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Ed Ruscha, Black Boxer, 1979, pastel on paper, 39-1/4" × 25" (99.7 cm × 63.5 cm), 48-1/8" × 34-1/4" × 2" (122.2 cm × 87 cm × 5.1 cm), frame © Ed Ruscha

Essays

A Closer Look

Ed Ruscha

On View in Works on Paper from a Distinguished Private Collection
August 12 – 20
East Hampton

Ed Ruscha’s photography, drawing, painting, and artists’ books have recorded the changing emblems of American life over the last half century.

His deadpan representations of Hollywood logos, stylized gas stations, and archetypal landscapes filter the imagery of popular culture into cinematic language and linguistic puzzles that are uncomplicated yet profound. Ruscha shrewdly selects words, phrases, and objects that draw on moments of ambiguity such as an overheard phrase or a recognized street sign. Although his images are rooted in the vernacular of a closely observed American reality, his stylishly condensed works extend to more complex and widespread issues regarding the appearance, feel, and function of the world and our transient place within it.

The examples of Ruscha’s work from the collection of Donald B. Marron on view at Pace’s East Hampton gallery highlight Ruscha’s shrewd perception, technical mastery, and witty humor—distinguishing characteristics of his iconic oeuvre. Marron and Ruscha first met in Los Angeles in the 1960s at the Cirrus Gallery, a print gallery and publisher founded by Jean Milant. Marron visited Ruscha’s studio soon after, and the two remained close acquaintances until Marron’s death in December 2019; it is likely this personal relationship contributed to the many examples of Ruscha’s work entering Marron’s collection. Marron not only collected Ruscha’s work in depth, but he generously lent works for Ruscha’s exhibitions and donated funds to support the presentation of Ruscha's Course of Empire paintings shown in the American Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale.

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Ed Ruscha, Honk, 1964, graphite on paper, 13-1/4" × 21-1/2" (33.7 cm × 54.6 cm), 20-7/8" × 29" × 1-1/2" (53 cm × 73.7 cm × 3.8 cm), frame © Ed Ruscha

Five works on paper from the first two decades of Ruscha’s career are featured in the exhibition. Red Yellow Scream (1964), Honk (1964), Holloween (1977), and Black Boxer (1979) strikingly illustrate the artist’s exploration of words as subjects. Ruscha became interested in typography in the late 1950s while studying lettering, design, and advertising at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. This interest resurfaced in his paintings and drawings in the early 1960s, with works that feature evocative, and often onomatopoeic, monosyllabic words.

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Ed Ruscha, Red Yellow Scream, 1964, tempera and pencil on paper, 14-3/8" × 10-3/4" (36.5 cm × 27.3 cm), 27-3/4" × 21-3/4" × 1-1/2" (70.5 cm × 55.2 cm × 3.8 cm), frame © Ed Ruscha

Red Yellow Scream and Honk exemplify this aural quality in the artist’s early work. In Red Yellow Scream, the alternating red and yellow diagonals of tempera paint that ray outward from behind “scream” imbue the text with a raucous velocity that evokes the experience of blaring vocals. In Honk, the titular word stretches diagonally across the bottom left corner of the composition with sharp perspectival lines running from the base of the letters, causing the word to jump to the forefront of one’s vision just as a honk’s blaring would dominate one’s hearing. “I’ve noticed when I look back on my work that most of my early works had less of a fascination with the English language than they did with just trying to imitate monosyllabic words like ‘smash’, ‘oof’,” Ruscha once explained.

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Ed Ruscha, Holloween, 1977, pastel on paper, 7-7/8" × 29-1/8" (20 cm × 74 cm) © Ed Ruscha

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Ed Ruscha, Black Boxer, 1979, pastel on paper, 39-1/4" × 25" (99.7 cm × 63.5 cm), 48-1/8" × 34-1/4" × 2" (122.2 cm × 87 cm × 5.1 cm), frame © Ed Ruscha

As Ruscha continued his explorations with language, he became increasingly interested in word play; Holloween and Black Boxer are prime examples of these investigations. In the drawing Holloween, the titular text mimics the appearance of the iconic Hollywood sign—a classic motif of the artist’s oeuvre. Ruscha subverts the viewer’s expectation, replacing the wording of the well-known sign with a comical malapropism. The dissonance between the aural quality of the written word and the one the viewer anticipates seeing typifies the artist’s wry humor. Ruscha chose to leave his subject spelled incorrectly; the aesthetic of the letters thus takes primacy over the meaning of the word. In Black Boxer, the word “boxer” floats above a background of gradated gray pastel. The white, capitalized letters are compressed into a tight rectangle at the center of the composition––each edge delineated from the darker background with extreme precision. Here, Ruscha examines the relationship between a word and what it signifies: the artist has literally boxed in “boxer.”

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Ed Ruscha, Doheny Drive, 1965, graphite and pencil on paper, 14 1/8 x 22 3/8 in. (35.9 x 56.8 cm), paper, 22-5/8" × 30-5/8" × 1-1/2" (57.5 cm × 77.8 cm × 3.8 cm), frame © Ed Ruscha

Doheny Drive (1965) points to other interests prevalent in Ruscha’s body of work, namely Los Angeles architecture, photography, and artist’s books. Ruscha executed this drawing concurrently with the productions of his artist’s book Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965); it references the second to last photograph in the book, captioned “818 Doheny Drive.” Indeed, Ruscha viewed his word artworks and renderings of the Los Angeles topography as roughly in the same category: “When you think about it,” he once said, “words are really horizontal objects. You’re almost making a landscape.”

Donald Marron and Ed Ruscha enjoyed an association closer than simply collector and artist; the two had great admiration for one another. Indeed, Ruscha described Marron as among the most gentlemanly and erudite men that he had ever met. Marron’s sustained acquisition of Ruscha’s work suggests that he held the artist in similar regard. As such, the works currently on view carry great personal as well as historical significance.

Text by Gillian Pistell, PhD
Gagosian
Essays — A Closer Look: Ed Ruscha, Aug 12, 2020