SOAPY SMITH
© Ed Ruscha

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SOAPY SMITH 1996
  • Artist Rooms
In this work Ruscha has reversed the stencil so that the text appears backwards and it is even more difficult to decipher due to the letters being stretched vertically. Indeed, the only way to read it is to stand directly below the centre point of the work and look up. This way of engaging with the work relates to a commission Ruscha received to create a seventy-panel mural in the Central Denver Public Library, where “the idea [is] that these panels would be way up in the air and that you could walk underneath them. Then, you can position yourself to actually read those things.” Throughout his oeuvre, Ruscha explores language and American West Coast culture centered on Hollywood. Here, ‘Soapy Smith’ refers to one of the most legendary figures in the American Wild West.

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This drawing comprises the title words in white set against a background of green acrylic spray paint on hand-cut, heavy-weight Strathmore paper. There are margins framing the drawing only at the top and bottom of the paper – the green background fully extends to its left and right edges. As with other works on paper by Ruscha in ARTIST ROOMS, for example his ‘catch-phrase’ drawings from the mid 1970s (AR00053–AR00059), inverse stencils were used to demarcate the lettering of the title. The individual stencil letters were laid on the paper, protecting the areas underneath from the spray paint. Spelling out ‘SOAPY SMITH’ is a capitalised sans serif font which has been stretched vertically to extreme proportions, rendering the text very nearly illegible. It is impossible to decipher the words from most viewpoints, except when the viewer stands directly beneath the drawing, at its centre point, requiring it to be hung higher than eye level.

The alliterative phrase ‘Soapy Smith’ makes reference to a historical figure of the American West – Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy Smith’ II, who was one of the most legendary con artists and gangsters of the nineteenth-century American Wild West. The artist has explained: ‘Soapy Smith was a con man who lived in Denver, Colorado, in the 1880s. He would incite crowds by saying: “Buy my soap and inside the wrapper might be a $20 bill.” Many people found $20 bills, but they were all part of the scam. This made him temporarily wealthy.’ (Quoted in d’Offay 2009, p.80.)

SOAPY SMITH is related to the artist’s 1994–5 commission for a seventy-panel mural in the atrium of the new Central Denver Public Library, designed by the American architect Michael Graves. Ruscha’s mural is a 360-degree panorama, with the panel paintings hung in a frieze high above the space. Dispersed among silhouetted imagery of the historical American West are examples of text identical to that seen in SOAPY SMITH, including names of Native American leaders and local figures such as Soapy Smith. The artist has spoken about these elements of the mural commission, describing them as ‘anamorphic words (elongated, crunched-together text meant to be seen from a specific perspective)’. He goes on to explain:

I was painting some of these anamorphic words at the same time that I did this. The idea [is] that these panels would be way up in the air and that you could walk almost underneath them. Then, you can position yourself to actually read those things, like ‘Baby Doe’, ‘Soapy Smith’, ‘Ute’ and ‘Ouray’. What did I call them? Stretch-outs or rubber bands or something like that. They also resembled, and I liked it for this, those sound patterns, and they also resembled dripping paint – if you put lots of paint on and watch it drip down in these vertical lines. So, the anamorphics, I always liked that. You can’t do that on a wall-mounted picture that you're looking directly at. You have to look way off at an angle. And you’re able to walk under and position yourself under those down here and you can actually read them. I’ve often wondered how many people have really discovered that.
(Quoted in MacMillan 2007.)

In SOAPY SMITH, the spray gun application of green acrylic is concentrated in a very dark central band, vertically spanning the length of the drawing and positioned precisely between the two words of the title, providing a strong contrast for the white lettering. The green acrylic gradually fades out to become very pale at the left and right edges of the drawing. This colour gradation creates the impression that the paper surface is much narrower than in reality by focusing attention on the position at which the letters become legible. The verticality of the work offers a counterpoint to the horizontality of Ruscha’s wider painting and drawing oeuvre, in which works often mimic the widescreen proportions of CinemaScope or other film formats (for example, DEC. 30th, AR00065).

Further reading
Kyle MacMillan, ‘Ed Ruscha’s Murals in the Denver Central Library are a Panorama of the American West’, Denver Post, 28 January 2007, http://www.denverpost.com/art/ci_5087522, accessed 7 May 2010.
Anthony d’Offay and others, ‘Me, You, Us: Anthony d’Offay and others on ARTIST ROOMS’, TATE ETC., issue 16, Summer 2009, pp.74–81.
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2009.

Stephanie Straine
May 2010

 

Details

  • Acc. No. AR00061
  • Medium Acrylic paint on paper
  • Size 36.60 x 29.00 cm (framed: 52.00 x 43.50 x 4.00 cm)
  • Credit ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008