Outlined in ink and filled with a deep crimson oil paint, the words “PAST STUFF” have been hand-painted on the front cover of the third volume of Ed Ruscha’s Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings. “PAST STUFF” is large compared to the size of the book cover, and it visually dominates the space and obscures the book’s title. Underscoring this work’s unique quality, traces of the brushstroke are visible in the paint, and the hand-painted letters have wavering borders. A red censor-like block has also been painted over Ruscha’s name on the text’s spine.
Ruscha’s additions to the present work relate intimately to the artistic strategies that he was developing during 1983–1987, or the years of his career surveyed in the third volume of the Catalogue Raisonné. Painted in capital letters in a typeface Ruscha invented in1980 called “Boy Scout Utility Modern,” “PAST STUFF” features squared-off forms, shaped as if they were outlined in masking tape. Ruscha’s use of red constitutes another nod to the past, since red was frequently used during those years as a background color along with blue and sunset hues, and censor blocks like the one on the spine first appeared in Ruscha’s paintings in the mid-1980s. Actively covering Ruscha’s name, this censor block gains new meaning when compared to Ruscha’s earlier censor strips, which “advance[d] either the loss or disruption of pictorial space or a sense of the erasure of language, disappearing like graffiti eradication in the neighborhood of his studio” (R. Dean, “Overlapping Dialogues: The Paintings of Edward Ruscha, 1983–1987,” Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983–1987, New York, 2007, p. 7).
In quoting his past works and selecting the wry phrase “PAST STUFF” to embody the sum of his artistic career thus far, Ruscha summons the signature humor and conceptual bent that characterizes his work. By altering the title and blocking out his name, Ruscha makes the bold statement that this is a fundamentally different work because he has named it so, along the lines of Duchamp’s readymades. Past Stuff also references Ruscha’s practice of culling from pre-existing imagery for his work—including billboards, signs and advertisements—through its seamless incorporation of his own art from years past.
Books constitute both a major influence on Ruscha’s work, and a significant part of his oeuvre. The artist is celebrated for his artist’s books such as the seminal Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and it is a form that has always attracted him. As Ruscha states, “When I first became attracted to the idea of being an artist, painting was the last method, it was an almost obsolete, archaic form of communication. I felt newspapers, magazines, books, words, to be more meaningful than what some damn oil painter was doing” (E. Ruscha, quoted in N. Benezra, “Ed Ruscha: Painting and Artistic License,” Ed Ruscha, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 45). Past Stuff thus represents an important contribution to the artist’s considerable career, and the apex of his mature, yet still provocative process.
Ruscha, Ed (b. 1937). Past Stuff. New York: Gagosian, 2014. 11 1Ž2 x 9 5/8 x 2 1Ž4 in. oil on book cover, signed and dated ‘Ed Ruscha 2014’ (on the inside fly-leaf).