Lot 5
  • 5

Ed Ruscha

3,000,000 - 4,000,000 USD
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  • Ed Ruscha
  • OK
  • signed and dated 1990 on the reverse; signed, titled and dated 1990 on the stretcher
  • acrylic on canvas
  • 72 x 72 in. 182.9 x 182.9 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# ER-348)
Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Paris
Acquired by the present owner from the above in May 1990


Paris, Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Edward Ruscha, May - June 1990 
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Passions Privées: collections particulières d'art moderne et contemporain en France, December 1995 - March 1996, p. 653, illustrated


Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 227, illustrated in color
Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992, New York, 2009, cat. no. P1990.33, p. 283, illustrated in color


This work is in excellent condition. There is an extremely faint diagonal scuff located 13½ - 16" in from the left and ½ - 1" up from the bottom edge. The canvas is dusty overall from airborne particles. The side edges of all pull margins are covered in black tape. Under ultraviolet light there are no apparent restorations. This canvas is not framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

OK. The brazen and ubiquitous word emanates from its tranquil surrounding as a self-affirming beacon of colloquial America. Bold-faced and unapologetic, this seminal work is evocative of the changing commercial and social vernacular which began to increasingly permeate American society in the Twentieth Century. 

The ambiguity of Ruscha’s dead-pan text paintings, whilst chiming with their commercial and social counterparts, draw attention to the banality of such statements and demand, with some irony, a deeper explanation of their meaning. However, rather than critiquing American culture Ruscha taps into the peculiarity of cultural norms to inhabit the space between semantic meaning and visual power; in essence highlighting,  even celebrating aspects of our surroundings which we might otherwise overlook. As Kerry Brougher noted, “fragments of reality that have been mostly spotted from the artist’s car, these words, when hung together, read almost like signposts along a highway, a landscape seen through the windshield”; and as such form part of a wider picture of American culture. (Kerry Brougher, "Words as Landscape," in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (and travelling), Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 161)

As the atmospheric cobalt fog rises from the base of Ruscha's canvas, the picture plane is absorbed in a ghostly ethereal haze where darkness slowly meets an ivory light. Evoking the rich chiaroscuro of Mark Tansey's monochromatic paintings, Ruscha's OK similarly explores a complexity of expression within the parameters of one color. Bearing a momentous intensity, varying tonal values and shading construct the image: intense zones of blue impart riveting depths, while gradually evaporating into a transparent light. With only two letters, Ruscha stages an exquisitely composed arrangement that acquires a spatio-temporal dimension by the poetic dynamism of the vaporous ultramarine cloud in which it is enshrouded. 

OK is therefore a crucial example of Ruscha’s appropriation of existing vernacular imagery, the given word being so pervasive in contemporary lexicons that it resonates with innumerable global cultures with which the term is now in use. Connoting the possibility of affirmation, a judgement of mediocracy, an agreement, a term of acceptability, or even an expression of doubt, the word ‘OK’ bears multifarious potential meanings that contribute to the complexity and intrigue of such an impactful artwork by adding discrete layers of understanding which can be derived from its different possible readings. The term’s etymology is widely cited as descending from the Boston abbreviation fad of the late 1830s and marks an example of the sharp, fast-paced language which would become increasingly omnipresent throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries; forming, also, a precursor to the excessively abbreviated SMS and internet slang of today’s global societies. The popularity and prevalence of a word resonate with Ruscha’s understanding of it; as he stated, “Words have temperatures to me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me… Sometimes I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart, and I won’t be able to read or think of it. Usually I catch them before they get too hot.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery (and travelling), Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, 2009, pp. 46-47) 

Communication marks a primary concern for Ruscha and has been explored through numerous mediums and approaches throughout his oeuvre. The present work was created twenty years after the completion of Ruscha’s stain paintings which incorporated the use of household foodstuffs as a painting medium, and sits within a period which saw Ruscha return to acrylic on canvas. It is within this period that Ruscha formed some of his most revered and widely exhibited works by incorporating the banality of everyday encounters with the medium best associated with some of world’s most celebrated paintings. The appropriation of the commonplace, and its subsequent transcendence into fine art, chimes with Pop Art’s greatest ambassadors such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Barbara Kruger who worked simultaneously with Ruscha throughout much of the late Twentieth Century to deepen the artistic exploration of the changing commercial world in which society found itself.

By objectifying the written word into his distinguished lexicographic painting style, Ruscha became the trailblazing ‘Pop Artist of the West coast’ and all round purveyor of American cool. His canonical influence continues to inspire artists today and his cultural impact is reflected in the numerous retrospectives and major museum shows of his work which include institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,  the Whitney Museum of American Art,  the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney,  the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Walker Art Center, the Hayward Gallery, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Denver Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, among others.