ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
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ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
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LA Cool: Property from the Laura Lee Stearns Collection
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)

Bowling Ball, Olive

ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
Bowling Ball, Olive
signed and dated 'E. Ruscha 1969' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
19 7⁄8 x 23 7⁄8 in. (50.5 x 60.6 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Acquired directly from the artist by the late owner, 1969
R. Dean and P. Poncy, eds., Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume One: 1958-1970, New York, 2003, pp. 328-329, no. P1969.15 (illustrated).
Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, 32nd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, February-April 1971, no. 29.
New York, H. Peter Findlay Works of Art, Paintings & Drawings 1967-1973 by Ed Ruscha, December 1974.

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Lot Essay

In 1968, Ed Ruscha embarked upon a series of exquisitely rendered paintings that depicted common objects hovering in mid-air. Over the course of three years, he painted colorful marbles, drugstore pharmaceuticals, bowling balls, olives, and a host of other seemingly ordinary things. These paintings were a striking departure from the Word paintings of the early 1960s, and yet they employed many of the same strategies. Coming from the collection of Laura Lee Stearns, Bowling Ball, Olive was painted in October of 1969, and is one of the most visually arresting of the entire “trompe l’oeil” series. A strikingly beautiful arrangement of fiery orange and black tones, it presents a floating bowling ball that hovers impossibly in mid-air. Its weightiness and heft is outmatched, paradoxically, by its neighbor—a diminutive martini olive suspended nearby. In this and so much of Ruscha’s oeuvre, the painting’s power derives from its pictorial simplicity, in the objects that the artist has chosen to depict and his faithfulness to the cause of their rendering.

In Bowling Ball, Olive, Ruscha’s technical sophistication as a painter is on full display: a bowling ball with a decorative, tiger-stripe patterning that was commonly discovered in bowling alleys of the 1950s and 60s, and a classic martini olive that hovers alongside its larger neighbor. Both of these objects (one impossibly heavy, the other a tiny garnish) are seen to levitate as if by some conjurer’s trick. Ruscha has taken extra care in rendering the sheen of the bowling ball—right down to the two sparkles of light reflecting off its gleaming surface. The background features the beautiful ombre effect that has now become iconic to Ruscha’s work. It ranges in tone from light orange to a deep russet-brown, not unlike the LA sunsets that have so often influenced his style.

By this stage of his career, Ruscha was regularly creating painterly magic. The liquid word paintings of the late 1960s depicted single words that were spelled out in their own juices. Paintings like Ripe, Juicy and Adios are all delineated with the liquid of their creation. And yet, in the fifty years since their inception, these paintings have never evaporated or dried up; instead, they stay impossibly fresh—existing in a kind of timeless, liminal state. The same holds true for the series of soap suds he painted around 1971. Ruscha continued to make magic in these trompe l’oeil paintings. This time, he found a way to levitate objects, even impossibly heavy ones like bowling balls, which are seen to float in mid-air. All of these strange distortions are part of Ruscha’s particular brand of West Coast Pop Art, which he inflects with subtle absurdities and strange, noir-like distortions.

Ruscha also took strides to delineate objects according to their actual size in works such as this. He carefully measured each item beforehand in order to accurately gauge its scale. This was an aspect that he employed even in his earliest word paintings. In the fittingly titled Actual Size, 1962, (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Ruscha depicted a flying can of “Spam” that was faithfully rendered in its actual, real-world proportions. So too, did he often measure and trace out the objects included in the trompe l’oeil paintings that he turned to at the close of the decade. In Bowling Ball, Olive, each of the objects are accurately rendered according to their real-world counterparts. This has the effect of making them seem both hyper-real but also strangely out of place—caught in a sort of eternal stillness that is not quite of this world.

Ruscha’s reliance on ordinary objects has its art historical precedence in Duchamp’s Readymades of the early 20th Century. Already at this early date, Duchamp understood both the absurdity and profundity of selecting ordinary objects from the real world and elevating them to the realm of fine art. They existed, already, as “ready-made” for this purpose. Ruscha, too, uses ordinary items like pills, balls, marbles, pencils and pieces of food in his trompe l’oeil paintings. And yet, Ruscha does something entirely new; by realistically rendering the common objects, he drives home their ordinariness, and in making them float, he calls on the realm of the Surrealists and the notion of the uncanny. Ordinary but strange, the trompe l’oeil paintings depart from the realm of the everyday and cross over into the uncanny valley.

Ruscha would have known the art of Duchamp and the Surrealists from his early days in Los Angeles. Already by the late 1950s, there was a strong presence of European Surrealism in L.A., mostly through the Copley Gallery. Ruscha most likely saw exhibits by Magritte, Ernst, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy during that era. In 1963, he also attended the Duchamp retrospective organized by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum. Duchamp had originally appealed to Ruscha during his school days. Looking back, he later explained: "I looked at a lot of pictures in books on Dada in the library. [...] I was inspired by this sort of lunatic group of people who made art that ran against prevailing ideas” (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 131).

Some critics have compared the hovering orbs and tiny objects in Ruscha’s trompe l’oeil paintings to the new imagery coming out of NASA in the 1960s as a result of the Apollo moon missions. As the curator Alexandra Schwartz explained, “Given that Ruscha made these works within months of the moon landing in July 1969, it logically follows that such imagery should make its way into his work. [...] With their suggestions of open skies and horizon lines, these backgrounds lend the objects the appearance of celestial bodies in outer space” (A. Schwartz, “A History Without Words,” in Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 2009, pp. 32-33).

Inflected with the absurdity of Dada and the Surrealists’ penchant for the bizarre, Ed Ruscha’s Bowling Ball, Olive is a captivating painting from a seminal moment in his career. As the curator Alexandra Schwartz once again reminds us, these paintings “provide perhaps the clearest window onto Ruscha’s ‘tricks and devices’ as a painter: the formal experimentation, the art-historical references and conceptual leaps that lend his work its depth and nuance. […] [They] reveal an alternative narrative to that which is usually told about his work, revealing him at his most inventive and astute” (A. Schwartz, Ibid., p. 30).

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