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Ed Ruscha: A Collector’s Guide

Five things to know about Ed Ruscha, whose diverse practice spanning six decades melds Pop Art iconography with documentarian diligence of Conceptual Art to make the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Works featured on offer at West Chelsea Contemporary.

Ed Ruscha at London’s National Gallery for the opening of his exhibition, Course of Empire (2018).

Ed Ruscha is a world-renowned artist whose career spans six decades, from the early 1960s until the present day. Although credited with Pop sensibility and an influential figure to Conceptual art, Ruscha’s diverse portfolio of works defy categorization, whether from his paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films, or books.

Read on below to discover five things every art collector should know about Ed Ruscha.

  1. In 1956, Ed Ruscha moved from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. During his time there, he was struck by a reproduction of Jasper Johns’s Target With Four Faces (1955) and his use of readymade images as support for abstraction. Ruscha began to consider how he could employ graphics to explore the duality of painting as both object and illusion. Following art school, Ruscha began to work for ad agencies in commercial art, which allowed him to explore questions of techniques in typography, design, scale, and abstraction that became central to his painting and photography. During this time in the late 1950’s, Ruscha became well known for his small collages composed with images and words from sources like advertisements. This interest in the everyday led him to use the cityscape of his new home, Los Angeles, as a source of inspiration he has returned to continuously.
Ed Ruscha in his studio
  1. At the start of his career, Ed Ruscha called himself an “abstract artist…who deals with subject matter.” Ruscha abandoned academic connotations that came to be associated with Abstract Expressionism and instead looked at tropes of advertising, language, and American culture and brought words to the forefront of painting, as a form, symbol, and material. Words, phrases, and language are at the center of Ed Ruscha’s work and first appear in his work in 1959, and still influence his output of works, today. In addition, Ruscha has often used images of the Los Angeles with words and phrases to communicate the particular experience of urban life and mass-media influx of images and information we interact with, daily. This compositional method is demonstrative of how much of his work seemingly immortalizes urban America, leaving the viewer to feel adrift in a transformation between the past and present. The artist has lived in Los Angeles since 1956, with the cityscape as a source of inspiration he has returned to continuously, as well as its film industry– particularly the industries signs, symbols, filmmaking process, and cinema experience– both noted as affecting the visual language appearing in his work.
Ed Ruscha, The Music from the Balconies (1984)
  1. Throughout the 1960’s, Ruscha produced paintings that investigated the fluidity and noise of language. His collections of words and American vernacular that dominate the subject of his works make it impossible to look at them without verbalizing the visual. Ruscha plays with the language in his work by using literary devices like onomatopoeia, puns, alliteration, and contrasting meanings, of which are usually depicted in a strong typographic format. Aside from exploiting language, Ruscha also utilized unusual materials for mediums, evident in works like that of the print portfolio, Stains, which consists of 75 works on paper made using egg yolk, turpentine, beer, salad dressing, and gunpowder. Aside from reflecting an interest in unconventional materials, Ruscha’s use of readymade and unconventional objects as mediums highlights his general fascination with iconography of American pop culture, “All my artistic response comes from American things, and I guess I’ve always had a weakness for heroic imagery.”
Ed Ruscha, Stains (1965)
  1. Ruscha’s early paintings attracted notice as part of the Pop Art; with use of imagery and techniques that echo his interest and connection to advertising, popular culture, and the everyday. Particularly, making the ordinary of the everyday extraordinary. Aside from his work having roots within Pop Art, he became an influential figure in the development of Conceptual Art, through his depiction of words and phrases, as well as his photographs characterized by a deadpan tone and muted humor. Ruscha produced photographic books that transfer this deadpan Pop style into a series of images of LA, like one of his most popular works, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962). The works of Ruscha in the 1970’s feature groups of catch-phrase drawings that mix visual formality with playful language, drawing from phrases that are suggestive of everyday American language and culture. Overall, Ruscha says his content of language and imagery are influenced by a variety sources like advertising, books, radio, conversations, film-making, dreams, American culture, Hollywood and his surrounding urban environment.
Ed Ruscha, Burning Gas Station (1965-66).
  1. In 1962, Ruscha’s work was included in the historically groundbreaking “New Painting of Common Objects” at the Pasadena Art Museum, which is considered one of the first Pop Art exhibitions in America. Ruscha had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In 1970, Ruscha represented the United States at the Venice Biennale as part of a survey of American printmaking. Ruscha has been the subject of numerous international retrospectives, including those organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1982); the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C (2000); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2004). Also in 2004, The Whitney Museum of American Art organized two simultaneous exhibitions: “Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha,” which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and “Ed Ruscha, a Photographer,” which opened at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2006. Ed Ruscha lives and work in Los Angeles, a place of duality that acts as his home and the engine driving much of his work.

What’s on now at WCC:

West Chelsea Contemporary’s nearly 8,000 square-foot gallery offers the opportunity to highlight work on a monumental scale. From 16-foot originals by RETNA and Cey Adams to colossal sculptural work—including a larger than life mixed media shark and painted aluminum spaceman—the gallery is activated by art world giant’s not only in a metaphorical sense. 

By contemplating ground-breaking movements from the past six decades, Icons & Vandals allows viewers to rediscover and redefine the art world’s most iconic and contentious house-hold names. These artists have left their mark on the development and progression of contemporary art by subverting the norms of their own time.  Through this show it becomes clear that these two labels are not mutually exclusive but in fact ingrained in their interconnectedness. 

Works from ICONS & VANDALS will be on display and for sale at West Chelsea Contemporary in beginning May 15.

Reach out today to inquire or acquire.



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