Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
Property from the Collection of Anna Condo
Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)


Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
signed and dated 'Ed Ruscha 2001' (lower right)
dry pigment and acrylic on museum board
image: 36 x 56 in. (91.4 x 142.2 cm.)
sheet: 40 1/8 x 60 in. (101.9 x 152.4 cm.)
Executed in 2001.
Gift of the artist to the present owner
Vero Beach, Florida, The Gallery at Windsor, Ed Ruscha: The Drawn Word, December 2003-February 2004, n.p. (illustrated).

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

“As critic Leo Steinberg wrote in an essay on Jasper Johns, who loomed large in Ruscha’s development, words are ‘things which the mind knows to be flat.’ From the early 1960s to the mid 1970s, Ruscha’s drawings of words foiled their expected flatness. He employed assorted graphic techniques to show them as illusionistic, three-dimensional objects residing in indeterminate spatial strata that were nonetheless distinct form the plane of the sheet.” (L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 2, 1977-1997, New Haven, 2014, p. 15-16)

Ed Ruscha arrived in Los Angeles from Oklahoma in 1956, where he first rose to prominence making collages that were inspired by the pioneering work of Neo-Dada and conceptual artists such as Jasper Johns. This type of artistic production rejected gesture and subjective expression, relying on imagery and references that were “completely premeditated” (E. Ruscha, quoted in C. Tomkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.,” The New Yorker, 1 July 2013). Uniting Ruscha's practice over the course of his career is his long-standing fascination and unabashed love of words. Having trained as a sign writer, this formative experience can be seen in his earliest typographical works from 1960. “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).
Beginning in early 1967, Ruscha made about two dozen works on paper, called “ribbon drawings” that featured single words rendered in stunning trompe l’oeil technique, as if formed from curling pieces of paper. Created over 3 decades after he first pioneered the earliest ribbon drawings, Ruscha created Regal, the present work, in 2001. At this later stage in his career, Ruscha returns to the ribbon motif that he had mastered in his early work. The undulating and continuous line spelling out Regal takes on a different character than the early ribbon drawings – it is silkier and more fluid, expanding across the large sheet in a distinguished way, befitting of the text. The scale of Regal is in itself impressive, spanning 60 inches wide, the largest paper format that Ruscha ever experiments with to date. Later gifted to his friends and fellow artists, George & Anna Condo, Regal stands out in Ruscha’s work on paper oeuvre as a beautifully rendered and impressively scaled work.
The word Regal may particularly resonate with Ruscha, who grew up with a bust of Shakespeare in his Oklahoma home. Shakespeare and his love of word play undoubtedly made an impression on the young Ruscha. Shakespeare’s oeuvre centers primarily on stories of royalty, and all of the drama that comes with it, perhaps serving as inspiration for works such as Regal. In 1989, Ruscha was commissioned to paint a large mural in the rotunda of the Miami-Dade County Public Library. For this project, Ruscha painted the words, “Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go,” a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, spoken by King Claudius. In the Miami library commission and in Regal, Ruscha gives a nod to the famous playwright, who looms so large in Ruscha’s childhood memories.
Describing Ruscha’s technique in creating these ribbon drawings, Lisa Turvey states, “Ruscha made a paper model for only one or two of the ribbon drawings – perhaps paper-clipping the strips together…and envisaged some others in ballpoint sketches. Most, however, were what he calls ‘fictitiously illustrated.’ It is worth unravelling the representational mises-en-abyme the ribbon drawings stage. They are of paper on paper; two-dimensional depictions made to look three-dimensional of two-dimensional materials made to look three-dimensional; illusionistic images of items that appear ordinary and lifelike yet actually have no referent in the world (strips of paper shaped into words are not things one regularly encounters).” (L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1, 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 22) Although Ruscha did actual cut ribbon models for a few early ribbon drawings, he later perfected his technique by cutting out a stencil of his chosen word with an X-Acto Knife and tracing the shape directly onto the paper. Over time this exploration of the written words as image became more abstracted, juxtaposing ambiguous, free-floating phrases with natural vistas, celestial arrangements, foggy gradients and monochrome backgrounds. These deceptively simple trompe l’oeil drawings are in fact the artist’s sophisticated investigation of art and language. With a nod to the surrealist’s penchant for frisson—that unexpected shock or chill that results from ordinary objects viewed in quite unexpected or dreamlike situations.
The Los Angeles avant-garde art scene gave rise to a conceptualism that responded to the pervasion of the entertainment industry, with a penchant for the cinematic and performative. Ruscha and his Californian contemporaries, artists such as Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari, developed artistic practices dripping with sardonic wit and leaning on a flair for the theatrical. Ruscha, inspired by the iconography that can become associated with a word, allowed his poetic statements to become actors performing in front of static, dreamy sets. “A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words … I have a background, foreground. It’s so simple. And the backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks” (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York, 2003, p. 239). The act of lettering superimposed on these backdrops is both familiar and anonymous, and the artist does not privilege one word or image above another, instead inviting their own connotations to emerge. Any objective interpretation of Ruscha’s paintings remains elusive. The words are cryptic, and are not bound by any relevance to the imagery they have been paired with. They occur as a moment, a line spoken out of context, conveying an indefinite sensation that has long appealed to Ruscha. “Paradox and absurdity have just always been really delicious to me” (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ed Ruscha: Road Tested, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, 2011, p. 288).

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