This work will be included in the forthcoming Ed Ruscha catalogue raisonné being prepared by Pat Poncy as archive no. P1968.15.
In 1956, Ed Ruscha arrived in Los Angeles from Oklahoma City by way of the now fabled Route 66. Emerging from the dust bowl of middle-America onto the L.A. art scene, Ruscha reveled in the images he absorbed along the way. His paintings depict a down-home aesthetic matched by an equal interest in both commercial and fine arts. On his move to LA, Ruscha recalls, "There seemed to be a world of possibilities out there for photography, cartooning, or maybe humor, and abstract painting. Maybe they all came together in one story. But I didn't just eliminate everything in my history and study only fine art. It just didn't happen that way" (N. Benezra, "Ed Ruscha: Painting and Artistic License," Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 145).
Ruscha's keen eye and talent allowed him to quickly emerge as one of the key figures in the burgeoning high-octane LA art scene which was, at the time, largely inspired by American popular culture. From the beginning, Ruscha has collected found objects and signage and anchored his works in the vernacular of American culture. Banana Box, however, is unique to Ruscha's oeuvre. Instead of recontextualizing objects and words exploring the American psyche, Ruscha has painted an objective rendering of a sculpture by his friend, the artist Robert Graham, also titled Banana Box. Upon completion of the painting, the two artists exchanged their works.
Ruscha's Banana Box painting depicts a banana shielded from the surrounding atmosphere by a lucite vitrine. Although individually the items are banal, it is their unexpected juxtaposition that is intriguing and toys with the Surreal. The floating banana recalls Magritte's famous paintings wherein a floating apple displaces the artist's head. Anne Livet notes that, "Ruscha's relationship with the Surrealists is more fraternal than filial. Both artistic strategies derive from the Symbolist tradition, but whereas the iconography of the Surrealists derives from the language of the subconscious, Ruscha's iconography arises from the intersection of cultural and autobiographical metaphor" (A. Livet, The Works of Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 17).
Ruscha's artistic strategies falls solidly in the tradition of Duchamp, an early idol of the artist and a continuing influence on his work. Duchamp's art makes one reevaluate the anticipated meaning of an ordinary object, and to question the very nature of art. Dave Hickey describes a visit to Ruscha's studio which illuminated, for Hickey, the Duchampian word/image play that Ruscha so admires: "[Ruscha] seemed genuinely relaxed as we entered his studio. The two paper templates were on the wall: 'NO DUMPING' and 'Hold on for a minute. I'm no Martian.' He noticed me looking at them. ''NO DUMPING' isn't art,' he said. 'It's because of the garbage strike. The alley back there is a hazard. They're trying to burn me out, I think. ''NO DUMPING' isn't art,' I said, 'but 'Martians' is?' 'Right.' (D. Hickey, "Available Light," The Paintings of Ed Ruscha, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982, p. 27).
As a reproduction of another artwork, Banana Box recalls Duchamp's Boit en valise. Before fleeing the Nazis, Duchamp created miniature reproductions of his seminal works all of which are housed within a box or briefcase. These new objects are not just souvenirs but altogether new art objects with connotations unique to their predecessors. Similiarly, Banana Box is both a simulacra of Graham's original painting as well as an independent work that resonates with the duality of high-low art that pervades Ruscha's oeuvre. The banana exhibited and protected by the vitrine becomes a regal object set against a majestic atmosphere. It is both a reverential, if slightly unsettling, reliquary of the banal. Ruscha states, "sometimes it's about oddness. I've always had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things which cannot be explained. Explanations seem to me to sort of finish things off" (exh. cat., Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1989, p. 136).