Lot 33
  • 33

Ed Ruscha

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
3,072,500 USD
bidding is closed


  • Ed Ruscha
  • Didja?
  • signed and dated 1987 on the reverse; signed, titled and dated 1987 on the stretcher 
  • oil and acrylic on canvas


James Corcoran Gallery, Santa Monica
Robert A. Rowan, Pasadena (acquired from the above in 1988)
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Tokyo, Odakyu Grand Gallery; Osaka, Daimaru Museum; Funabashi, The Funabashi Seibu Museum of Art; and Yokohama, Sogo Museum of Art, Pop Art U.S.A.-U.K.: American and British Artists of the ‘60s in the ‘80s, July - December 1987, p. 67, no. 23, illustrated in color


Robert Dean and Erin Wright, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, New York, 2007, p. 341, no. P1987.36, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

“The City Lights paintings could be said to articulate a noir-ish version of the sublime: they trigger fascination tinged with doubt and uncertainty.” Ralph Rugoff, Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery (and travelling), Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, 2010, p. 21

Against a midnight-blue background punctuated by a dense criss-cross network of sparkling lights, Ed Ruscha’s fiery red stenciled letters set a phantasmal sky ablaze in his monumental and immediately arresting 1987 painting Didja?. Belonging to the critical group of City Lights paintings executed in the latter half of the 1980s, Didja? is a phenomenally dazzling example of this significant and groundbreaking series. Animated by the echoing lines of repeated text, Ruscha’s electrically charged words here assault the viewer in their resounding direct address. Growing in scale and frequency down the length of the canvas, Ruscha’s relentlessly graphic text possesses a distinct auditory quality in its exclamatory tone. Didja? encapsulates the sensorial quality that characterizes Ruscha’s best word compositions—more heard rather than read, the text of the present work immerses each viewer in its roaring volume. Moreover, the amplifying lines of text create a vertiginous effect, implying a speed and motion that corresponds to the passing of the flickering lights into the distance. One of only a limited number of City Lights paintings executed on this large scale, comparable canvases today reside in significant museum collections such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Broad Art Foundation, the Auckland Art Gallery, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Moreover, having been purchased the year after its execution by Robert A. Rowan—the prominent California collector who was not only a founding trustee, President and driving force behind the Pasadena Art Museum, but also a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—Didja? remained in the prestigious Rowan collection for nearly three decades.

In the background of the present work, Ruscha depicts a city grid seen from high altitude, labyrinthine in its intricately latticed composition. The structural rigor of the City Lights paintings evokes the artist’s abiding interest in the geometry of the Los Angeles topography, having photographed the city’s streets and parking lots from a variety of aerial vantage points throughout the 1960s. While Ruscha’s earliest works were inspired by the view of the landscape as seen through the windows of his car, Didja? expands the artist’s field of vision and pivots his perspective on his beloved Los Angeles landscape from the ground to the sky. Richard Marshall has suggested that Ruscha developed the City Lights series after many trips flying between Los Angeles and Miami in early 1985 while working on his commission for the Miami Dade Library. With the City Lights paintings evidencing a critical shift in Ruscha’s style, Robert Dean notes: “Up to this point much of Ruscha’s work had been connected to the automobile and the road and, to expand upon Rosalind Krauss’s suggestion that the automobile for Ruscha was a kind of medium, the airplane may have become, at least in the case of the City Lights paintings, a new medium.” (Robert Dean, “Overlapping Dialogues: The Paintings of Edward Ruscha, 1983-1987” in Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, New York, 2007, p. 5) Perhaps no other example from this series more directly references the experience of looking out an airplane window than Didja?: its central text, repeated with increasing intensity, captures the irrepressible excitement and awe of staring out at the skyline as an aircraft approaches landing. Moreover, as each line of text grows in size, Ruscha formally mirrors the feeling of distant details growing closer and clearer in focus during an airplane’s descent.

Approaching the city from this sky-high vantage point increased the complexity of Ruscha’s compositions. Lending the painting a dramatic angular perspective and extraordinary sense of depth, the sprawling city grid thrusts diagonally across the expanse of the immense canvas as if viewed from a great height. The spectacular lights smolder along different scales of intensity, concentrating in bright clusters along the joints of the various intersections. Using an airbrush for the first time to create the diffuse, burning lights along the intersections, Didja? reverberates with an atmospheric glow that ignites the nocturnal sky. Ruscha employs the soft, nebulous effect of the airbrush to create dappled halos of light, enveloping the landscape in a sensuous haze as the lights appear to evaporate into the dampened night fog. Here, the artist’s cadmium-red letters erupt across the surface, rich and brilliantly crimson in color; at crucial points of intersection the background lights shimmer through the veiled text, heightening the complexity of the relationship between foreground and background as the letters become translucent before the glow of the cityscape. As is archetypal of Ruscha’s most accomplished word paintings, the text here assumes material properties, occupying real three-dimensional space.

Through heightened foreshortening of the painted perspective, Didja? shimmers in its cinematic allure; the lights extend beyond the perimeters of the canvas to infinity, like constellations in the night sky. The luminous grids of the star-spangled Los Angeles city-scape invite spectacular associations to the enduring magnetism and glamor of Hollywood’s silver screen. Abstracting the topographic map in a nod to both the Minimalist light-filled grids of artists like Dan Flavin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler, Ruscha’s canvas reduces the landscape to its most abstract elements: “Conflating the grids of the city with the compositional grid of the picture plane, these straddle the line between landscape and abstraction. They also present an image of the city that resembles a night sky turned upside down, as art historian Briony Fer has commented, so that ‘looking up and down collapse into each other’, and our sense of the ground of representation dissolves.” (Ralph Rugoff in Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery (and travelling), Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, 2010, p. 21) Lifting the ground from beneath our feet, Ruscha’s spellbinding Didja? enthralls in its instantaneous visual appeal, while imploring the viewer to keep looking—rivetingly questioning the boundless limits of our own capacity to see.