Tracy Bonfitto has joined the Ransom Center as the new curator of art. She has worked at the Getty Research Institute, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She was previously a lecturer in the Art History Department at UCLA. [Read more…] about Meet the Staff: An interview with new Curator of Art Tracy Bonfitto
Four large bins containing the archival material of artist Ed Ruscha arrived at the Ransom Center recently. Packed and carefully layered within were boxes, tubes, and portfolios containing Ruscha’s notable creations on paper. The collection includes his limited edition artist’s books and deluxe suites of prints, photographic publications, colorful exhibition posters, prints of his 16 mm movies, and a rich assortment of papers and journals documenting the creation of his publications and art commissions and referencing his various literary influences. Together, this material represents the achievements of a remarkable artistic career that spans more than half a century.
Born in 1937, Ed Ruscha is considered today to be one of the most important artists of his generation. Words and wry phrases have always played a central role in his artwork, beginning with the West Coast Pop Art phenomena of the 1960s where his roots run deep. For Ruscha, whose background includes commercial art and typesetting, words are visually malleable and can carry multiple meanings. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” Ruscha once said.
Arts writer, Calvin Tomkins, summed it up best: “His (Ruscha’s) early paintings are not pictures of words but words treated as visual constructs.”
Single word paintings with odd titles such as Oof (1963) and Boss (1964) were early precursors to more complex works such as the series of rhyming prints titled News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970), which are included in the archive.
Ruscha’s art would evolve and expand intellectually—Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns were early influences—to become beautifully crafted and complex conceptual works of art, which have been described over the years as being comedic, deadpan, and elegantly laconic.
West Coast car culture and commutes on Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma where Ruscha grew up all helped inspire many of his photography-based artist’s books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Royal Road Test (1980), and Parking Lots (1999). All are represented in the archive.
Most recently published is On the Road (2010), Ruscha’s limited edition artist book of the classic novel by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). The archive includes full-size mockups of the book, annotated copies of the novel, sketches, photographs, correspondence, and business papers. These materials resonate perfectly with the Ransom Center’s own collection of materials related to Beat Generation authors, which includes the journal that Kerouac kept while preparing to write On the Road.
Also included in the archive is Sayings (1995), a folio of ten color lithographs bound in linen that are based on Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale (1894). Ruscha selected phrases written by Twain in a black dialect spoken during the era of slavery. He superimposed the phrases (hand-written in what Ruscha calls his “Boy Scout Utility san serif”) over colorful wood grain patterns, creating a tension that resonates with larger social and racial issues in America today.
Ruscha’s creative distillation of popular American culture over the last half century with its layers of typographical code makes him an exciting artist to explore, and, for the Ransom Center, one of the more compelling if not quintessential to acquire.
Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Peter Orlovsky (1933–2010), an important figure in the Beat Generation.
Orlovsky was the companion of fellow poet Allen Ginsberg for more than 40 years, and his papers reflect significant aspects of their relationship. Orlovsky’s collection comprises manuscripts, journals and notebooks, correspondence, tape recordings, photographs, and other personal documents, including unpublished poetry and prose works.
Around the time that Orlovsky met Ginsberg, he began to keep a journal, filling more than 140 notebooks before his death. Some of Orlovsky’s published poems appear in the journals, yet none of the journals have been published.
Correspondence in the collection highlights Orlovsky’s many connections with other poets, authors, and artists. There are more than 1,600 letters written to Orlovsky and/or Ginsberg, including 165 letters written by Ginsberg himself. Some notable correspondents include Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, and Robert LaVigne. Orlovsky also wrote regularly to his parents and siblings, and more than 65 of his letters are included in the archive.
The collection features more than 2,650 photographs taken by or of Orlovsky, documenting the years between 1970 and 2010. Also included are eight reel-to-reel tapes from the 1960s and more than 120 audiocassettes made by Orlovsky during the 1970s and 1980s, some recording conversations with Ginsberg.
The Orlovsky materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
Ransom Center Humanities Coordinator Gregory Curtis writes about a piece of correspondence in the archive, revealing how a misunderstanding began between Allen Ginsberg and Diana Trilling.
The film On the Road, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s acclaimed novel of the same name, opens in theaters today. The Ransom Center holds a number of items related to the lives and works of the “Beat Generation” artists, including a journal Kerouac kept from 1948 to 1949 while preparing to write On the Road. In July 2010, a producer for the film contacted the Ransom Center with a request to help the actors access Beat culture and their characters’ personalities.
Kristen Stewart, best known for her role in the Twilight films, stars in On the Road as Marylou, a character based on Kerouac’s friend LuAnne Henderson. Kerouac once described Henderson as a “nymph with waist-length dirty blond hair,” but Stewart was eager to develop a more personal understanding of Henderson. Stewart, who said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival that On the Road has been her favorite book since she was 15, wanted to do Marylou justice.
To help with Stewart’s research, On the Road personnel requested a digitized copy of an interview with Henderson from the Ransom Center collections. Listening to Henderson offers a more personal understanding of her alter ego, Marylou, who remains something of an enigma. Stewart told CTV’s Canada AM, “[Marylou] is sort of, in the book, on the outskirts of things. You don’t know what’s going on inside her all the time.”
The interview was part of Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s research for their oral biography of Kerouac, titled Jack’s Book and published in 1978. (Their research materials reside at the Ransom Center.) Gifford also served as a consultant on the film. In the interview, Henderson recalls her passionate but unpredictable relationship with Neal Cassady, whom she married at age 15. Cassady was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s novel, played in the film adaptation by Garrett Hedlund.
Despite opening the interview with a disclaimer that her “memory is really lousy,” Henderson’s stories are captivating. The episodes she recalls involve drama with Cassady’s ex-girlfriends, her experiences hitchhiking, and run-ins with the police. Henderson also reveals a more intimate and intellectual side to her relationship with Cassady. She remembers, “At night Neal would read me Shakespeare and Proust and whatever he was into.”
The Beats’ travels have acquired legendary status, which undoubtedly puts pressure on actors hoping to portray them convincingly and accurately. Fifty-five years after On the Road was published, archival materials offer the insight to help achieve precisely that.