Contemporary Art

Ruscha's Paean to Film Noir Mystique in 'Point Blank'

By Sotheby's
Set against a nighttime cityscape overlain by a shimmering prismatic network of lights, the fiery-red text ‘POINT BLANK’ delivers an immediate jolting impact. The arresting graphic intensity and ‘film noir’ allure of the work complements the connotations of the phrase ‘Point Blank,’ which alludes to the shooting of a gun at close range, as well as the 1967 neo-noir crime cult classic Point Blank directed by John Boorman.

T he charismatic Ed Ruscha, newly minted recipient of the 2019 J. Paul Getty Medal for his artistic achievements, is not only one of the earliest founders of Pop Art, but also one of the very few artists to straddle and conflate the worlds of fine art and the Hollywood movie crowd. He dated starlets and models, and made two short films in the 1970s. Ruscha welcomed influences from Hollywood films, cinematic perspectives, and the very air and culture of Los Angeles into many of his paintings.

As in the very best of Ruscha’s works Point Blank is inextricably linked to the visual culture of Los Angeles, with its wide, lattice-like boulevards and bright beaming lights. Like constellations in the night sky, the luminous Los Angeles cityscape invites spectacular associations with the enduring magnetism and glamour of Hollywood’s silver screen.

Andreas Gursky, Los Angeles, 1998, The Broad, Los Angeles © Andreas Gursky / Courtesy Sprüth Magers / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This link with cinema is particularly pertinent in the City Lights series, whose title references Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 silent movie classic. A decisive transition from the soft hazy sunsets of the previous decade, the City Lights works capture Los Angeles from an aerial perspective, as if viewed from the vantage of a landing airplane. The sprawling cityscape here dissolves into a reductive grid, illuminated by the ethereal white glow of street lights and traffic concentrated in bright clusters at intersections.

To achieve this hazy smolder of light that brilliantly punctuates the surface and diffuses at different scales of intensity, Ruscha used the airbrush, a technique that he would continue to explore for the remainder of his prodigious career. The resulting works reverberate with an atmospheric luminosity, which is abruptly intruded upon by the artist's bold typeface.

Ed Ruscha in his studio © Edward J. Ruscha IV. Photographer: Jerry McMillan

Ruscha himself comments cryptically on the titular phrase: “Two beautiful words side by side.” Coupled with the enthralling anonymity of the city grid as seen from an aerial view at night, Point Blank exudes an air of endless intrigue that draws viewers into its indeterminate geography in which time and memory are unmoored.

Point Blank was created during a time when the artist was garnering critical and commercial acclaim. In the same decade, he was the subject of two acclaimed solo retrospectives – one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1983, and another at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Brilliantly capturing the theatrical graphic force that typifies Ed Ruscha’s electric oeuvre, the spell-binding Point Blank is a superlative work from one of the greatest founders of Pop art.

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