ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
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ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
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ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)

Norm's La Cienega Sinking into the Petrochemical Swamp

ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
Norm's La Cienega Sinking into the Petrochemical Swamp
titled and dated '"Norm's La Cienega Sinking into the Petrochemical Swamp" 2006' (on the stretcher); signed and dated again 'Ed Ruscha 2006' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
28 x 53 in. (71.1 x 134.6 cm.)
Painted in 2006.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 2006
R. Dean, ed., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Seven: 2004-2011, New York, 2016, pp. 164-165, no. P2006.09 (illustrated).
La Jolla, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Ed Ruscha Then & Now: Paintings from the 1960s and 2000s, January-April 2016, pp. 46-47 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Deterioration is a fertile area to explore. Ed Ruscha

In 1964, Ed Ruscha created the first of his now iconic series of burning landmark buildings, with Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire. This seminal painting, now in the collection of The Broad, Los Angeles, depicts the famous West Hollywood coffee shop engulfed in flames, with smoke pouring out of its interior. Nearly half a century later the artist returned to this enduring motif with Norm’s, La Cienega, Sinking into the Petrochemical Swamp, a similarly striking painting that speaks to a new series of twenty-first century concerns.

For Ruscha, Norm’s on La Cienega Boulevard, which was just a few blocks away from the Ferus Gallery, was synonymous with L.A. culture, embodying the same graphic power as the 20th Century Fox logo and the Hollywood sign. This iconic midcentury landmark is equal parts saccharine and seedy. Its architectural design is representative of a modernist utopia of the 1950s and ‘60s, which has, by now, become a relic of a bygone era. With the slogan known to most Los Angeles residents, “Welcome to Norms! Where life happens, 24⁄7”, Norm’s, a chain restaurant that has been at its La Cienaga location since 1957, is both ubiquitous and distinctively American, with a touch of Disney-era optimism thrown in.

In the present painting, the iconic sign from “Norm’s” on La Cienega is seen to sink slowly into a pool of viscous black liquid. Rendered on a large scale, here the iconic restaurant has completely vanished. The only vestige that remains is its iconic sign, which sinks slowly into the primordial pool, much like the mast of some great clipper ship. The abnormality of the scene is heightened by the sheer beauty of its depiction, as the artist has paid special care to the light glinting off the edge of the sign as it touches the oily water, and in the sublime atmosphere of the painting’s background, wherein a blue sky is tinged with yellow, as if a new era is dawning.

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 1956, Ruscha found a rapidly growing city that was ripe for artistic and cultural study. In some of his most iconic paintings of the ‘60s, Ruscha captured this zeitgeist with a deadpan eye: he painted the Hollywood sign—which he could see from his studio in East Hollywood—silhouetted against a beautiful ombre background, and as early as 1962, he painted the 20th Century Fox logo in a monumental painting stretching over ten feet long. He has captured the scratchy, black-and-white romance of vintage Hollywood film noir, and he has plumbed the seedy depths of Los Angeles’ city streets, even photographing every building on the Sunset Strip, a series he revisits every few years. Indeed, critics have suggested that Ruscha has treated Los Angeles itself as a “readymade” for over sixty years.

When, in 1964, Ruscha painted Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire, the artist brought a surreal edge to these otherwise heraldic depictions of Los Angeles. Strange and violent, these new paintings ushered in a subtle new change to Ruscha’s body of work. He painted Burning Gas Station in 1965-6, and Los Angeles County Museum on Fire the same year (1965-8; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Much has been written by critics—notably Dave Hickey who first developed the idea—about the symbolic meaning behind Ruscha’s desire to set these buildings on fire. In setting “Norm’s” ablaze in Norm’s, La Cienega, on Fire and by torching the “Standards” (as in Burning Standard and Burning Gas Station), was Rucha setting out to destroy “norms” and “standards” in general? In the spirit of revolution that spread from Haight-Ashbury down to Laurel Canyon and beyond, was Ruscha caught up in the seismic changes of the 1960s? Or was he referring to the pictorial “norms” and “standards” of the prevailing Abstract Expressionist style that he had encountered while studying at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in the late ‘50s? It is tempting to consider that Ruscha, ever the clever wordsmith, has again cloaked his paintings in layers of meaning that remain tantalizingly out of reach.

Around 2006, when the present work was painted, Ruscha had been engaged in a multi-year reprisal of some of his earlier paintings, and decided to revisit Norm’s. Now, rather than burning norms, he presents us with sinking norms, which is on par with the themes of progress and decay which were on his mind at that time. In 2003, he again painted the Standard Station, in this mysterious painting, he retained the silhouette of the original Standard Oil gas station of the ‘60s, but it was now shrouded in darkness, becoming a haunting replica of its former self, and now set against a beautiful sunset in a ravishing ombre effect. Echoing Géricault’s politically charged Le Radeau de la Méduse [The Raft of the Medusa] (1818-19, Louvre, Paris), the contrast between light and dark, life and death, is striking.

L.A. is a desert with mirages. Something happens, and then—poof—it’s gone. Ed Ruscha

Ruscha also made a series of five paintings known collectively as the Course of Empire series, which he debuted at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005. Each of these paintings depicted one of the boxy, concrete, warehouse-type buildings of his earlier Blue Collar paintings, such as Blue Collar Trade School and Blue Collar Tool & Die (both 1992). But now, the name of the buildings had changed, and some of them had been boarded up and placed behind barbed wire. The series is profound and dark, hinting at the theme of progress and its inevitable reversal, which all great empires must undergo. But there is something strange and beautiful about them as well. The art critic Michael Kimmelman remarked upon this aspect in his review of the Biennale in 2005, writing: "Mature, laconic and strangely grave, the work conveys an acute attention to place and light, and an almost wistful sense of time past" (M. Kimmelman, “Global Village Whose Bricks Art Art,” The New York Times, June 16, 2005, p. E1).

Ruscha once remarked, in paraphrasing the L.A.-based artist and writer Harry Gamboa, “L.A. is a desert with mirages. Something happens, and then—poof—it’s gone” (E. Ruscha, quoted in K. McMahon, “L.A. Habitat: Ed Ruscha,” Art News, March 11, 2016, online). Indeed, Ruscha’s painting of Norm’s La Cienega Sinking into the Petrochemical Swamp alludes to the changing nature of the city, from its prehistoric origins in the La Brea Tar Pits, to its reliance on the automobile (and the resulting use of carbon-rich fossil fuels), and the subsequent twenty-first century wildfires and floods due to the subsequent climate change. As such, it touches upon Ruscha’s long-abiding fascination with the two sides of Los Angeles—on the one hand, a sparkling city where dreams come true, but on the other, one that’s tinged with something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.

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