Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
Property of a Private West Coast Collector
Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)

Hell Heaven

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
Hell Heaven
signed and dated 'Ed Ruscha 1988' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
23 ½ x 36 in. (59.7 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Joseph Mannis, Los Angeles
Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York
Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
Mark Andrus, San Juan Capistrano, California
Forum Gallery, Los Angeles
Harriet Griffin Fine Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005
G. Ludemann, “Sterblich in Ewigkeit,” Die Woche, no. 52/53, December 1997, p. 11 (illustrated).
H. P. Schwerfel, “Wort-Bilder: Ed Ruscha,” Art: Das Kunstmagazin, no. 12, December 1997, p. 49 (illustrated).
R. Dean and L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Four: 1988-1992, New York, 2007, pp. 90-91, no. P1988.35 (illustrated).

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Arising from an unbridled stormy sky, stark white, stenciled letters adorn the composition with the dramatic, mirrored phrase, “Hell Heaven,” boldly provoking the viewer with the enigmatic contradiction. Painted in 1988, Hell Heaven belongs to the limited series of black-and-white compositions which Ed Ruscha experimented with between 1988 and 1989. Emblazoned over an ethereal haze, the text presents an alluring promise of a captivatingly unknowable narrative. Primarily known as a painter of words, Ruscha has a mysterious aptitude for exploiting the inherent meaning of a single word or phrase by introducing it in a nuanced context, while, at the same time, inviting the viewer to reconsider their own connotations and cultural values. For the past four decades, the artist has made text the focus of his work, investigating the connection between the symbolic and the literal.
An exodus away from the Pop-inspired sunset paintings of the 1970s and 1980s that are characterized by highly saturated, vibrant and colorful skies, Ruscha's works from the late 80s are known for the use of sooty sfumato against monochrome, photorealistic backdrops. Like the master of sfumato, Leonardo da Vinci, Ruscha uses the technique to soften his transitions between grounds. The present work’s dramatically condensed color palette results in an austere yet sophisticated composition, a transformation that was long anticipated. "I remember this notion I had in school about Franz Kline, thinking how great it was that this man only worked with black and white," Ruscha remarked in 1988: "I thought at some point in my life I would also work with black and white and here it is" (R. Dean and L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Vol. 4, 1988-1992, New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2009, 1).
Hell Heaven is part of a series of work that refer to how words, in their vernacular usage, describe superlative and extreme places. The dualistic concepts are presented in opposition on a formal level, with the words mirroring each other. Depending on one’s point of view, the same scene or moment can be inversely experienced or interpreted. On the other hand, Ruscha plays on the mind’s ability to fill in the blanks, so while one may not be able to decipher the text that is upside down, he relies on the viewer’s guaranteed preset associations. In the present work, the artist addresses how words and symbols carry meaning when juxtaposed with themselves and with the image. The formal tension of light versus dark, created through his smoldering sfumato, furthers the dualist metaphor and the insinuation of good versus evil.
Meticulously and elegantly rendered, Hell Heaven is reminiscent of the theatrical drama of classic cinematography and the gritty aesthetic of film noir. Ruscha admits, “if I’m influenced by the movies, it’s from way down underneath, not just on the surface. A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way they’re words in front of the old Paramount mountain... 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” (E. Ruscha quoted in Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004-05, p. 21).
Not only does Hell Heaven recall Hollywood tropes, it derives from the artist’s Roman Catholic upbringing. The lustrous glow of light emerges from the dark, hazy blanket of clouds, and with a masterful gradation of tones and colors, the heavenly sky conjures up ideas of spiritual immortality and judgment day. Ruscha’s imagery frequently harkens back to religious iconography, yet his enigmatic and icy appropriation toys with the paradox of faith.
Ed Ruscha’s dramatic and seductive compositions are a product of his first road trip to California on the way to art school from Oklahoma. He remembers coasting across Route 66 on the way to Los Angeles, where he would arrive and become a commercial artist. The colossal billboards of de-contextualized words and a constant barrage of images, projecting onto the endless expanse of the mythical West, acted as a major influence on his visual vernacular and resulted in a career-long obsession with text and image. The boundless miles of the great American landscape not only became his subject, but it triggered inspiration for his entire ideology.
Aggrandized and isolated in Ruscha’s paintings, words and phrases are striped of context, imploring the viewer to contemplate the transcendent power of language. His work is as cerebral as it is aesthetically invigorating, its imagery activating a tremor of associations. While summoning relatable concepts and imagery, Ruscha infuses the painting with a mesmerizing ephemerality, while, at the same time, reminding us collectively of our own mortality and questioning the infinite bounds of our own ability to perceive. Exploring the interplay between symbol, text and iconography, the present work exemplifies the artist’s most seminal paintings in which seductive compositions are the result of an uncanny mingling of semantics and visual motifs.

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