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Tropical fish series

Tropical fish [AP VI] 1974–5

Photography has since the early 1960s performed a vital function in Ed Ruscha’s practice. But in spite of this, the Tropical fish series represents the first instance where the photographic image has been directly used in his graphic work. He was invited to return to Gemini GEL in 1974, where he had the house photographer Malcolm Lubliner make photographs[1] of a range of common domestic objects. Through clever juxtaposition and titling, these objects would enter into the spaces of irony and humour that preoccupies much of the artist’s work.

The Tropical fish series presents five post-industrial still lifes. If the still life allows for a rumination on the conditions of life and death (thus nature morte), Ruscha understands that the terms of that rumination have shifted radically – from the organic, living or dying forms of Dutch seventeenth-century still life to the manufactured, packaged mass consumables of the late twentieth century. Again, we see Ruscha critically engaging with and revising the conventional genres of art history (compare with, for example, the landscape Fruit Metrecal, Hollywood (NGA 81.1231)).

Tropical fish also continued Ruscha’s interest in the relationship of words and their image. Works in the series engage a series of word-plays. Sweets, meats, sheets engages alliteration in its title, although the poetics of the word play are – deliberately – lost in Ruscha’s photographic translation, where packages of wrapped sweets, raw meat and ‘Californian king size’ sheets appear to fall onto a lush, red spread. Music engages cliché in its representation of the stereotypes of American popular culture: a long-playing record and a racist statuette of three African Americans hover over a blue velvet ground, signifying the genre of blues music. And the pun is invoked in the work Air, water, fire, where the three elements are represented with a bicycle pump, a water fountain and a red statue of Satan; the fourth element, earth, has either been rendered redundant in this world of images and technology, or is represented (‘the red earth’) by the image of shimmering red satin.

Shaune Lakin

[1] Siri Engberg, ‘Out of print’, in Siri Engberg and Clive Phillpot, Edward Ruscha editions 1959–1999, vol. 2, Minneapolis: Walker Arts Center, 1999, pp. 32–3.

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Last updated January 2017