Ed Ruscha (b. 1937)
signed, inscribed and dated 'E. Ruscha – 1967 gp' (lower left)
gunpowder on paper
22 5/8 x 29 in. (57.5 x 73.7 cm.)
Executed in 1967.
Betty Freeman, Los Angeles
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 November 2000, lot 277
Private collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner
E. Ruscha, They Called Her Styrene, London, 2000, n.p. (illustrated in color).
L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume One: 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 197, no. D1967.53 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Edward Ruscha: Romance with Liquids, Paintings 1966-1969, January-February 1993, pp. 41 and 88-89 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, June 2004-January 2005, pl. 64 (illustrated in color).

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Executed in in 1967, Grapes is one of Ed Ruscha’s earliest gunpowder drawings. The formal rigor of the rounded font combined with the artist’s unusual choice of medium demonstrates not only Ruscha’s perennial interest in the formal qualities of words, but also his investigations into the aesthetical and conceptual properties of different media. These inquiries would lead him to experiment with fruit juice, caviar, chocolate, and even blood, but it is his exquisitely rendered drawings using gunpowder that are widely regarded to be among his most successful works of this kind. This unconventional depiction of otherwise commonplace words is what lies at the heart of Ruscha’s oeuvre, as he examines both the visual and semantic resonance of everyday words and phrases.

In the present work, Ruscha spells out the word ‘grapes’ in a substantial and curvaceous serif font. The letters appear to resemble liquid, their smooth forms sitting proud on the surface of the sheet. Each of them possesses a series of gently rounded curves, yet—in some cases—the integrity of their silhouette is occasionally marked by a small interruption to the curved surface of the ‘liquid’ letter. Much like the subject matter themselves, the font Ruscha selects is juicy and curvaceous, almost inviting to be picked off the sheet. Yet, incongruous to this is Ruscha’s choice of medium; gray, smoky, gunpower softly realizes the shape of each letter, seemingly at opposites to the natural, verdant nature of the fruit itself.

Considered as a group, the gunpowder drawings have collectively been described as “one of Ruscha’s most important bodies of drawing” (L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1, 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 23) and the present example an especially significant example, considering the artist’s self-confessed adulation of this ‘liquid’ form. The subject playfully predates the artist’s actual use of real vegetable and fruit juices as media in his work, as well as points, figuratively, toward the varied meanings and connotations of the word itself. Together with Cherry, Soda, and Pool, Grapes reminiscent of all things ripe and luscious, of California and the promise of the West. Yet, in depicting the sweetness of the fruit in gunpowder, the work becomes imbued with a considerable feeling of tension.

Having helped usher in the age of Pop while remaining vehemently individual to this day, Ed Ruscha’s masterful handling of text and image have influenced countless artists. Existing on the cusp of both Pop and Conceptual Art with a knack for paintings that reassess how words connect with photography, the artist’s unmistakable cool is readily apparent in the shadowy black-and-white nature of Grapes. Kerry Brougher notes, "Ruscha's words hover between the flat, transversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting" (K. Brougher, Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2000, p. 161). By combining text that rests on the very surface of the picture plane with the infinite depth of scenes, Ruscha is able to question the nature of representation within the confines of illusionistic painting.

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