Ed Ruscha is a pivotal American artist associated both with Pop Art and Conceptualism. His wide-ranging practice spans over painting, drawing, printmaking and photography, capturing the essence of the West Coast and the American landscape through clever combinations of text, colour and image.
Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, Edward Joseph Ruscha IV grew up in Oklahoma City before venturing to the West Coast. The imagery and landscape of the California remained influential for the rest of his life and his artistic practice, as he says:
‘As a child, [California] just threw romance in my face. The sunsets, the glamorous aspects of things, sunshine, speedy cars. The culture was different than where I came from in Oklahoma… and so it had a strong effect on me and that started it all up.’
He studied graphic design and advertising at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles while working as a sign painter. He started exploring painting around this time, particularly inspired by Pop artist and Neo-Dadaist Jasper Johns. After graduating he took a job in commercial advertising – the visual language of his training fed into his later paintings and print, such as playing with text, typography and depicting everyday subjects.
Rise to Fame
His 1960 trip to Europe proved to be a significant step in his career as a professional artist. He was inspired by shop signs in France, written in a language foreign to him but revealing the possibilities of an unknown language and how the shapes of words and letters can create an impression on the viewer. This revelation inspired him to start creating his unique artworks that focus on the conceptual relationship between text and image. His work Boulangerie (1961) is from this period.
‘I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again. I see myself working with two things that don’t even ask to understand each other.’
Upon returning to the States, he followed his inspiration and started producing his iconic text-over-image works, or “visual constructs”, as described by the New Yorker in a 2013 profile. Ruscha’s career-making exhibition was New Painting of Common Objects (1962) at the Pasadena Art Museum. This trailblazing group exhibition featured his works amongst the greats of American Pop Art, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others, and led him to have his first solo exhibition at Ferus Gallery in 1963.
In the same year, Ruscha started his prolific output of artist books, the first one being Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), containing photographs of the landscape along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City. This book is considered to be one of the most important artist books in art history.
Ruscha produced 16 photography books during the ’60s and ’70s, documenting California, such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). The artist also painted and printed the iconic 20th Century Fox logo, as well as the Hollywood sign. Ruscha joined the infamous Leo Castelli Gallery in 1973, which represented some of the most significant American artists of that time.
Style and Influences
Ruscha resisted Pop Art and Conceptual Art labels, but his unique practice draws on both movements. His training in commercial advertising seeps into his visual language and clever, poetic combinations of text and image. He rejects Abstract Expressionism and the emphasis on the gestural strokes foregrounding the artist’s hand: instead, he is attracted to readymade, Pop imagery and its manipulation through the semiotics of language. His main interest lies in the myths of the American Dream and manifest destiny, often incorporating its romanticised urban and Western landscape into his works. Ruscha would then hijack these familiar images with clever, enigmatic and witty text. This iconic method is reflected in his early works from the ’60s: Boss (1961), Honk (1962) and Smash (1963) quickly gained him prestige and notoriety on the American Art scene and continues to define his oeuvre until this day.
Ruscha has continuously experimented and pushed the boundaries both in terms of technique and materials. Between the late ’60s and mid ’70s, he painted a series of works with alternative, symbolic mediums such as blood, food or gunpowder on paper, using them to further integrate the traces of American everyday life into his pieces both conceptually and materially. Examples from this innovative period are Corrosive Liquids (1973) and the Stains (1970) series.
In the 1980s, he created his own font, Boy Scout Utility Modern, featuring thin, angular letters evoking sign painting.
Ruscha’s practice has remained relatively consistent into the 2000s in terms of his commitment to printmaking and painting instead of exploring the digital media. Words are still a recurring motif, but past imagery from nostalgic, deserted highways and gas stations have been gradually replaced by mountains, such as in his PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL (2003). His newer works for his exhibition on display at Gagosian New York between November 2020 and January 2021, Ruscha moved away from language and text to give way to purely visual layering and interpretation of image and colour. This body of work draws on Ruscha’s familiar vocabulary of vernacular American landscapes and motifs such as the flag. An example is the work Hardscrabble (2020).
Ruscha was picked up by Gagosian in 1993, and since has had more than 21 solo exhibitions with the prestigious international gallery. His first large-scale survey was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2004, followed by representing the States in the Venice Biennale in 2005 with a painting installation. The exhibition Course of Empire features 10 paintings and was based on the American artist Thomas Cole’s well-known series of the same name, referring to the continuing moral decline of Western modern progress.
In 2009, London's Hayward Gallery opened the retrospective Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, the first major survey to focus on Ruscha's canvases. The exhibition toured to Haus der Kunst, Munich, and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Ruscha also showed in the National Gallery in London in 2018 and has been exhibited as a part of Tate Modern’s ‘Artist Rooms’ programme on display between 2019 and 2021.
On the Market
In terms of Ed Ruscha’s market performance, he has kept collectors grasping for his works for as long as six decades. Celebrity collectors include Jay-Z, Leonardo Decaprio and Owen Wilson. He set his highest bar at the Christie’s New York evening sale in 2019 with top-selling work Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), a significant early painting that sold for $52,485,000, a world record. This was reportedly purchased by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. Another important early piece, Annie (1962), a painting consisting only of text, was a part of Christie’s ONE sale in 2020 and fetched for $22,975,000.
Ruscha’s prints and multiples usually sell within an impressive range and market demand continues to grow. Ruscha’s books are also highly sought after: his recent 2009 publication On The Road: An Artist Book of the Classic Novel by Jack Kerouac is highly praised.