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Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
Property From An Important California Collection
Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)


Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
signed, titled and dated 'E. Ruscha 1969 "DESIRE" (on the stretcher), signed and dated again 'E. Ruscha 1969' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 55 in. (152.4 x 139.7 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Acquired by the present owner, 1969
R. Krauss, "Reviews: Washington", Artforum, May 1971, p. 85.
D. Bourdon, "A Heap of Words about Ed Ruscha", Art International, November 20, 1971.
New York, Alexander Iolas Gallery, Edward Ruscha, January-February 1970, no. 13 (illustrated in color).
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 32nd Biennial Exhibition, February-April 1971, no. 28.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; British Columbia, Vancouver Art Gallery; Houston, Museum of Contempoary Art; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Works of Edward Ruscha, March 1982-May 1983, pp. 82 and 174, no. 27 (illustrated in color, pl. 48).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Edward Ruscha: Romance with Liquids, Paintings 1966-69, January-February 1993, pp. 78-79 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Musée National d'art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, L'informe: Mode d'Emploi, May-August 1996, p. 114 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming Ed Ruscha catalogue raisonné volume I being prepared by Pat Poncy as archive number P1969.09.

Desire is one of a celebrated series of paintings known as the "liquid word" paintings that Ruscha made in the late 1960s. In these paintings Ruscha's words are painted using a trompe l'oeil effect to suggest that they have been written by hand in liquid, as if they were the product of idle finger doodling on a table-top or bar-top. Some paintings from the series such as Rancho of 1968 and Adios of 1967 seem to have been written in maple syrup and therefore evoke the atmosphere of a roadside diner. Desire on the other hand has been written in what seems to be champagne and caviar juxtaposed against a tequila sunrise horizon and as a result this painting invokes a powerful sense of both the luxury and the decadence of life in the City of Angels.

Ruscha first came to L.A. in 1956 having driven across the South-West from Oklahoma City where he had grown up. Like many of the "Okies" who, seeking to escape the Depression and the Dust Bowl, had set off in search of a new life in California's "Garden of Eden" twenty or so years before him, Ruscha rode the legendary Route 66 westwards, always chasing the setting sun. This journey of departure was to have a profound influence on much of the character of Ruscha's art. The seemingly unreality of the endless flat and featureless horizon lines of the journey, punctuated only by the passing advertising billboards and gas station signs made a deep impression on Ruscha and came to form the basis of his deceptively simple word-based paintings. In addition as a work like Desire shows, the vast horizons and the fact that Ruscha was chasing his dream as he headed west not only added to his "Dharma Bum" sense of freedom at being "On the Road" but also colored the way in which Ruscha was later to paint words in the sky. By isolating words against the horizon or the sky Ruscha found that he could pictorially lend them an ambience that threw light on their strangeness and supposed meaning. Ultimately, as Ruscha discovered,"there is no reality when it comes to a word and that's why I feel its a real comfortable zone for me to work in."

Writing words in the sky, not only exposes the strangeness of the word, forcing the viewer to re-examine the nature of its meaning, but pictorially, as Ruscha was quick to realize, the inherent horizontality of words transforms them into landscapes. Like the road signs and billboards sliding past the window of his 1950 Ford as he drove across New Mexico, Ruscha's words become both mental and physical landscapes seeming to exist as images both inside the head and also in another space that seems to be some metaphysical west-coast dreamland. Arriving in L.A. this realization of the way in which words-as-landscape punctuated popular culture in this flat drive-in and drive-around city became more acute as Ruscha drove around the town. "I saw a big fertile field in street iconography here in L.A.," he recalled, "Things from the road, the highway, automobiles, popular culture. I began to see these things while I was travelling. I would have these flashes of inspiration from things I would see, like signs, buildings" (Cited in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 2002, p. 159).

In Desire the word appears almost as if it is a mental projection onto a warm sunset sky. Conjuring images of the dreams and expectations that so many people bring to Hollywood and the West Coast, there is also a sense of fleetingness and ephemerality in the way in which the word has been written. This gives the impression that the word has just for a moment materialized out of some cloud-like formation and in another moment will be gone. The liquidity and translucence of the word adds to this sense of immateriality. It is only the rather unpleasant and decidedly decadent mix of black caviar eggs into this liquid that grounds the word and lends it an earthy and ejaculated sense of substance.

Fig. 1 Ed Ruscha with Eye, 1969
Photograph by Berry Berenson


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