‘Some artists do roses, but I work primarily with words’ — Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964)
An important early example of the artist’s ‘text’ paintings — a body of work that established Ruscha as one of the most innovative painters of the 1960s — sold for a record $52,485,000 in New York
In the early 1960s, as artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were making it big in the flourishing Pop Art scene of New York, Ed Ruscha arrived at his own version of Pop on the other side of the country.
Based in Los Angeles, which was then something of an artistic backwater, Ruscha pretty much invented an entire genre: paintings consisting solely of text. Sometimes these came in the form of single words; at other times they were phrases.
Ruscha first began to include text in his paintings in the late 1950s, when he discovered the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg while studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in LA. He began to use graphics to explore painting’s duality as both object and illusion, using words in his paintings as ‘visual constructs’.
Ruscha, who worked briefly as a commercial artist, found inspiration in the sudden ubiquity of advertising billboards, which spoke to America’s rising tides of prosperity and consumerism. In the case of Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964), the word ‘RADIO’ is spelled out in sunshine-yellow lettering against a vast, sky-blue background. The mood is unmistakably upbeat and suggestive of California’s balmy climate.
On 13 November, this early example of Ruscha’s revolutionary ‘text’ paintings sold for $52,485,000 in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York — a new world auction record for the artist.
Ed Ruscha, 1964. Photo: © Dennis Hopper, Courtesy of The Hopper Art Trust
In Hurting the Word Radio #2, Ruscha opts for a bold, clean typography rather than loose, expressive brushwork, mimicking the lettering found in advertisements. With his choice of the word ‘RADIO’, we can imagine the artist driving past a large billboard on one of the Los Angeles freeways, music blaring from his car.
The freeways through Los Angeles were still relatively new in the early 1960s, and they held a special interest not just for Ruscha but in popular culture as well. These new roads were opening up the country to a new and more democratic kind of exploration. References to electricity and car culture are common in Ruscha’s ‘text’ paintings from this time, with examples including the words Flash, Voltage, Electric, Honk, Buick, Noise and Smash.
Ruscha has developed a reputation as a deadpan observer of contemporary society, with the writer JG Ballard once describing him as having ‘the coolest gaze in American art’. There is, though, a subversive element in Hurting the Word Radio #2, one that sets it apart from most of his ‘text’ paintings.
Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964. Oil on canvas. 59 x 55 in (149.9 x 139.7 cm). Sold for $52,485,000 on 13 November at Christie’s in New York. © Ed Ruscha
Like Hurting the Word Radio #1 and Not Only Securing the Last Letter But Damaging It as Well (Boss) — both in major, public collections — the painting includes the depiction of c-clamps distorting the shape of certain letters. In this case, one clamp squeezes the ‘R’, while another stretches the ‘O’. It’s as if the words are being blurred by poor reception on the car radio.
Hurting the Word Radio #2 was first exhibited at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery in 1964, a venue that had swiftly established itself as a hotbed of Pop art. Two years earlier, Ferus had staged the first ever show of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.
Ruscha’s choice of mundane words as the subject matter for his major paintings paralleled Warhol’s foregrounding of brand names and trademarks in his paintings of Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans. Both artists selected the iconography of modern-day America as a means of introducing contemporary experience into their art.
Among the Ferus Gallery’s main patrons were Joan and Jack Quinn, who became friends with its stable of artists — Ruscha included — and keen collectors of their work. The couple acquired Hurting the Word Radio #2 in the early 1970s and, until now, have been its only owners.
Ruscha and the Quinns would go on to play a key role in helping to transform Los Angeles into the artistic hub it is today. Joan was a muse for Ruscha as well as Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Zandra Rhodes, Larry Bell, Ed Moses and Antonio Lopez, and in 1978, Warhol asked her to join Interview magazine as its West Coast editor, allowing the collector to further promote the work of her growing circle of Southern California creatives. Since 1993, she has hosted an eponymous television programme featuring interviews with many of these same friends and talents.
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Jack Quinn passed away in 2017, but Joan has continued her involvement in the arts. ‘This evening was a tribute to the great artist Ed Ruscha and to my beloved husband Jack Quinn,’ Joan said after the record sale of the painting. ‘Tonight, I am wearing a jacket by Johnson Hartig of Libertine, designed with Jack and Ed in mind. It’s says “fight club” because they loved to go to the boxing matches together. My family has been blessed to enjoy “Radio” for the last 40 years, and I feel like we have all won tonight.’
The ‘text’ paintings have come to represent a pivotal moment in art history, connecting the painterly tradition of centuries past with the contemporary Pop culture of advertising and mass media. ‘Some artists do roses, but I work primarily with words,’ explains Ruscha. ‘We're surrounded by many more words than we are roses.’