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Post Lot Text
This work will be included in a forthcoming volume of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1: 1956-1976, under D1963.34.
Boldly delineated in robust block lettering, the word “RADIO” surges forward toward the picture plane and nearly bursts from the panel in Ed Ruscha’s Radio. Immediate and direct, the text is trailed by a stream of precisely outlined rays that both underscore its momentum and mimic the invisible radio waves coursing through the air around us. Isolated against a soft blue background, “RADIO” stands illuminated in golden hues at the center of the panel like an icon, and its warm color and dynamic contours activate the surrounding space. The composition is energized yet balanced in proportion and hue, and the narrow border of panel visible on all sides creates a striking visual play against the goldenrod text.
Dating from a formative period in Ruscha’s career, Radio was painted in 1963, two years after he began making his signature word paintings. The artist’s progression to Radio becomes clear by comparing the present work with his iconic painting of the 20th Century Fox logo, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights. Painted the year before Radio, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights features 3-D text and has a sense of motion and rays of electricity that recall both spotlights and the light of a film projector on the screen in a dark cinema. Radio effectively combines these artistic strategies with the power of a single word, indicating the momentous growth of Ruscha’s practice at this time.
In the early ‘60s, as artists sought new forms of expression, Pop and its idolization of everyday objects began to unseat the long-heralded Abstract Expressionists from their art world throne. Like his contemporaries, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Ruscha sought to make something radical, something that would distinguish him from what had been done before, and he found inspiration in commonplace objects from mainstream culture. He chose subjects whose ordinariness and familiarity seemed to have rendered them invisible, and strove to imbue them with new life. Ruscha was almost immediately drawn to words as a potent source of creativity, stating that “When I first became attracted to the idea of being an artist, painting was the last method, it was an almost obsolete, archaic form of communication. I felt newspapers, magazines, books, words, to be more meaningful than what some damn oil painter was doing” (E. Ruscha, quoted in N. Benezra, “Ed Ruscha: Painting and Artistic License,” Ed Ruscha, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 45).
Books in particular appealed to Ruscha’s Pop sensibilities. An avid traveler, Ruscha became enthralled by the bookstalls that dotted the city streets of Europe, and he began incorporating books’ textual content and 3-D form into his art. Discussing a 1962 painting on canvas of the word “RADIO,” Ruscha says, “I even painted on the sides of my canvases for a few years to accentuate the idea that this work was a three-dimensional thing. I would make a painting that said ‘Radio,’ for example, then paint the title on the side. In an odd way, it was like a book, and so my paintings were book covers in a way. That’s it, I do book covers…if you make a book cover and put a word on it, then it’s immediately accepted by people, but if you do so in painting, then it’s sort of disorienting and isn’t disorientation one of the best things about making art?” (B. Blistène quoting E. Ruscha, “Conversation with Edward Ruscha,” Edward Ruscha, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1989).
Magically transformed into still lifes or perhaps more appropriately, due to the essentially horizontal nature of words, epic landscapes, Ruscha’s words are invested with a forceful iconic power through their isolation. A mundane word on its own, “RADIO” is here endowed with a new stature of importance. As such, Ruscha described his process in monumentalizing terms: “It’s an artist’s job to (embellish a trivial subject) despite the fact that you have to use tricks and devices in order to put that idea across. I like to give attention to the lonely paintbrush or make a tribute to something that is humble, or something that does not require explanation. There are things that I am constantly looking at that I feel should be elevated to greater status. That’s why taking things out of context is a useful tool to an artist. It’s just the concept of taking something that’s not subject matter, and making it subject matter” (E. Ruscha, quoted in Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume One 1958–1970, New York, 2003, p. 151).
In addition to books, some of the most profound influences on Ruscha during this time were the road trips he took through the United States and abroad. Making frequent trips from Southern California to Oklahoma City, where he grew up, he became aware of a contemporary landscape of signs in America. This sensitivity reached its apex in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, with its unique blend of blue skies, desert landscapes, billboards, logos and advertising all dominated by the vast iconic image of the Hollywood sign nestled in the nearby hills. Here, in the company of new friends, such as the then-budding photographer and actor Dennis Hopper, Ruscha began to make a practice of observing and documenting fragments of the Los Angeles landscape as it passed by his car window on trips around the city. Single words, images, signs, logos and sayings would flash past, some becoming temporarily lodged in his memory. Driving down the city streets, Ruscha spontaneously registered these usually banal, commonplace and often overlooked images, sometimes jotting them down in a notebook before making a painting.
The importance of car culture in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s was considerable. At this time, the freeways through Los Angeles were still relatively new, and they held a special interest not just for Ruscha but in popular culture as well, as the new roads opened up the country to a more accessible and democratic kind of exploration and encouraged automobile travel both within and around cities. In Ruscha’s text paintings around this time, words related to electricity and car culture are common, and examples including the works Flash, Voltage, Electricity, Honk, Buick, Noise and Smash. The open roads of Los Angeles promised adventure, excitement, fast speeds and independence, thus capturing a fundamental piece of the southern California identity: “Psychologically shocked or no, most Angelino freeway-pilots are neither retching with smog nor stuck in a jam; their white-wall tires are singing over the diamond-cut anti-skid grooves in the concrete road surface, the selector-levers of their automobile gearboxes are firmly in Drive, and the radio is on” (R. Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, New York, 1971, p. 198).
By the time Ruscha painted Radio, the years of families gathering around the radio to listen to the news were over. However, the radio continued to make its presence felt in every car, becoming a part of the culture of freedom, youth and individualism associated with automobiles. Looking at this significant early word painting, we can imagine the artist driving down Route 66 or over the intersecting freeways of Los Angeles, watching the advertisements and signs pass as a steady stream of rock ‘n’ roll issues from the dashboard, before slipping out the window and into the California sunshine.