Lot 1
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ED RUSCHA | That Was Then, This Is Now

1,500,000 - 2,000,000 USD
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  • Ed Ruscha
  • That Was Then, This Is Now
  • signed, titled, and dated 1989 on the overlap; signed and dated 1989 on the reverse
  • acrylic on canvas
  • 32 1/4 by 46 1/4 in. 81.9 by 117.5 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #332)
Charles Cowles Gallery, Inc., New York (acquired from the above in 1989)
Mr. and Mrs. Gardner Cowles, New York (acquired from the above in 1992)
Thence by descent to the present owner


L.A. Style, November 1992, p. 8, illustrated in color
Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four, 1988-1992, New York, 2009, pp. 138-139, no. P1989.17, illustrated in color
Ed Ruscha, "Media Study," Artforum 51, 2012, p. 190, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Emerging out of a tumultuous, stormy sky and emblazoned in crisp white stencilled letters, the imposing phrase “THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW” boldly confronts the viewer in a theatrical crescendo of text and image that recalls the opening and closing credits of black-and-white film. Executed in 1989, That Was Then, This Is Now belongs to a limited suite of black-and-white text compositions which Ed Ruscha painted between 1988 and 1990. With their stormy portent and theatrical lighting, the paintings in this series draw visually upon old-fashioned cinematography and also harken back to Ruscha’s Catholic upbringing, the celestial sky evoking the significance of clouds and the landscape of a heavenly realm charged with the promise of eternal redemption. In the present composition, a pearly glow of light emanates from behind the dark shroud of clouds, dramatically illuminating a vast sky in a silvery, ethereal haze of ivory light. That Was Then, This Is Now is exemplary of Ed Ruscha’s most iconic paintings in which imagery and semantics coexist in an irresistibly seductive composition that brilliantly engages with and probes the interplay between image, symbol, and text. Ruscha’s works from this series were a departure from his earlier sunset paintings of the 1970s and 1980s, which featured highly saturated, candy-colored skies painted in vibrant reds, pinks, and oranges. As a counterpoint to the chromatic gradations of his previous corpus, Ruscha’s adaptation of grisaille and heightened renunciation of the brushstroke with the present series endow these paintings with a smoldering sfumato and photorealistic appearance, echoing Gerhard Richter’s Clouds paintings of the 1970s. In the present work, Ruscha’s meticulous handling of paint approximates the photographic reproductions of grainy film noir, bristling with drama as the declarative text stands starkly amidst clouds breaking with shards of light. Beautifully rendered and meticulously executed, the bold white lettering “THAT WAS THEN THIS IS NOW” triumphantly surfaces out of a darkened, stormy sky. Ruscha derived this titular text from a 1985 film starring Emilio Estevez, which was itself an adaptation of the 1971 novel That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hilton. Written out in Ruscha’s iconic typeface, which he himself developed and refined in the early 1980s, the phrase hinges on the pronouns “that” and “this,” which, here without any referential antecedent, allude to an unknown past in contrast to an unspecified present condition. The seductive ambiguity of this text is echoed in the dramatic and yet cinematically generic composition of the present work. While commanding in its authoritative message and its ominous composition, That Was Then, This Is Now possesses a refined, restrained elegance and conveys both visually and semantically a wistful and nonspecific nostalgia that is suggestive of a fascinatingly enigmatic narrative.

Commenting on his fascination with and appropriation of the tropes of Hollywood film industry, Ruscha notes: “If I’m influenced by the movies, it’s from way down underneath, not just on the surface. A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way they’re words in front of the old Paramount mountain... I have a background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, 2004-05, p. 21) This influence on Ruscha’s paintings from this period is apparent not only in the text and imagery of That Was Then, This Is Now, but also in the painterly devices and atmospheric sfumato which recall celluloid film reels. In a series executed concurrently with the present work, Ruscha makes explicit reference to the influence that cinematography had on his paintings of this period, mimicking in his paintings the scratches, dust particles, and light leaks that are visible in analog film.

Born in Oklahoma City, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956 where he worked as a sign painter and commercial graphic designer, the influences of which are apparent in the boldly distilled and readily consumable composition of the present work. Uninspired by commercial art and creatively confined by the narrowly prescribed modes of the then dominant artistic traditions of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, Ruscha pioneered a visual vocabulary all his own that was aesthetically and conceptually informed by his artistic forebears and by Los Angeles’s rich culture. Of his indeterminate style, Ruscha said: “I like the idea that an artist should never be questioned about what he does, because he actually deserves this right of artistic license...I’ve always felt like the number one rule is that there are no rules.” (Ibid., p. 154) Ruscha’s amusingly flippant sentiment is perfectly encapsulated in That Was Then, This Is Now, a transcendental distillation of his unmatched vernacular and unique artistic verve.