Emily Fisher Landau was, simply put, one of the greatest collectors and patrons of the twentieth century. Her legacy is set apart for her deep and longstanding involvement with leading institutions, in particular the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as her profound engagement with the art and artists of her time and her unerring instinct as a collector at the highest level. Fisher Landau assembled one of the greatest collections of modern and contemporary art – over 100 works of which are coming to auction at Sotheby’s on 8–9 November.
Join us over the next 20 days leading up to the Emily Fisher Landau Evening Auction on 8 November as our specialists spotlight 20 key works from the Collection, celebrating their impact on twentieth-century art. Here, Carolyn Kim reflects on the significance of Ed Ruscha’s Plenty Big Hotel Room (Painting for the American Indian) as part of our series The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: Twentieth Century Art in Twenty Unforgettable Works.
Ed Ruscha’s ‘Plenty Big Hotel Room (Painting for the American Indian)’
Ed Ruscha’s Plenty Big Hotel Room (Painting for the American Indian) from 1985 is a striking exploration of symbolism and censorship. The American flag is untethered from its pole, symbolizing a collapse of Manifest Destiny. The black censor strips hint at the silencing of Indigenous voices. Notably, the painting is absent of text – one of Ruscha’s signature elements. Ruscha, a pioneer of Pop Art, paints with skepticism, leaving the viewer to ponder the fractured American identity.
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- The US Flag Is a Common Pop Art Motif
1985 marked the first year the American flag would appear in Ruscha’s oeuvre, the present work being the second ever time he included the motif. Here the flag stands as an intellectually loaded appropriation of the symbol that so many of his Pop peers – Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg – interpreted and incorporated in their most seminal works.
- The Flag Is Detached from the Pole
An American flag blows in the air adjacent to its flagpole. It appears tethered at first glance, but is actually merely floating. This uncanny gesture signals to the viewer that the patriotic banner stands for an insidious history: the titular word “hotel” is used both critically and sardonically, a signifier Ruscha described as “luxury in a land taken over from the Indians.” Ruscha would continue to politicize the American flag motif in later works as Our Flag from 2017.
- The Censor Strips Reference the Failure of Text
Ruscha first introduced black bars, or “censor strips,” in place of text in 1985. Cables/Fittings from 1985 stands as the first work to include this device that not only omits text but signals its erasure, making the present work also one of the earliest examples of this suggestive breakthrough.
- The Deep Blue Sky Is a Recurring Motif
The dramatic gradation and surreal articulation of the sky is an important stylistic choice to which Ruscha would return throughout his career, as in his Cold Beer Beautiful Girls (1993).
- The Censor Strips Are a Formal Innovation
Ruscha creates the censor strips by blocking out a rectangle of gessoed canvas with tape and leaving it unpainted. The formal properties of these strips allude to declassified censored government documents, heightening the political implications baked into the iconography, and communicate the pervasive silencing of Indigenous voices in the ownership and management of land that was theirs.
- The Motifs Developed Here Appear Elsewhere in Landau’s Collection
Life from 1984, offered in The Emily Fisher Landau Collection Day Auction, contains a vast blue gradient interrupted by a small, white censor strip – again a sly disruption of the way text usually operates in his works.