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The influence of Ruscha’s time working in an LA Ad agency is clear in his bold, pop works that combine text, image and colour to unique effect. Combining text, colour, and image, Ruscha’s artworks often engage with the American landscape. Saturated with the ironies of US consumer culture, the artist’s work recreates a variety of bold, hard-edged, and resolutely ‘all American’ iconographies, repurposing them as a means for social comment.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in America’s mid-West, Ruscha showed an interest in art from an early age. Collecting stamps and coins for their bold, graphic composition, Ruscha drew cartoons throughout his adolescence.
At the age of 18, Ruscha and a friend embarked on a road trip, eventually ending up in Los Angeles. Commenting on his arrival in the city, Ruscha once said. ‘I came from a backward place, in Oklahoma. When I came to California it was very sparkly, glamourous […] an accelerated culture that I responded to’.
Establishing himself in the Californian city, Ruscha enrolled at the city’s Chouinard Art Institute, where he studied under American installation artist Robert W. Irwin, and abstract expressionist painter, Emerson Woelffer. Upon graduation, Ruscha started work as a layout artist in the art department of a Los Angeles advertising agency.
In 1963, Ruscha created the iconic publication: Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Having moved to Los Angeles, Ruscha would often visit his parents in his native Oklahoma City, making the almost 1,400-mile-long journey alone in his car. Along the way, the service stations that punctuated Ruscha’s journey stood out to him for their minimal, streamlined architecture. Capturing them with his camera, and arranging their photographs in a non-sequential diary-like publication, Ruscha sold the published photographs for $3 – printing more when an edition of 400 had run out.
The geometric apartment buildings of Los Angeles were next to catch Ruscha’s attention. In 1965, he published a collection of photographs depicting these blocky architectural forms, entitled Some Los Angeles Apartments.
The following year, Ruscha continued to revolutionise the DIY artist’s book, using a motorised camera to photograph every building on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard. The book, which saw Ruscha stitch each individual photograph together so as to form a 25-feet long accordion-folded, was straightforwardly named Every Building On the Sunset Strip.
Fascinated with the reproducibility of prefabricated American architecture, Ruscha began to paint some of his photographs, producing works such as the perspective-bending Standard Station (1966), which has since become a widely recognised symbol of contemporary American visual culture.
In 1962, a number of Ruscha’s text-based works, which drew heavily from his background in advertising, were chosen by collector Walter Hopps for the ‘New Painting Of Common Objects’ exhibition at California’s Pasadena Art Museum. This exhibition cemented Ruscha’s status as one of America’s most ground-breaking artists, and was instrumental in the genesis of the Pop Art movement.
In 1970, Ruscha created the installation work Chocolate Room for the 35th Venice Biennale. The multi-sensory piece comprised 360 sheets of paper, each printed with a layer of Nestlé chocolate; indebted to the disruptive ideologies of Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism, as well as American Pop and Conceptual Art, it constituted a departure from Ruscha’s signature style but was a great success. In 2005, Ruscha retuned to Venice when he was asked to represent the United States at the biannual art festival’s 51st edition.
Standard Station (1966) is perhaps Ruscha’s most iconic work. He first began incorporating the petrol station motif into his painting following the publication, in 1963, of Twentysix Gasoline Stations. This particular ‘gas station’, located on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas, has since been reproduced and reworked many times, as in the case of the 1969 screen print, Double Standard. Commenting on the work’s unchanging composition, which makes use of a vanishing point positioned to the bottom right of the canvas or print surface, Ruscha himself has said, ‘It has to be called an icon.’
The simple yet effective OOF (1962) has since become a stand-out example of Ruscha’s visually arresting style. It was one of the works exhibited at the ‘New Painting Of Common Objects’ exhibition, held at Pasadena Art Museum in September and October of 1962. At the exhibition, Ruscha displayed his work alongside that of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, and became the youngest artist to be associated with the nascent Pop Art scene.
During his time at the Chouinard art school, Ruscha was greatly influenced by the likes of Pop Artist and Neo-Dadaist, Jasper Johns.
Touring Europe with his mother and brother in 1961, shop signs further inspired his work, as in the case of the print Boulangerie (1961), which also bears the hallmarks of Johns’ distinctive visual style and use of colour. Commenting on the work, Ruscha said, ‘‘Well, there I was, traveling in France, and I would see a sign and I would make a painting of it. Metro or Boulangerie, I was like a kid on his first trip to the new world, or the old world.’
The 1963 series, Twentysix Gasoline Stations bears considerable debt to German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher – photographers well-known for their monochrome snapshots of industrial structures, namely water towers, factories, and gas holders Much like Ruscha, the Bechers would often compile their photographic series during long journeys across Europe and North America, ‘collecting’ each image in a fashion that has been likened to that of botanists cataloging flora and fauna.
Ruscha’s bold, straightforward, and fiercely direct visual style is present within most of his work, be it his paintings, concerned with the repeated evocation of the landscapes and vernacular of both Los Angeles and Southern California, or his ‘Mountain’ prints of the late 1990s.
Whilst a certain stylistic distinctiveness remains a constant feature of his artistic output, Ruscha’s œuvre encompasses a huge number of unorthodox media, spanning all the way from chewing tobacco to hot sauce, dandelions, and even gunpowder.
As in the case of Street Art legend Banksy, stencils are a common feature of Ruscha’s artistic process. During the 1990s, Ruscha used stencils to create his own typeface; now standardised and used in each of his typographically focused works, Ruscha has dubbed it ‘Boyscout Utility Modern’. Commenting on his reasoning for the name, Ruscha said, ‘It looked like it was done by a lineman for the telephone company, and he’s asked to make the poster for the annual picnic’.
In 2010, US President Barack Obama presented British prime minister David Cameron with a lithograph print by Ruscha. Entitled Column With Speed Lines (2003), the print, which features a Doric column, is covered with small lines of blue, white, and red colour, reminiscent of German artist Gerhard Richter's practice of 'blurring' paintings. The print was apparently chosen because of these colours, which feature on the flags of both the United Kingdom and the United States.
In 2002, Ruscha’s typographic work Talk About Space (1963) smashed its auction estimate, selling for $3.5 million. Since the early 2000s, the value of Ruscha’s works has skyrocketed, however: in 2014, art collector Larry Gagosian (owner of the Gagosian Gallery chain) purchased Smash (1963) for $30.4 million. Later, in 2019, Hurting The Word Radio #2 (1964) sold for $52.5 million to become the most expensive artwork by Ruscha to ever sell on the commercial market. Ruscha’s prints, which are published in multiple editions, can fetch up to $40,000 each.