(Above) Ed Ruscha, Standard Station. Paul Ruscha, © Ed Ruscha
Exhibition: Ed Ruscha – Fifty Years of Painting, The Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, until January 10 2010
Presenting a total of 78 works on canvas – many of which have never been seen before in the UK – this is the largest UK survey of Ed Ruscha's output as a painter.
The Californian is undoubtedly one of the most consistently inventive American artists of the 20th century. This retrospective of 78 works reveals his singularity through unashamed cultural scavenging and an incisive, constantly evolving picture of modern American culture.
Focussing exclusively on his painting, it surveys every phase of Ruscha's career, from his heady student days in his hometown during the Cold War to his current, monumental 21st century canvasses.
It traces the development of his paintings across five decades, from his contributions to Pop Art in the early 1960s to his fusions of words and phrases and explorations of iconic American landscape since the 1980s.
Ed Ruscha, The. Allison and Warren Kanders, Paul Ruscha. © Ed Ruscha 2009
What makes this exhibition so special is his refusal to comfortably blend into any one movement despite aligning himself with Pop and Conceptual strands and bearing certain affinities to Dadaism and Surrealism.
Nor does it fit smoothly along side his contemporaries on display in London this autumn – from the more abstract John Baldasari (currently showing at the Tate) to the more surreal, installation-led Kienholz (at the National Gallery next month.)
Ruscha acknowledges that he is a combination of an abstract artist and someone who deals with subject matter, and this comes across in drawings, prints, books, films and photos (sadly not currently on show).
His art appears to be driven by a particular fascination with the power and enigma of language and his typography beginnings.
Ed Ruscha, The Back of Hollywood. Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon, Paul Ruscha, © Ed Ruscha 2009
The earliest works here are 1938 (1958) and the typographic self portrait E. Ruscha (1959), which reveal the influence of Abstract Expressionism. Another early work, Box Smashed Flat (Vicksburg) (1960-1961) shows how he created a new type of bombastic visual landscape by combining lettering with everyday objects.
His use of loud, monosyllabic words in the early 1960s illustrates how he began to treat words like objects. Around this time he created Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962) in a series of marvellous horizontal canvases with Pop Art colours
The exhibition then explains how Ruscha began to seek an alternative to the rigid lettering of his work. Small objects painted in wordless pieces such as Glass of Milk, Falling (1967) and Ball Bearing Breaking a Glass of Milk (1967) demonstrate his progression to a more lush, liquid form of picture.
By the 1970s, Ruscha began to make what he called "word landscapes", where the words seem to become the landscape. In Friction and Wear (1983) and A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983), the words vividly surpass the backdrop.
From this he slides into the use of increasingly enigmatic and teasing phrases, such as in the epic Wen Out For Cigarettes (1985), where a grid of spotlights pervade along aerial views of the city at night.
Even when Ruscha begins his wordless paintings, such as Untitled (1983) – a black, blurred, silhouetted work – the images are still instantly recognisable as American, screaming retorts to the materialistic culture and glitz of the country at that time.
In 1997, Ruscha painted his first "mountain" picture. As in his earliest paintings, his focus moves back to words and he comes full circle in works Me (1999) and Mountain (1998).
The final room in the exhibition is of his most recent work, but demonstrates the concern Ruscha had throughout his career with "waste retrieval" with works that tell the story of the changing face of the artist's home city and changing American society.
Besides engaging with written language, his paintings record the shifting emblems of American life – in particular the vernacular of Southern California, presented in classic Hollywood logos, stylised petrol stations and suburban landscapes.
These frequently huge works constitute a shrewd and witty portrait of American culture, imaginative yet instantly recognisable and retaining immediacy through the use of familiar modern iconography. It is, as he says, "for the information age".
Admission £4.50-£10 (free for under-12s). Book online or call 0844 875 0073.