Setting the Table with Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha sitting with the materials used for printing the News... portfolio. © Estate of Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd.

This Thanksgiving menu is unlike any you’ve had before. It was chosen by artist Ed Ruscha and includes caviar and squid, along with pie filling. 

For the past 14 months, I’ve been researching screenprints made by Ruscha as part of my Mellon Fellowship in Paper Conservation. Similar to many of Ruscha’s works, these prints from the 1970s feature a play on words and sense of humor; however these are unique because they’re made with food  instead of ink! My main goal for this project is to study the prints and how they’ve aged over time. With this information at hand, I can provide recommendations for how to best preserve the prints for the future.

Edward Ruscha, News, 1970. Organic screenprint; blackcurrant pie filling and red salmon roe on Silverbrook Antique Finish paper

My work focuses on a portfolio of six prints of stereotypically British words, News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews and Dues (1970), all made using products beloved in England, such as Heinz Baked Beans, Branston Pickle, and Camp Coffee and Chicory Essence. People often have two questions about these prints: Do they smell, and have bugs eaten them? The answer to both questions is no. The prints have remained in good condition because they’re stored in a sealed portfolio case within the controlled museum environment. But preserving food on paper does involve a unique issue: the sensitivity of certain products to light.

Printing mockups in the paper conservation lab

As part of my experiments in studying this light sensitivity, I first made some mockup prints that I could use as test subjects. I used some of the same materials that Ruscha had, including caviar and chocolate syrup, to make screen prints in the lab.  The mockups, which look just like the original prints in most cases, have already been put to good use. They were framed and installed in the hallway outside the conservation lab and are currently undergoing light exposure tests to determine how quickly they fade. 

The entire process of making the mockups felt like a cooking show, with cameras set up to record the action, and finished with a gathering of museum staff for a sit down meal of leftovers. We were most thankful for the more palatable ingredients, like fresh strawberries and mango chutney.

Museum staff enjoying a meal of leftover screenprinting materials

Stay tuned for further blog posts and other ways to follow along as my experiment progresses. And keep your eyes peeled for two other organic Ruscha prints, Pepto-Caviar Hollywood (1970) and Fruit-Metrecal Hollywood (1971), both of which will be included in Ed Ruscha and the Great American West, an exhibition organized by Karin Breuer, Curator in Charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, to open at the de Young in July 2016.

-Heather Brown, Mellon Fellow, Paper Conservation

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