Ed Ruscha: Beyond Words

Ed Ruscha: Beyond Words

As Ed Ruscha’s landmark retrospective transfers from New York to LA this spring, two experts reflect on the artist’s unique eye, overlooked works and dynamic market.
As Ed Ruscha’s landmark retrospective transfers from New York to LA this spring, two experts reflect on the artist’s unique eye, overlooked works and dynamic market.

“B asically, everything I’ve done in art, I was in possession of when I was 20,” Ed Ruscha said in 1990. The artist was then already three decades into his career, and, now, at 86, he is three decades further on again – still observing, still processing, still refracting his unique perspective on American life (and his own artistic output) into new forms. As he says of his time on the road: “Some artists change dramatically. I see my work more like history being written.”

So, increasingly, does his audience. The man who put pastel to paper in 1979 to declare I Don’t Want No Retro Spective finally received one in 2023, as more than 200 of his works went on show at New York’s MoMA in a landmark four-month presentation. Ed Ruscha / Now Then spanned every medium from painting, drawing and prints to photography, film and installation, even recreating his famous Chocolate Room, 1970, for another generation.

Now, as the show crosses coasts to Ruscha’s spiritual home of LA, opening in a new presentation at LACMA in April, curator and writer Linda Norden – who commissioned Ruscha’s exhibition for the US Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale – met with Charlotte Van Dercook, Sotheby’s vice president, head of marquee sales, contemporary art, to discuss Ruscha’s unique vision and appeal.

Ed Ruscha, Actual Size, 1962, oil on canvas (170.3cm by 183cm), LACMA, anonymous gift through the Contemporary Art Council, will be exhibited in the retrospective. Credit: © Edward Ruscha, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

SOTHEBY’S MAGAZINE: What makes Ed Ruscha’s body of work so original and significant?

LINDA NORDEN: Ruscha is in so many ways an exception. The phrase I like most is one he used to describe the reception to his books: “kissed by angels”. You could say that of Ruscha himself. From the get-go, he was seemingly so self-possessed and clear on what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go. A good starting point is the drive with his childhood best friend from Oklahoma out to LA the minute he graduated from high school. He began by thinking he was going to be a designer, going after something that’s a career, but also a processing of art, rather than just invention. He rejected Abstract Expressionism – or reacted against it. And the first thing that came into his field were words.

Ruscha in 2018. Credit: Mark Mahaney

CHARLOTTE VAN DERCOOK: That makes me think of those early paintings from 1961 from Ruscha’s famous trip to Europe, such as Metro and Boulangerie. When we sold Hotel at Sotheby’s, we were so excited because it was one of these groundbreaking works where he’s joking with Abstract Expressionism by using these really built-up strokes, devoid of any context. That’s not Pop art, that’s not conceptual art – it is both and it is also something else.

SM: Ruscha treated words as a worthy subject in themselves – to what extent did this drive the early impact of his work?

LN: The work-art relationship is significant here: the design world references; the idea that American audiences – and I do think he had a local audience first – respond to seeing things after they’ve been reproduced; the fact his work looks as much like a magazine as handmade painting; his involvement in printmaking and bookmaking. Ruscha likes the idea, in books, of turning pages. All this subliminally informs your experience of his work. It’s very relatable. Somehow he manages to always have his work looked at on its own terms. Ruscha has been more successful at this than almost any artist I can think of – even Warhol, who he really looked up to. I used to say the magic in Warhol’s Pop subjects had everything to do with the fact he loved them. He genuinely loved Campbell’s soup. But there is a presumption of universality there, whereas Ed’s work is more maverick.

“You can’t really define Ruscha by genre because he does them all”
–Linda Norden

SM: Where did that maverick spirit come from?

LN: Ruscha often credits his mother for first exposing him to art. He was raised as Catholic and went to church, which would have been a very visual environment. But he only went to Catholic school for a year before his mother took him out because she couldn’t stand the constraints. She put him into public school where he did art-related things, even in grade school at age 10 or 12. He was exposed to cartoons. There are performative art influences and music, too. He worked for [actor and comedian] Spike Jones as a gopher: there’s a story of him being told to fetch a dozen eggs so Spike can throw them at his band members. So there was a strong sense of play but also absurdity. And he always had friends. By the end of art school, he was visiting the Ferus Gallery, where he befriended curator Walter Hopps and became part of a very avant-garde dialogue.

Ed Ruscha, Securing the Last Letter (Boss), 1964, Oil on canvas, (149.9cm by 140cm). Credit: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

CVD: He also had this energy – you could call it American – where he would get into his car, go west and see things. He was capturing images of gas stations or looking at the landscape. It’s in this energy that he found his early successes. He had museums acquiring his work early on, which helped to propel him – LACMA acquired Actual Size, a really important painting, in 1962 – and he had solo shows at Ferus in 1963 and 1964. Those successes gave him confidence.

SM: So, language and landscape are perennial features of Ruscha’s work?

LN: You can’t really define him by genre – landscape, figure, still life – because he does them all. Reconsidering his work lately, I understood that sense of epiphany taught in art history class about Cubism: the moment of dialogue between Picasso and Braque around figuring out how to paint a picture of everyday life that included time and space. Ruscha adds to this bodily and sensory perception. At any given point, his work is figured from something current. The car and road are important in his work because they dominated the culture. There’s a sense of information processed in movement and peripheral vision; things that come into view. I also love the question mark – Ruscha always said he’s after the “Huh?”

Ed Ruscha, Standard Station with Ten-Cent Western Being Torn in Half, 1964, Oil on canvas, 65 x 121 1/2 inches (165.1 x 308.6 cm). Credit: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

SM: Do you think some strands or phases of his career are more admired or valued than others?

CVD: The most highly valued works are the large-scale word paintings from the early 1960s. There are only 24 paintings larger than 50in that Ruscha made between 1960–65, with words such as “ace”, “radio”, “honk” and “boss”. These are market-beloved and hold value because they are part of that early, seminal body of work. They’re held in high esteem by collectors. The gunpowder drawings from the late 1960s are a perfect example: breathtaking and so rigorous. We’ve sold several at Sotheby’s, including one from the collection of the late film producer Douglas Cramer. Then there are Ruscha-isms that are desirable to the market because they are synonymous with the artist, such as Bliss Bucket, 2010, The Girl Always Did Have Good Taste, 1976, or the great palindromes.

SM: The MoMA/LACMA retrospective draws from many private collections. What have collectors favoured in Ruscha’s work – and how has his market changed over time?

CVD: It’s not a perfect science, comparing then and now, but I think 2002 was a big turning point on the secondary market. That’s when Talk about Space, a large 1963 word painting, came to market. I know the collectors who underbid on that painting and they say it’s one of their only collecting regrets, their big miss.

I would say that most serious contemporary art collections, if they don’t include Ed Ruscha’s work, have definitely thought about including it. Collectors from all major cities in the US collect the work as do major collections in Europe. As we’ve already said, it defies categorisation. So it’s really about educating and learning. And that’s why the retrospective is so exciting: not just because more collectors will be interested in Ruscha, although that’s great throughout the commercial art world. It’s that the general population can look at this work and further understand what it is and what an artist can be. As someone who sells art, I find it inspiring to go see shows like this, because it’s just beyond a tour de force: his career and his output.

LN: Two categories seem to appeal. Those that look like signature Ruscha, like the mountain paintings. Conversely, he is often collected because of the space the work gives you to have a personal relationship to something shared. That fine calibration of the specific and familiar.

Ed Ruscha, Cold Beer Beautiful Girls, 1993, Acrylic on canvas (213.7cm by 152.4cm). Credit: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

SM: His career, for its longevity, is defined by noticeable periods of energy.

LN: By the end of the 1960s I think he found painting wanting. Even then, there’s a notion of material: the smell and wetness of ink; the sensory properties that keep surfacing. In 1969, he made one of my favourite works, the Stains portfolio. It was beautifully shown at MoMA, where it followed his Chocolate Room installation, even though it was really its instigator, because it’s where he decided to work with non-art materials. The 1970s were a kind of downtime, but Ruscha made two films: Premium, 1971, and Miracle, 1975. I showed one when I curated Landmark Pictures in 2000 at Harvard, which also featured the work of Andreas Gursky and Bernd and Hilla Becher. It’s about a mechanic – played by Jim Ganzer – and trades on these 1950s American stereotypes of “car versus girl”: Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas plays the woman “on hold”. There’s also a male buddy played by Dana Derfus.

Then there’s the 1990s, which I’ve come to think of as my favourite Ruscha decade. I saw the Blue Collar paintings at Tony Shafrazi in 1992 and was blown away. Five paintings, all in black and white, very film noir. There’s a period of incredible invention when the market’s not so strong, from the monumental Getty commission Picture Without Words, 1997, to his installations for the Miami-Dade and Denver Public Libraries. Not necessarily his best works, but major efforts.

SM: How significant were his two involvements in the Venice Biennale?

LN: With Chocolate Room, Ruscha’s unexpected entry in the group show for the US Pavilion in 1970, he was the guy who said yes when a lot of artists were saying no to protest Vietnam. Chocolate Room became that much more radical when people started writing peace signs – and more! – in the chocolate. Ed didn’t object. He let the bugs attack it. He let life happen to that work. Chocolate Room was almost apocryphal. Not a lot of Americans got to go to the Biennale then.

“He is one of the most important living artists, full stop, and that has been realised over decades”
–Charlotte Van Dercook

It wasn’t like 2005, when Ed represented the US with his Course of Empire paintings. We’d proposed the project in 2002, but the commission didn’t happen until late 2004 (for the 2005 Biennale), when, occasioned by the politics of the moment, a group of museum directors were convened and decided it was time for Ruscha. Course of Empire referenced the Blue Collar paintings, but also Thomas Cole’s 19th-century painting cycle, The Course of Empire, whose title Ed borrowed. Donna De Salvo, co-curator of the Venice project, and I were able to restage Course of Empire in an entirely different installation at the Whitney, opening just 10 days after the Biennale closed. It was hugely popular there and part of the impact owed to that reconfigured presentation.

SM: Is there a particular kind of collector who is drawn to his work?

CVD: There are certain collectors who want to own multiple works because they’re so nuanced. Whose dream collection wouldn’t include a Ruscha from every decade? Words and images can be so personal, and Ruscha traverses so many different modes and styles of art that a work can fit into a Pop or minimal or conceptual collection, or one that doesn’t have a cohesive strain at all. It comes back to that question mark that Linda mentioned: Ruscha does so much of the thinking, but a lot is asked of us, too. That is one of the most rewarding things about his work.

SM: What lesser-known Ruscha works should enthusiasts look at?

Ed Ruscha, Chocolate Room, 1970, installation view, Chocolate on paper, sheet dimensions variable – will be shown in the LACMA retrospective. Credit: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

CVD: Certainly the Psycho Spaghetti Westerns, 1997. It’s not that they’re lesser-known, just maybe not looked at with the same kind of lens they should be given.

LN: They are some of the greatest paintings that Ruscha has ever done. They started with him picking up trash on the roads west of LA, the way some people pick up roadkill, then photographing it in his studio. In this, they relate to his Standard Station paintings from the 1960s. A shout-out, too, to the Getty Center, which has acquired Ruscha’s photographic archive, allowing us to see the way he revisits such early works as Every building on the Sunset Strip, 1966, rephotographing the same stretch at later points, so that he – and we – can look at LA, in Ed’s words, “as time changes over it”.

SM: How do you predict Ruscha’s reputation will develop over the coming years?

CVD: I think that his ability to look back on his own career and re-explore earlier paintings and motifs is what will propel more people to understanding Ruscha. This retrospective travelling to both coasts of the US is one example of that. So is getting a bird’s-eye view on his career, which has all these different moments and strains that can’t be defined or categorised. As people uncover those layers – even beyond 2005, his past almost-20 years of work – it’s going to develop a deeper appreciation, not just from a market perspective but from a scholarly and institutional one. He is one of the most important living artists, full stop, and that has been realised over decades.

LN: I think the retrospective will also have a lot of impact on artists, because there are so many things in his work specifically attuned to the present. The fact he’s continually motivated to look hard around him and comes up with such unexpected ways of responding – all this will continue to inspire, incite and keep people engaged with his art and looking to it for something new.

Ed Ruscha / Now Then is at LACMA, 7 April–6 October

Cover image: Ed Ruscha, Face It, 1967, Gunpowder and pastel on paper, 14 x 22 inches (35.6 x 55.9 cm). Credit: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian


Charlotte Van Dercook
Head of Marquee Private Sales, Contemporary

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