Lot 31
  • 31

Ed Ruscha

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Ed Ruscha
  • Safe
  • signed and dated 1989 on the reverse; signed, titled and dated 1989 on the stretcher
  • acrylic on canvas
  • 28 x 42 in. 71.1 x 106.7 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #329)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in November 1989


Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992, New York, 2009, cat. no. P1989.19, p. 145, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

“I remember this notion I had in school about Franz Kline, thinking how great it was that this man only worked with black and white, I thought at some point in my life I would also work with black and white – and here it is.” (The artist cited in Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992, New York, 2009, p. 1)

Executed in 1989, Safe is a magnificent example from Ruscha’s corpus of black-and-white word paintings set against dramatic cloudy skies. Spelled out in Ruscha’s inimitable typeface – a style of typography he had perfected and settled on at the beginning of the 1980s – this work, and the corpus to which it belongs, is imbued with the aura of old-fashioned cinema. Attuned to Ruscha’s greater oeuvre with its root in Los Angeles’ visual culture, these works look back to Hollywood’s era of silent cinema and film noir: with their tumultuous and stormy portent, these clouds echo the generic yet theatrical backdrops that furnish scene transitions and fillers, or dramatic beginnings and endings. Furthermore, connected to the colossal black and white masterwork in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sin/Without (1991), this work touches upon Ruscha’s Catholic upbringing; the word SAFE emblazoned upon a celestial sky invites a reading that evokes the signification of clouds as markers of a heavenly realm charged with the promise of eternal redemption.  

Marking a departure from the candy-colored sunsets created earlier in the decade, Ruscha’s monochrome skies provided a means to focus and telescope the very core of his painterly inquiry. As explicated by art historian Briony Fer: “He is not the first artist to discover that reducing the color palette amplifies painting’s possibilities... one of the reasons he has deployed black and white so effectively is because it offers him the most schematic means of registering light and dark in painting and, for all the much-vaunted deadpan tone of his work, dramatizes the almost extravagant projections as well as the everyday visual habits at stake in the mechanics of viewing itself.” (Briony Fer, “Moth-man: Ruscha’s Light and Dark” in Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992, New York, 2009, p. 5) As a counterpoint to the brilliant chromatic gradations of his previous corpus, Ruscha’s adoption of grisaille coincided with a heightened renunciation of the brushstroke; together these elements engendered a painted image that increasingly approaches the photographic, echoing the blurred sfumato of Gerhard Richter’s 1960s photo paintings and more closely his Clouds of the 1970s. As deftly expounded by the present work, the reduction of color palette conflated with a single word – with its distinctive graphic, visual and sonorous quality – telescopes the very core of Ruscha’s art, namely, the impetus to make the word the work.

However, the most predominant concern of Ruscha’s late 1980s production is the cinematic. As Ruscha has himself admitted: “Like everyone else I’m a frustrated film director.” (Ed Ruscha cited in Kerry Brougher, “Words as Landscape,” Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Hirshhorrn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (and travelling), Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 171) Extending beyond the widescreen format favored by the artist ever since the Standard Station, Hollywood and Los Angeles County Museum on Fire paintings of the 1960s – a choice overtly inspired by the film industry’s capital city – these works hark back to a bygone era of grainy black and white film. Where his superimposed words echo the way in which film credits seem to hover in front of the cinema screen, the dramatically lit backgrounds simulate the chiaroscuro of cinematography in loosely borrowing motifs from major motion pictures. Another series of works executed concurrently delivers this point explicitly. With his airbrushed silhouettes – whose grainy aesthetic already possessed something of the cinematographic – Ruscha disrupted their surfaces with the blips, scratches, and celluloid imperfections, as though these images came directly from film frames. The effect is nostalgic and replete with memorial significance and is a reading that further enhances an interpretation of the present work in terms of Ruscha’s Catholic upbringing.

Since the Medieval period, and proliferated within the frescoed masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, clouds have played a centrally decisive function in visually portraying the miraculous and the divine. With shafts of light piercing the firmament in Safe, this painting evokes the celestial architecture of the heavens as well as the spiritual landscape of Ruscha’s childhood. The artist has commented: “[My grandparents] were real strict Catholics. They were all raised that way and, naturally, I got this legacy of Catholicism that I eventually had to get smart and back away from… I think that I got distorted feelings about morality, maybe, and things that were put on me by the Catholic Church.” (Ed Ruscha cited in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London and New York, 2003, p. 183) Ruscha’s Catholic hangover is evident in other paintings from the same period that contain words such as MIRACLE, PURITY, and SIN. In the same way that the superimposition of SAFE against a silver-lined cloudy sky invokes heavenly redemption, Richard D. Marshall has explained that these references were a way for the artist to “exorcise his Catholic demons” by re-contextualizing them in his art. (Ibid.)  Indeed, though radiating luminescent sunlit hues filtered through a miasmic firmament, any reading of a heavenly beyond in Ruscha’s Safe is undeniably couched in the threat of an on-coming storm.