Sterling Ruby (b. 1972)
signed with the artist's initials, titled and dated 'SR.11 'SP176'' (on the reverse)
spray paint and acrylic on canvas
160 1/4 x 160 1/4 in. (407 x 407 cm.)
Executed in 2011.
Private collection

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Alexander Berggruen
Alexander Berggruen

Lot Essay

Sterling Ruby’s SP176 is a rich and luscious painting that investigates the nature of abstraction in the contemporary age. The verdant surface is part painting, part abstracted graffiti—what the artist himself describes as an “illicit merger,” inspired both by art history and the urban landscape of Los Angeles. Here, the striations of green sweep across this large-scale canvas creating a chromatic landscape-like composition of monumental proportion.

Ruby’s amorphous layering of spray paint upon canvas has its roots in street culture. His work occupies a distinctive position within the diverse trajectory of contemporary painting—a trajectory that runs from Abstract Expressionism through Pop Art, to the spray-can works of Christopher Wool, the explosive canvases of Julie Mehretu and the opulent stencils of Rudolf Stingel. Confronting the viewer with a mixture of anarchism and splendor, Ruby’s paintings broach issues of urban conflict through the artist’s own brand of incandescent abstraction, combining frenetic energy with kaleidoscopic visual effect. Covering these forms with translucent layers of spray paint, Ruby’s abstract canvases can be seen to mirror the process of obfuscation he witnessed in his urban surroundings. As in SP176, the dysfunctional becomes a springboard for the beautiful. “I have always thought of art as similar to poetry,” Ruby has said, “[in] that it can’t be proven and yet, if done right, has a sense of unmistakable aura” (S. Ruby quoted in J. Ribas, “Sterling Ruby: Sincerely Hostile,” Flash Art, no. 271, March-April 2010).

A range of experiences including time spent working in construction, a brief career as a professional skateboarder, and work as a teaching assistant for Mike Kelley all formed the enigma that is Sterling Ruby. Ruby's background and upbringing were as diverse and unique as his artistic style is today. His creativity, similar to the masculinity he analyzes, is not limited to one medium, form, or scale. Hailed by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith as one of the most interesting artists to emerge in the twenty-first century, Ruby channels his frenetic energy through painting, video, sculpture, ceramics, collage, installation art and photography.

Ruby has given SP176 a hazy texture that blurs one's perception of depth and space. A vibrant mist of green spans the width of the work in a multifaceted composition of varied texture and coloring. Upon first encounter, the enormous painting's palette and extremely worked surface emit a heavy pathos and a looming sense of unease. Indeed, Ruby's painterly practice has been described as “the sublime refinement of Mark Rothko crossed with the anarchic gestures of spray-can graffiti” (J. Deitch quoted in The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Warhol, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 6). Ruby’s works are within such collections as The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Guggenheim, New York, Rubell Family Collection, Miami and Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo.

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