ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
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ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
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LA Cool: Property from the Laura Lee Stearns Collection
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)

No Sleep

ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
No Sleep
signed 'E. RUSCHA' (on the reverse); titled and dated '"NO SLEEP" 1965' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
24 x 19 7⁄8 in. (61 x 50.5 cm.)
Painted in 1965.
Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1965
L. Bowman, Art Gods, Los Angeles, 1988.
Ed Ruscha: Birds, Fish and Offspring, exh. cat., New York, C&M Arts, 2002, n.p. (illustrated).
R. Dean and P. Poncy, eds., Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume One: 1958-1970, New York, 2003, pp. 200-201, no. P1965.16 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, Ferus Gallery, Edward Ruscha, November 1965.

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Lot Essay

In 1965, Ed Ruscha debuted a new series of paintings at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. This was the artist's third one-man show at the Gallery, and it consisted of twelve paintings of wildlife—exclusively fish and birds—that seemed to be lifted from the pages of Field & Stream or a hunter’s field guide. No Sleep is an exceptional example from this celebrated series and demonstrates Ruscha’s early interest in Surrealism and Dada, as well as his particular brand of West Coast Pop Art. Coming from the collection of Laura Lee Stearns, No Sleep was acquired from Ferus Gallery in 1965 and has rarely been seen in public since.

An exceptional example from the moment of Pop Art’s ascendance on the West Coast, the present work is one of the finest, most significant paintings of its era. It is also–like so much of Ruscha’s work–wickedly funny. Here, the artist depicts an intimate window into the night time “pillow talk” of a mute song bird and his loquacious companion, a gleaming, wide-mouthed fish. This seemingly gabs on and on, oblivious to her companion’s need for sleep. It is an intimate scene, beautifully spot-lit as if the bed had been placed upon an empty stage. The palette is limited to a delicate balance of cobalt blue, creamy white and a rich, russet-brown (perhaps an ode to the Old Masters, and Ruscha has cited Bruegel and Bosch as inspiration). The painting itself is an exercise in restraint, where the empty background of warm, brown tones works to highlight the bright white of the bird’s plumage and the fish’s slick, silvery skin. It is both spare and lush, as Ruscha manages to convey the animals’ expressions in a sophisticated, yet deadpan, way—right down to the bird’s dead eyes and his blank, comic stare.

According to the artist’s brother, No Sleep was one of the paintings that jumped out at him from the wildlife series, as it echoed he and Ed’s bedtime routine as children growing up in Oklahoma City: “Every night we’d hit our 8:30 curfew after bedside prayers, but I’d not be tired or finished with jabbering about my daily events and I’d ramble on endlessly, long after Ed failed to respond and had obviously fallen asleep” (P. Ruscha, quoted in R. Dean and P. Poncy, eds., Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume One: 1958-1970, New York, 2003, p. 200).

Even at this early stage of his career, Ruscha was a master at appropriating imagery from the real world—be it single words like OOF or HONK—situating them within a new, pictorial realm. Ruscha creates a sort of timeless suspension where the words and images exist in a kind of out-of-time and out-of-this-world pictorial space. This is the particular kind of pictorial ether that is specific to an Ed Ruscha painting. As he once explained, “I like the emptiness of things at the same time that I like things that are power-packed” (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ibid., p. 7).

Like his Word paintings, Ruscha’s wildlife paintings are full of clever one-liners and subtle double-entendres. Most of the titles from this series read like riddles, whose meaning can only be interpreted by analyzing the painting's visual content. In this way, Ruscha blends text and image to further complicate and enrich each painting’s meaning. In Give Him Anything and He’ll Sign It, 1965 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Ruscha depicts a bird with a pencil for a beak. In another, Angry Because It's Plaster, Not Milk, 1965 (The Broad, Los Angeles), the bird’s open beak attempts to grab a glass of milk lying on its side; the milk doesn’t spill, however, and it’s only in referencing the title that the viewer “gets” the joke–it’s a plaster replica of a glass of milk, not actually a glass of milk. In No Sleep, the joke is again revealed by the title. The talkative fish keeps her companion awake, causing the lack of sleep to which the title alludes. Throughout his career, Ruscha has subtly delighted in these inside jokes - from the flying can of spam in Actual Size, 1962, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) to the refried beans in Adios, 1967 (Glenstone).

At the time this painting was created, Ruscha had just relocated to a studio on North Western Avenue in Hollywood. This location would be his address for the next 20 years. For Ed Ruscha, Hollywood held a magical pull. It is a connection perhaps best summarized by the art critic Calvin Tomkins, who profiled Ruscha’s connection to LA in the New Yorker in 2013. He wrote: “Hollywood films and cinematic perspectives have influenced many of Ruscha’s paintings, but the underlying subject of his work has always been Los Angeles itself. He saw the place for the first time when he was fourteen, on a car trip with his parents, and when he came back in 1956 to go to art school, driving from Oklahoma City with Mason Williams, there were no disappointments. Nearly everything about the city appealed to him—the endless sprawl, the two-story apartment houses with outdoor stairways, the hot rods, the jazz clubs, the billboards, the sunrises and sunsets, the boulevards that led to the ocean” (C. Tomkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.,” The New Yorker, June 24, 2013).

With its mysterious backdrop and unusual imagery, No Sleep also embodies the Surrealist’s penchant for creating strange and dreamlike narratives, especially the paintings of René Magritte. As in Magritte's "Treachery of Images," Ruscha's cozy fish and bird, tucked into bed for the night, illustrate the Surrealist's penchant for frisson—the mysterious feeling that results from ordinary objects placed in unusual or unknowable scenarios. Indeed, this mysterious quality pervades the series as a whole. “I’ve always had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things which cannot be explained,” Ruscha has said. “Explanations seem to me to sort of finish things off” (R. D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 134).

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