‘Words have temperatures... When they reach a certain point and become hot, they appeal to me’ —Ed Ruscha’s Annie

Offered in the ONE sale on 10 July in New York, this early ‘text’ painting epitomises the genre that established the LA-based artist as one of the most innovative of the 1960s

Annie is a groundbreaking, early painting by Ed Ruscha. Nearly six feet high, it’s an example of the unique approach that would make the LA-based artist one of the most celebrated of his generation.

Inspired by the eponymous heroine of Little Orphan Annie, an American comic strip, Annie (1962) epitomises an entire genre that Ruscha invented in this period: paintings consisting solely of text. Sometimes that text came in the form of phrases; at other times, such as here, single words.

Annie  is a conceptually complex image that belies its visual simplicity. The canvas is split in two, the lower half offering a sea of rich blue. In the upper half, the word ‘Annie’ is rendered in bright, red pigment against a gold-yellow background. The contoured lettering, like the black silhouette encasing it, is lifted directly from the comic-strip source.

The work is located firmly within the Pop art tradition. But unlike his New York peer, Roy Lichtenstein — whose early paintings of cartoon characters (such as Popeye and Look Mickey) were inspired by the cultural ubiquity of those characters — Ruscha’s interest in Annie herself is all but non-existent. The girl is absent from his composition. Ruscha’s focus is on the formal qualities of the typography used to render her name.

Jerry McMillan, Ed Ruscha with six of his books balanced on his head, 1970. Photo © Jerry McMillan. Courtesy of Jerry McMillan and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California. Artwork © Ed Ruscha
Jerry McMillan, Ed Ruscha with six of his books balanced on his head, 1970. Photo: © Jerry McMillan. Courtesy of Jerry McMillan and Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California. Artwork: © Ed Ruscha

Ruscha has spent his whole career investigating the semantic and semiotic properties of words, but Annie  marks the first time he used text copied directly from a pop-cultural source. To extract a word from its usual or original context is to change how it’s read and what it might mean. For Ruscha, letters become predominantly a visual motif.

As such, he overcame the rigid dichotomy that was widely felt to exist between the figurative and the abstract — and presented a radical, new way of looking at art.

Ruscha has cited Jasper Johns as an influence in this regard. Working in the mid-1950s, the latter painted versions of recognisable signs and signifiers (such as the US flag in Flag), thereby removing a chunk of their symbolic meaning. Johns said he liked depicting ‘things the mind already knows’, as that allowed him ‘to work on other levels’.

Ed Ruscha, Annie, 1962. Oil and graphite on canvas. 71½ x 66¾ in (181 x 169.5 cm). Estimate $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in ONE on 10 July at Christie’s in New York
Ed Ruscha, Annie, 1962. Oil and graphite on canvas. 71½ x 66¾ in (181 x 169.5 cm). Estimate: $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in ONE on 10 July at Christie’s in New York

In similar fashion, in adopting the typography of Little Orphan Annie, Ruscha took his own art to another level: namely, an exploration of the existential nature of painting.

Annie  is one of a set of Ruscha works from the early-1960s that count among the most important in the post-war American canon. Others include Actual Size (now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art); OOF (in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), and Hurting the Word Radio #1 (in the Menil Collection, Houston).

Beyond conceptual considerations, Ruscha’s ‘word paintings’ function on purely aesthetic grounds, too. Annie  is harmonious in both colour and composition.

What’s more, unlike Lichtenstein — who in his aforementioned paintings sought to mimic the commercial printing process of comic books — Ruscha didn’t hide the medium of Annie’s production. The painterly process is revealed on immediate inspection of the word ‘Annie’, which exhibits loops and swirls of thick red impasto worthy of the Abstract Expressionists.

Ed Ruscha at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles — where Annie featured in his debut show — in 1963. © Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles — where Annie featured in his debut show — in 1963. © Ed Ruscha

The canvas was part of Ruscha’s debut show, at dealer Irving Blum’s Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963 — and has been reproduced in countless books and catalogues since.

It was the first — and most important — of more than a dozen works by the artist over the decades featuring the name ‘Annie’. What he finds so fascinating about that combination of five letters even he has never been able to explain.

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‘I love language,’ Ruscha says. ‘Words have temperatures... When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me.’ With Annie, he clearly felt a great and sustained heat indeed.