Born 1937, Omaha, Nebraska
Born 1937, Omaha, Nebraska
Deeply fascinated by California culture and post-war American vernacular, for over six decades artist Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) has pulled from advertising, film industries, and consumer culture in his artwork; elevating everyday ephemera and treating familiar mundane subjects as iconic. Stemming from his background and interest in advertising, Ruscha is inspired by the power of words and typography. The artist first was drawn to the idea of words “as pictures” while working as a freelance sign painter and typesetter in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, and this love of typography and lettering has remained central to his practice throughout his career. He explores the idea of words as images in their own right, using his works to obscure the boundaries between advertising, graphic design, and art. Ranging across photography, print, artist books, and painting, he creates candid, and at times comical presentations of familiar words, ideas, and locations.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha demonstrated an interest in California culture from a young age. The artist explained, “As a child coming here [California], it just threw romance in my face… The sunsets, the glamorous aspects of things; sunshine, speedy cars.… it had a strong effect on me and that started it all up.” In 1956, he took Route 66 to Los Angeles, enrolling in commercial art and animation classes at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of Arts), from which he graduated in 1960. After graduation, he did layout work for the Carson-Roberts advertising agency in Los Angeles. He started his studies in commercial illustration, but soon became interested in the fine arts and began taking painting, drawing, and watercolor classes. Although his art school taught the gestural abstraction of Abstract Expressionism as the latest artistic style, he was more attracted to readable, popular references. A reproduction of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces and a Combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg in Print Magazine in 1957 paved a new direction for the new artist, as he explained: “The work of Johns and Rauschenberg marked a departure in the sense that their work was premeditated, and Abstract Expressionism was not … So I began to move towards things that had more of a premeditation … I felt a kinship with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein because it was a logical departure from the kind of painting that was happening at the time.”
This shift from the gestural abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists to imagery drawn from popular, commercial culture was occurring simultaneously in Los Angeles and New York. Reacting against the spontaneous, expressive gestures of the Abstract Expressionists, Ruscha created deadpan works featuring everyday subjects and punchy words and phrases. Like other Pop artists, Ruscha drew inspiration from blurring the boundary between fine art and popular culture. His flat, brightly colored aesthetic recalls the catchy visual language of advertisements, and his bold, iconic use of text evokes brand logos.
Ruscha held his first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963, where both Warhol and Lichtenstein exhibited in the early 1960s. He was also included in the first West Coast show to assemble Pop artists, New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, alongside artists such as Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Wayne Thiebaud. In the following year, he was part of the Pop Art USA show held at the Oakland Art Museum.
Ruscha’s early works of the 1960s feel simple, nostalgic, and quintessentially Pop, with their bold, clean typography mimicking advertisements. Over the course of his career, he experimented with different fonts, mediums, spacings, and phrases, and his pictures became more complex over time. By the 1970s, Ruscha began to incorporate witty and enigmatic slogans and phrases into his work, and he has continued to experiment with the representation of text and phrases in recent decades.
“I don’t have any Seine River like Monet. I’ve just got US 66 between Oklahoma and Los Angeles.”
- Ed Ruscha
Stemming from his interest in the everyday, Lemon Drops from 1962 is one of Ruscha’s earlier mature works. The painting takes as its subject the vibrant yellow and uniformly rectangular forms of lemon drop candies. The sweets tumble from a surprisingly bare box, marked by no pigment except the light geometric lines that establish its identity as a container. With no logo, the box stands out; the artist rarely shied away from labels, for example, he readily includes product packaging in Actual Size and Honk (Cracker Jack) (both from 1962). Although Ruscha embraces a restricted palette reminiscent of sign painting and the bold clarity and legibility of graphic design, the artist took pains to ensure the originality of his works. Created with oil and graphite, Ruscha embraces the unique texture of his painted brushstrokes across the background of Lemon Drops. This detail reminds the viewer that, although the artist is working within a graphic idiom that is suggestive of advertising and film titles, the drawing remains a unique, hand-made object. Completed before words became the artist’s main subject, Lemon Drops sits at the crux of his transition from gestural to Pop.
Ruscha has been the subject of major museum retrospectives including at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1983 (traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio, TX; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA); the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989 (traveled to Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Fundació la Caixa, Barcelona, Spain; Serpentine Gallery, London, England; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA.); the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2000 (traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL; Miami Art Museum, Miami, FL; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, England; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg, Germany); and currently at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (through 2024). He continues to live and work in Culver City, California.
Work of art by Ed Ruscha are © Ed Ruscha.