Lot 60
  • 60

Ed Ruscha

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
371,150 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Ed Ruscha
  • Scales of Justice
  • signed and dated 1975 on the reverse
  • gunpowder on paper


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York

Jerald Ordover, New York

Private Collection

James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles

John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004


Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Paintings, Drawings and Other Works by Edward Ruscha, June - July 1976

Vero Beach, The Gallery at Windsor, Ed Ruscha: The Drawn Word, December 2003 - February 2004, n.p., illustrated in colour


Ed Ruscha, They Called Her Styrene, London 2000, n.p., illustrated in colour

Lisa Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume One: 1956-1976, New York 2014, p. 383, no. D 1975.01, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Emblazoned with the bold capitalised words ‘Scales of Justice’, the present work is paradigmatic of Ed Ruscha’s iconic Gunpowder Drawings. Executed in 1975, Scales of Justice is evocative of the changing commercial and social vernacular which began to increasingly permeate American popular culture in the second half of the Twentieth Century. By the mid 1960s, Ruscha had turned his back on the landscapes that had populated his early artistic output to focus almost exclusively on words. The most important works from this formative period are undoubtedly the Gunpowder Drawings, to which the present work belongs. What is singular about these precisely executed works are the crisp scripts that emerge from sooty, suffused grounds. Spelling out commonplace words such as 'Scales of Justice', 'Sin', 'Squirt' and 'Promise', these dynamic drawings were not created as precursors to paintings: they exist solely as poignant statements in and of themselves.

When considered in tandem with the year of this work’s execution, the words ‘Scales of Justice’ have great historical import. 1975 was the year the Vietnam War finally came to a close and as a result justice was served for the American population. It was also the year that John N. Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were found guilty of the Watergate cover-up and given hefty prison sentences. It is within this historical context that the words ‘Scales of Justice’ written across the present work acquire their extraordinary power. Indeed, as Kerry Brougher notes, Ruscha’s text paintings are “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” (Kerry Brougher, ‘Words as Landscape’, in: Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (and travelling), Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 161). As such, Ruscha’s Gunpowder Drawings form part of a wider picture of American culture.

To create the mesmeric surface of Scales of Justice, Ruscha did away with the unwieldly medium of graphite in favour of something altogether more manageable and easily correctable: gunpowder. Intrigued by the possibilities offered by alternative materials, and seeking to transcend the limitations imposed by traditional painting, in the late 1960s Ruscha began to experiment with a host of materials ranging from egg yolk, turpentine, beer to salad dressing and gunpowder. Gunpowder was to prove the most successful of these unusual mediums. It was initially unearthed as a possible material when the artist soaked gunpowder pellets in water to remove their salts, leaving behind a warm charcoal-like mist of pigment. In the present work, Ruscha has rubbed this fine dry powder onto rag paper with a cotton bud in a fastidious manner, applying layer upon layer to achieve the wonderfully rich depth of black that covers the work’s background. Perfectly summating the importance of this extraordinary artistic innovation, Margit Rowell concludes: “these gunpowder drawings are quintessential examples of Ruscha’s singular manner of seeing… Ruscha’s translation of an abstract idea into a material but imaginary image through a controlled, invisible execution endows these works with a mysterious, uncanny atmosphere” (Margit Rowell, ‘Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips Smoke and Mirrors’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, 2004-05, p. 17).  Taking the product of warfare as its medium and the language of warfare as its subject, Scales of Justice is as conceptually rigorous as it is aesthetically beautiful.

Communication marks a primary concern for Ruscha and has been explored through numerous mediums and guises throughout his oeuvre. In 1966 Ruscha began to investigate the aesthetics of generic words and phrases by creating finely executed drawings that radically alter the traditional typeface and meaning of the depicted word. Viewed as an object rather than just words, Scales of Justice invites the viewer to immerse themselves in the words’ hypnotic, parabolic curves and smooth soft lines. Speaking of the graphic pleasure that text gives the artist, Ruscha recalled: “the words and all that are just the tail end of an ancient tradition that began with man scribbling on a cave wall. I'm observing that these words, which sometimes represent objects and meanings, are made up of these squiggly little forms we call an alphabet. It's another way of looking at things, that's all" (Ed Ruscha cited in: Rachel Cooke, 'There's room for saying things in bright shiny colours’, The Guardian, September 2010, online).