ED RUSCHA (b. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (b. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (b. 1937)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
ED RUSCHA (b. 1937)

Chain and Cable

Details
ED RUSCHA (b. 1937)
Chain and Cable
signed and dated 'Ed Ruscha 1987' (on the reverse); signed again, titled and dated again 'ED RUSCHA "CHAIN AND CABLE" 1987' (on the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas
64 x 64 in. (162.6 x 162.6 cm.)
Painted in 1987.
Provenance
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1987
Literature
F. Fehlau, "Ed Ruscha: I Have This Lofty Idea of Landscape Being Pivotal to Making a Picture," Flash Art, 1988, p. 72 (illustrated).
D. Kuspit, "Ed Ruscha," Artforum, February 1988, p. 145.
B. Berkson, "Conversation with Ed Ruscha," Shift, 1988, p. 15 (illustrated).
W. Wilson, "ART REVIEW: Filling Up With Ed Ruscha: A 1989 retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art shows that the American standard isn’t what it used to be," Los Angeles Times, 10 December 1990.
P. Yvon de Vries, "Zien is Kennen," De Tijd, 1990, p. 33 (illustrated).
E. Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, 2002, p. 276.
R. Dean and E. Wright, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, New York, 2007, pp. 322-323, no. P1987.28 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Ed Ruscha, November 1987, n.p., pl. 14 (illustrated).
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Ed Ruscha: Recent Paintings, January-April 1988, n.p., no. 5 (illustrated).
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen; Barcelona, Fundació Caixa de Pensions; London, Serpentine Gallery and Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Ed Ruscha, December 1989-March 1991, pp. 59-60, no. 39 (Paris, illustrated); pp. 88-89, no. 35 (Rotterdam, illustrated); p. 99 (Barcelona, illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Ed Ruscha’s striking painting Chain and Cable occupies an important place within the artist’s singular career. Exhibited around the world and extensively cited in the literature on the artist, the lyrical and contemplative canvas tells an entire story within a single, large-scale canvas. Ruscha, currently the subject of an acclaimed retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, engages in his characteristic wordplay here: “chain” and “cable” are terms for parts of a ship’s anchoring apparatus, but they also could refer to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. While our focus with Ruscha tends to be on these evocative puns, Chain and Cable also evinces his skill and subtlety as a painter.

In the 1980s, Ruscha began using a spray gun (drawing on the Finish Fetish and Light and Space movements in Southern California), which lends the present work an atmospheric and sublime flair akin. There is a resemblance to an otherworldly daguerreotype, with its soft focus interspersed with fine detail. As critic Donald Kuspit wrote in his review of Ruscha’s 1987 Robert Miller Gallery show, where Chain and Cable was first shown, the artist “force[s] us into an uncertainty about the medium that makes the image seem to float free of its material base, as if in a memory” (D. Kuspit, “Ed Ruscha,” Artforum, February 1988, p. 145). Especially in these nautical works from the late 1980s, Ruscha proves that there is beauty in uncertainty, like a film noir or a message in a bottle.
Chain and Cable combines Ruscha’s signature bold text with a misty scene, as if the words are emerging from the storm of paint. A ghostly ship barrels toward us, just as “chain” and “cable” scroll up across the scene like movie credits. Maybe this is a ghost ship like the Mary Celeste or the Flying Dutchman, a vessel that travels the sea without a soul aboard. Yet Ruscha’s soul is always in the words he chooses, which in this instance are both nautical and Biblical. Ruscha muses, “If someone wants to look at Chain and Cable and say ‘Cain and Abel,’ then I’ll say, yes, that is maybe a logical viewer’s response. That’s strictly the ballpark of the viewer” (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. Dean and E. Wright, eds., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, New York, 2007, p. 322). In the book of Genesis, God punishes Cain for killing his brother Abel by casting him out into the cruel world. God says, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12, New International Version). In Chain and Cable, we wander with Ruscha—not as a curse, but rather as an opportunity to really dive into his immense contribution to postwar art. A secular comparison for Chain and Cable could be James Joyce. Critic Robert Enright theorized, “With ‘chain and cable,’ you get a spoonerism [a type of humorous verbal error] that is a play to the ear with an industrial resonance. That’s how a poem would work, the layering you get in that simple phrase is the kind of thing Joyce plays with continually in Ulysses” (R. Enright, “The Painted Whirred: Ed Ruscha’s Spin on Language,” Border Crossings, 2008, p. 44).
Ruscha forged his own style that became essential to Conceptual art, but in Chain and Cable he also refers to earlier icons in the history of painting. We would be remiss to not recall J.M.W. Turner’s maritime paintings, such as The Fighting Temeraire (1839, National Gallery, London) and especially Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842, Tate, London). In an American context, we can look to John Singer Sargent’s Atlantic Storm (1876) or Boats at Anchor (1917). While these are representational paintings, Ruscha instead imbues his seascape with ambiguity in his ongoing investigation of how text and image complicate each other. This gesture is especially important today, when we find ourselves inundated with new, mediated ways of seeing via social media.

Ruscha’s work has remained pressing and engrossing since his first solo show at the legendary Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles in 1963. ED RUSCHA/NOW THEN, his current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2024. The New York Times lauded the show, “To call it the show of the season is something of an understatement” (J. Farago, “The Deadpan Laureate of American Art,” The New York Times, September 7, 2023).
In a review of Ruscha’s 1989-1991 retrospective, which included Chain and Cable, the Los Angeles Times observed, “It’s all about strained relationships searching for stability, a troubled vision but not a hopeless one. It’s uphill but we’re struggling.” (W. Wilson, “ART REVIEW: Filling Up With Ed Ruscha,” Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1990). Chain and Cable could thus be a work of optimism, an allegory of the impulse to keep sailing despite treacherous waters. To call Ruscha’s work deadpan is certainly true, but even within irony and opacity one can find earnestness. We can certainly intuit Ruscha’s love of the medium here, floating as we are in a foggy landscape of paint.

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