Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
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Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)

Ship Talk

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
Ship Talk
signed and dated 'Ed Ruscha 1988' (on the reverse); signed, titled and dated 'ED RUSCHA 1988 "SHIP TALK"' (on the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas
56 x 134 1/8in. (142.3 x 340.5cm.)
Painted in 1988
Mos Food Services, Tokyo.
Paul Rusconi, Los Angeles.
Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles.
Sandroni Rey, Los Angeles.
Andrew and Lea Fastow, Houston.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 13 November 2007, lot 66.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
T. Kinoshita, 'Edward Ruscha', in Bijutsu Techo, 1989, (illustrated in colour, p. 39).
J. Gibson,'Los Melbos', in Art & Text, no. 51, 1995 (illustrated in colour, pp. 20-21).
R. Dean and E. Wright (eds.), Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992, New York 2009, P1988.31, p. 82 (incorrectly illustrated in colour, p. 83).
Nagoya, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Edward Ruscha, 1988-1989, p. 52, pl. 25 (illustrated in colour, pp. 42-43). This exhibition later travelled to Tokyo, Touko Museum of Contemporary Art.
Victoria, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Downtown: Ruscha, Rooney, Arkley, 1995 (illustrated in colour, p. 15).
Houston, Menil Collection, 2001 (on extended loan).
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Francis Outred
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Lot Essay

'In many of the works from the 1980s, Ruscha has chosen to leave words out altogether, replacing them by silhouetted images that are themselves enigmatic enough to force the issue of language into the open and by floating white rectangles or underliners whose references are often supplied by the painting's title. Here Ruscha is playing somewhat with both our familiarity with his work, and with the self described parameters of this art up to this point, by creating the expectation of language and then purposefully not supplying it' (D. Cameron, Ed Ruscha Paintings, Barcelona 1990, p. 15).

Ship Talk, Ed Ruscha's dramatic portrait of three galleons sailing across a vast ocean is one of the largest examples of his Silhouette paintings in which the artist fuses together a diverse range of historical and cultural motifs into a dark web of complexity and intrigue. Ruscha's work from this period is seen by many as a metaphor for the decline of American society-the end of the courageous dream that was begun by the brave sailors who, using ships such as these, discovered a new continent, and one which the artist now feared was set adrift on the sea of uncertainty. Inspired by the black and white swashbuckling films of his youth and the bold monochromes of Franz Kline that he so admired, works such as Ship Talk have become an important part of the artists oeuvre and are included in major museum collections such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Compositionally speaking the configuration of Ship Talk recalls Ruscha's iconic early works such as Standard Station in which a strong diagonal line stretches out from a single point to command the entire canvas. With this line, Ruscha creates two enigmatic areas of space; one characterized by light, the other cast in shadow and continues a fascination with the properties of light which have been a strong theme throughout his career. Traversing this mythical line are three galleons in full sail, each with their sails outstretched with the boat tilting to one side to indicate their speedy passage. Recalling the fabled Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria from Christopher Columbus' first journey to the New World, the silhouettes
of these vessels loom large over the dark inky blackness of the ominous ocean. Creating a dynamic sense of movement in what is essentially a static image, has been one of the central themes in Ruscha's work, 'for me it got to the core of something I wanted to do..., which was to put speed into a flat, static picture. That composition put zoom in my work, and that's the essential ingredient of those pictures that I liked' (E. Ruscha quoted by K. McKenna, Ed Ruscha in Conversation, Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2010, p. 57).

Ship Talk is also a continuation of Ruscha's life-long fascination with language. Instead of the bold iconography of pioneering works such as his 1962 painting Oof, Ruscha is now investigating the power of language by seeing what happens in its absence. The trio of horizontal white bands that traverse the upper edge of painting represents the absence of words, removed as if physically cut out by a censor. By removing these 'labels', Ruscha is demonstrating the continued importance of language, even when it is not physically present. As art historian and critic Howard Singerman points out, 'even in its absence, precisely as absence of displacement, language is Ruscha's figure; it is where we look, but not quite what we look at. Ruscha's writing is a lesion, a blind spot in the picture that constructs order out of vision' (H. Singerman quoted by C. Butler, 'Information Man', Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips ©, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004, p. 34).

The political nature of this work plays to a theme that appears in many of Ruscha's works from this period. Painted during the dying days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, these black and white images are Ruscha's reinterpretation of the narrative that had propelled Reagan into office-that of pioneering spirit which had led to the nation's founding and the establishment of one of the most powerful nations the world has ever known. Not without a considerable degree of irony, Ruscha uses an airbrush to reconstruct these heavily loaded images and in the process hints what he sees is a darker side to the American dream.

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