They say that one mark of great writers is their ability to spin personal trauma into creative gain, which usually means a transmuting of pain into prose. But in the wake of his berating on The Oprah Winfrey Show, James Frey had an altogether different notion. With the help of his friend Sarah Watson, a gallery director at Gagosian Gallery Beverly Hills, the author of A Million Little Pieces reached out to Ed Ruscha about a possible commission. He had heard through the grapevine that, in rare instances, the acclaimed artist, known for his laconic use of text in paintings, took on such projects “if the words have character,” as Ruscha puts it.
“Someone told me that my appearance on television reminded them of a public stoning,” recalls Frey, who was excoriated for taking factual liberties with his book, which was marketed as a memoir. “And I thought it was funny. For whatever reason, I immediately thought of Ed Ruscha, and thought it would make a cool Ruscha piece.
“Now it’s on my wall across from a Matthew Barney picture,” Frey continues, sitting in his Amagansett, New York, summer house. “I love it. It does what I want art to do, which is cause an emotional reaction. Sometimes I look at it and it bums me out, sometimes it pisses me off, sometimes I look at it because it’s beautifully executed and I appreciate the virtuosity of it. Most of the time I look at it and laugh. And that’s the best thing, to look at it and laugh.” In Ruscha’s mind, it was the words themselves, and not Frey’s personal association with them, that resonated. “I didn’t care about the particulars of any controversy since I don’t do TV or Oprah,” notes Ruscha, who does count himself a fan of literary lights, including Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and has even “sometimes used words, verbatim, from their works.”