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

Raging, Psychotic

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
Raging, Psychotic
signed and dated 'Ed Ruscha 1989' (lower right)
acrylic on paper
40 1/8 x 60 1/8in. (102 x 152.6cm.)
Executed in 1989
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.
Private Collection, Chicago (acquired from the above in 1989).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 15 May 1998, lot 226.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
E. Ruscha, They Called Her Styrene, London 2000 (illustrated in colour, unpaged).
L. Turvey (ed.), Edward Ruscha Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper Volume Two: 1977-1997, New York 2018, no. D1989.01 (illustrated in colour, p. 281).
Chicago, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Ed Ruscha, 1989.
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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

Charged with film-noir intrigue and exemplary of the artist’s cool, complex semiotic wit, Raging, Psychotic (1989) is an unmistakable text painting by Ed Ruscha. Its mysterious words hover before an airbrushed background that depicts the dark, velvety shadow of a casement window. Ruscha had started using an airbrush in the mid-1980s in a quest for ‘strokeless’ paintings, and these gridded shadows are formally related to his monochrome ‘silhouette’ and ‘city lights’ works of the same technique, which likewise display a deepening fascination with light, shade and cinematic imagery. The window-shadow functions as what Ruscha has called a ‘suggestor’: rather than creating an illusory pictorial space, it is an evocative, iconic backdrop that introduces tension and an oblique narrative slant to the words that float in front of it. In Raging, Psychotic, those words play off one another with typical atmosphere and ambiguity. Crisply graphic and placed centrally as on a title-screen, ‘RAGING MAINTAINENCE BUILDINGS’ is declared in three lines of large, white lettering. A trio of smaller words in red, ‘PSYCHOTIC SERVICE RAMPS’, overlays the white text. Letters fall into sharper or softer focus against the hazy light and dark of the background; the red is slightly translucent, heightening the sense of simultaneous or shifting relations between phrases. The adjectival pair of ‘raging’ and ‘psychotic’ – the stuff of lurid headlines or violent pulp fiction – seem drawn from an entirely different field to the abstract and concrete nouns below, which have the functional ring of construction-industry signage. The red sounds what might be a note of danger. The deliberate misspelling of ‘maintainence’, as if lifted from a found handwritten notice, heightens the painting’s dissonance and mystery.

Ruscha’s words refuse to cohere into statements. He deploys them as sensual, pictorial objects, each with a physical voice as much as a contained meaning. As Peter Schjeldahl has observed, ‘You can’t look at a word and read it at the same time, any more than you can simultaneously kneel and jump. You may think you can, because the toggle between the two mental operations is so fast. Graphic advertisers play that switch back and forth. Ruscha learned to freeze it in mid-throw, causing a helpless, not unpleasant buzz at the controls of consciousness’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Seeing and Reading: Ed Ruscha at the Whitney’, New Yorker, 26 July 2004). Ruscha, who has lived in Los Angeles ever since he moved there from Oklahoma in 1956, is a definitively West Coast artist, and the compelling ‘buzz’ of uncertainty in works like Raging, Psychotic relates closely to the L.A. imaginary. His is an environment defined by signs, shadows, artificial structures and a distinct permeability between fiction and reality. Since the 1960s, Ruscha had experimented with media as diverse as gunpowder, egg yolk and Pepto-Bismol in his text-based works, toying with trompe-l’œil and associative humour. With the airbrush, he arrived at an ideal vehicle for a particularly Hollywood cocktail of melodrama, kitsch and menace. Hinting at alarm amid the everyday, Ruscha’s overlaid, multivalent words drip with film noir’s stylish darkness and the wry nonchalance of Pop Art. Raging, Psychotic has a coolly conspiratorial air, speaking of the unknowable things that move behind the scenes – in movies and real life alike.

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