Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
The Clarke Collection
Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)


Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
signed and dated 'Edward Ruscha 1976' (on the reverse)
pastel on paper
11 1/8 x 22 5/8 in. (28.2 x 57.5 cm.)
Executed in 1976.
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Private collection
Sprüth Magers Lee, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
E. Ruscha, They Called Her Styrene, London, 2000, n.p. (illustrated).
L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume One: 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 430, no. D1976.42 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

“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.”
- Ed Ruscha

The present works from the Clarke Collection are an exquisite and rare grouping of six of Ed Ruscha’s works on paper that map out the artist’s evolution of ideas since the 1960s, when he began his famous series of word drawings and experimented with unusual materials like gunpowder. The Clarke’s holdings of works by Ed Ruscha comprise by far the largest grouping within the collection, including this selection of unique and iconic works on paper. The L.A. based artist is paramount amongst his peers for his investigative use of different and unfamiliar media. Gunpowder, egg whites, chewing tobacco, fruit juices (including rhubarb, blueberry, and cherry), and, even blood, have all been used by the artist in his unceasing quest to explore the true nature of art. “I wanted to expand my ideas about materials and the value that they have…” Ruscha once said. “I used backgrounds of taffeta, silk, rayon and those kind of materials, and painted on these materials with a brush” (E. Ruscha, quoted by R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 160).
Mesmerizing in their mysterious aura bathed in light and shadows, Ruscha’s word drawings decontextualize and project everyday content onto mystical vistas or abstracted backgrounds. The artist once stated, “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again” (E. Ruscha, quoted in L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonne of the Works on Paper, Volume 1, 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 23). Ruscha’s career-long investigation of art and language has placed him as one of the most important living artists among his generation within the Pop art movement, as well as a great influence on the Conceptual art in the United States.
This unique assortment of Ruscha’s work consists of four gunpowder drawings from the 1970s and two word drawings from the following decade that showcase the culmination of his ingenuity and dexterity in working with a variety of media. The gunpowder works presented here offer an electrifying yet tranquilizing visual experience. The warm tonalities of each work emanate from the smooth, almost seamless, surfaces, breathing through the intrinsically granular yet infinitesimal pores of the gunpowder. Each work triggers further reflection and activates a multitude of associations and imaginations.
Room from 1972, Corrosive Liquids from 1973 and You Know the Old Story from 1975, belong to Ruscha’s most celebrated Ribbon Series that are collectively regarded as “one of the artist’s most important bodies of drawings”(L. Turvey, ibid., p. 39). This series magically conjures words and phrases that are seemingly made up of curls of ribbon or strips of paper. The words and phrases hover above indiscriminate backgrounds, where subtle shadows suggest that the letters have been illuminated by some unknown light source. In diagonal script, they fill the vast expanse of the rectangular paper sheets, arranged diagonally as though seen from a distant perspective. The surreal airs of the words and phrases recall the looming quality of mid-century neon signage or the expansive impression of a Cinemascope movie screen from Hollywood’s golden age. Corrosive Liquids, 1973, as the text suggests, reveals the artist’s self-described “romance with liquids” and further points to his actual use of real vegetables and fruit juices as media in his work. The dramatic horizontality exemplified in the present works became an iconic aspect of Ruscha’s most notable work from this period and their imagery still remain stylishly contemporary and sharp today. “I wanted to expand my ideas about materials and the value they have” (E. Ruscha, quoted in M. Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, New York, 2004, p.31). Along with a wide range of different and unfamiliar media the artist has worked with, his tireless quest for new frontiers in artmaking led to one of Ruscha’s trademark innovations: the gunpowder as a possible medium. “The gunpowder itself is in granules,” Ruscha recalled, “I could see it would make a good choice of materials; it could actually impregnate paper. You could use it almost like charcoal—which it is, it’s part charcoal…. [I apply it] just with a sponge… with a piece of cotton. It was more fluid and a faster medium than charcoal or graphite. Graphite was much more laborious, but it has a different feel altogether, a different appearance… So gunpowder was simple, it was easy to get going. It became a fluid medium for that reason” (E. Ruscha, quoted by R. Marshall, op. Cit., p. 111). Manipulating the pigment released from bullets soaked in water, he uses the medium with remarkable elasticity, from hazy color gradations to thick applications of pigment that the paper appears black.
Whereas You Know the Old Story, 1975, combines Ruscha’s highly unorthodox choice of gunpowder with contrasting shades of soft pastel, conveying diverse possibilities of tones that range from the black from the upper left corner dispersing across the lower right quadrant in delicate greys, beiges, camels and crimson; Idle, 1976 evokes the highly stylized cursive script of the Hollywood logos bathed in a pastel indigo background, testifying Ruscha’s sly virtuoso that blurs the boundaries between commercial art and high art. Similarly in A Large Dog, 1974, the artist places the eye-catching phrase in a commercial typeface commonly found on colossal billboards along California highways on a background merged with pastel clouds of darker and lighter grey and blue tones. Yet to a totally different effect, the striking contrast of the bright white text against the pale tones in the back speaks to Ruscha’s unique aesthetics and visual vernacular that was linked to his experience working in advertising agencies, as well as the streetscapes and roadside views along the Great American West.
Ruscha developed his word drawings in the next decade by incorporating sfumato to soften his transitions between ground, paying homage to the Renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci. Exemplified here in Brave Men Run in My Family, 1988, the white phrase floats upon the sooty landscape in the background, adding another layer of dramatic ethereality. “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… 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).
Drawings have been a significant part of Ruscha’s artistic output throughout his career, attesting to the importance of the medium for him. Increasingly, his works on paper are being considered by art historians, critics and collectors as a historically crucial part of his production. Exploring the interplay between symbol, text and iconography, the current works exemplify the artist’s most seminal creations in which seductive compositions are the result of an uncanny mingling of semantics and visual motifs.

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