundreds of flies are scattered across a rectangular surface, enclosed within a thick black line patrolled by a red frog; a mass of flies also swarms over the surface of the screenprint I’m amazed 1971.

There are a range of motivations for Ruscha’s incorporation of insects in his graphic work. Among these is the image of insects crawling over existing work in the artist’s studio. As the artist responded to Howardena Pindell’s declarative question ‘Why do you use insects in your work? They’re repulsive.’ Ruscha replied, ‘Because I have a jillion cockroaches around my studio. I love them, but I don’t want them around.’[4] The Insects portfolio takes us to the insect-infested space of Ruscha’s studio: three of the works depict swarms of insects crawling over a faux-timber surface, suggestive of clapboard wall lining.[5] In the earlier lithographs 1984 and Carp with fly 1969, a fly crawls over an existing work, presumably one left around the artist’s studio. The presence of insects in Ruscha’s work is thus related to his earlier prints and drawings depicting his own photographic books being read or otherwise floating about in amorphous spaces; in each case, the work declares the material presence of the artist’s work. Ruscha reminds us that his works are objects that have particular material and economic uses and values – they are objects of the world that are read and engaged with as objects; that is, they are in no way transcendental.

Ruscha’s insects also relate to his interest in Dada and Surrealism. Insects were, of course, a prominent image in Dada and Surrealist practices: think of the image of ants crawling out of the stigmata-like wound on a man’s hand in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s film Un chien Andalou 1928; the ants that populate many of Dali’s paintings, such as those crawling out of a hole in the limp, sleeping head in The enigma of desire – my mother, my mother, my mother 1929,[6] and, in an image that resonates deeply with Ruscha’s Insects portfolio, the frontal view of black ants moving grains of wheat across a flat, sandy surface in The ants 1936–7.[7] Think also of the many grasshoppers that populate Max Ernst’s collage-book Rêve d’une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel [A little girl dreams of taking the veil] 1930.

Insects for Ruscha invoke both the spaces of his everyday life (the studio) and, as with the Surrealists, the spaces of the subconscious and memory. This interest in memory literally cloaks the Insects portfolio, which is housed in a raw linen box, covered in plastic, that contains brownish-red soil purportedly gathered from the playground of Ruscha’s old school, the Hawthorne Elementary School in Oklahoma City.[8] The box and its portfolio of prints are thus located in the space of schoolboys – more particularly, of Oklahoman Catholic schoolboys with their magnifying glasses and bug catchers.

The artist shows great interest in the work of Johannes Baargeld (born Alfred Emanuel Ferdinand Grünwald, 1892–1927), the co-founder with Ernst of the Cologne Dada group. This interest foregrounds the connection of insects, memory and everyday spaces in Ruscha’s work. As the artist said of his introduction to Baargeld’s work:

I don’t know his history, except that the Museum of Modern Art owned a drawing of his which I saw once in reproduction, in a book. It was called Beetles, I think. It was a pen and ink drawing. It looked like a diagram from the air – an aerial view, almost like a parking diagram. It had five or six beetles, walking along a line, almost like a racecourse. One of them was veering off to the side, and there were some little ink splotches. I just went and inquired about it at the desk. They took me down in the basement, where they had it stored, and showed me that drawing. I was impressed.[9]

Shaune Lakin

[1] Ruscha has produced thirteen portfolios of prints (lithographs, screenprints, aquatints and etchings), four of which are contained within a specially-designed case. Portfolios such as Insects are intended to be viewed, like Ruscha’s books, not as individual images but as a series of images: ‘My idea is not to make sure that people get a work of mine and put it up on the wall right away. I’m quite happy to keep prints in drawers’ Siri Engberg, ‘Out of print’, in Siri Engberg & Clive Phillpot (eds), Edward Ruscha editions 1959–1999,Minneapolis: Walker Arts Center, 1999, vol. 2, pp. 14–51 (33), 106–7; Siri Engberg, ‘The weather of prints: An interview with Edward Ruscha’, 16 July 1998, in Alexandra Schwartz (ed.), Leave any information at the signal: writings, interviews, bits, pages, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 362–9 (365).

[2] Although a single bug eats its way through two joined pieces of paper in Insect eating paper 1960 (collage and newsprint on paper, American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, President).

[3] With the word – and its exaggerated ‘C’ – written in a transparent oily substance, these prints are formally related to the painting City 1968 (oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago), and engage in humorous word games with the earlier paintings of fish, especially No sleep 1965 (oil on canvas, collection of Laura Lee Stearns, Los Angeles), in which a fish ‘carps’ such that his avian bed-mate cannot sleep.

[4] Howardena Pindell, ‘Words with Ruscha’, in Alexandra Schwartz (ed.), Leave any information at the signal: writings, interviews, bits, pages, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 55–63 (57).

[5]Paper-backed wood veneer was also used for the cover of Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston’s collaborative book Business Cards 1968.

[6] oil on canvas, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich

[7] gouache on tinted paper, Salvador Dali Museum, St Petersburg, Florida

[8] Siri Engberg and Clive Phillpot, Edward Ruscha editions 1959–1999, vol. 2, cats 60–65, pp. 92–3 (92).

[9] Paul Karlstrom, ‘Interview with Edward Ruscha in his Western Avenue, Hollywood studio’, October 1980–October 1981, in Alexandra Schwartz (ed.), Leave any information at the signal: writings, interviews, bits, pages, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 92–209 (127).

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Last updated January 2017