Few individuals left such an indelible mark on the artistic landscape of Southern California than Joan and Jack Quinn. As collectors, patrons and, above all else, friends to artists, the Quinns helped propel their beloved Los Angeles into a world-class cultural mecca. In the process, they built one of the nation’s foremost private collections of Contemporary art—the tangible representation of a lifetime’s dedication to the creative process.
Married for over half a century, Joan and Jack Quinn were present from the earliest days of Los Angeles’s artistic evolution, when emerging figures and outposts such as the Ferus Gallery began to catch the attention of a global audience. A native Angelino, Joan Quinn first became acquainted with the Ferus Gallery and its stable of artists—including Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Larry Bell, and others—through sculptor Billy Al Bengston. Jack Quinn, for his part, was a notable Southern California attorney who utilized his skills to help artists and dealers, including the Ferus Gallery, navigate the complexities of law and business.
For decades, Joan and Jack Quinn were unwavering patrons of local artists, with a prescient understanding of the important work emanating from Los Angeles studios. It was never enough, however, to simply collect; for the Quinns, art was a dialogue between artist and viewer that yielded unending inspiration and lifelong friendships. In 1978, Andy Warhol asked Joan Quinn to join his influential Interview magazine as its West Coast editor, allowing the collector to further promote the work of her growing circle of Southern California creatives. From 1993, Joan Quinn hosted an eponymous television program featuring interviews with many of these same friends and talents, and became a contributing writer and photographer for a wide range of international publications.
Known for her charisma, intelligence, and incomparable élan, Joan Quinn became a kind of distinctly Californian muse for artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, Zandra Rhodes, Larry Bell, Ed Moses, Antonio Lopez, and many others. As artists sought to record her image across a variety of media, Joan Quinn found herself with one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Contemporary portraiture—a poignant representation of friendships forged through creativity. In the period since the passing of Jack Quinn in 2017, Joan Quinn has continued her longstanding involvement in the arts.
The decades-long journey in patronage and collecting of Jack and Joan Quinn represents a pivotal moment in the history of Contemporary art, as Los Angeles came to symbolize an innovative and prolific brand of creative freedom. Today, the Quinns’ legacy continues to resonate across Southern California and the wider world—the story of an unwavering belief in the power of art to inspire and enlighten.
Across a vast expanse of vibrant sky blue, the word “RADIO” is laid out in a beguiling juxtaposition of static and surreal sunshine yellow painted letters. Hurting the Word Radio #2 is an iconic example of Ed Ruscha’s c-clamp paintings, which also includes Hurting the Word Radio #1 (Menil Collection, Houston) and Not Only Securing the Last Letter but Damaging it as Well (Boss) (Museum Brandhorst, Munich). Here, the bold, stately letters synonymous with Ruscha’s practice become distorted and warped as trompe l’oeil c-clamps squeeze the “R” and tug on the “O,” distorting and transforming them in to rippled rubbery notes. Indeed, Hurting the Word Radio #2 is an important early example of the artist’s revolutionary Text paintings—a body of work that would establish Ruscha as one of the most innovative and influential painters of the 1960s. Based in Los Angeles, far away from the flourishing New York art scene, Ruscha arrived at his own brand of Pop based on the utilitarian styling of words and letters. Though seemingly isolated from his New York contemporaries, Ruscha was directly exposed to a series of several high profile exhibitions in California that would help push Pop Art to prominence—namely Warhol’s 1962 Ferus show of Campbell’s soup cans, where Hurting the Word Radio #2 would first be exhibited merely two years later. Indeed, Ruscha’s participation in the Los Angeles art scene in the early 1960s firmly established him as an influential figure whose conceptual rigor played a leading role during the movement’s early days.
Ruscha’s choice of mundane words as the subject matter for his major paintings paralleled Warhol’s foregrounding of brand-names and trademarks in his paintings of Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans. Both artists selected the iconography of modern-day America as a means of introducing contemporary experience into their art. Just as Warhol mimics the machine-like sterility and repetition of the factory production line through his stenciling and serial screenprinting, Ruscha uses techniques learned as a commercial artist to break down the barriers between that which constitutes “high” and “low” art. Here, “RADIO” seems to have a particularly Pop overtone. As the letters are jarringly transformed, one is reminded of the blurring
of words during a poor radio transmission.
By the time Ruscha painted Hurting the Word Radio #2, the years of families gathering around the radio to listen to the news were over. However, the radio continued to make its presence felt in every car across America, becoming a part of the culture of freedom, youth and individualism associated with automobiles. Looking at this significant early word painting, we can imagine the artist driving down Route 66 or over the intersecting freeways of Los Angeles, watching the advertisements and signs pass as a steady stream of rock ‘n’ roll issues from the dashboard, before slipping out the window and into the California sunshine.
The importance of car culture in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s was considerable. At this time, the freeways through Los Angeles were still relatively new, and they held a special interest not just for Ruscha but in popular culture as well, as the new roads opened up the country to a more accessible and democratic kind of exploration and encouraged automobile travel both within and around cities. In Ruscha’s text paintings around this time, words related to electricity and car culture are common, and examples including the works Flash, Voltage, Electricity, Honk, Buick, Noise and Smash. The open roads of Los Angeles promised adventure, excitement, fast speeds and independence, thus capturing a fundamental piece of the southern California identity: “Psychologically shocked or no, most Angelino freeway-pilots are neither retching with smog nor stuck in a jam; their white-wall tires are singing over the diamond-cut anti-skid grooves in the concrete road surface, the selector-levers of their automobile gearboxes are firmly in Drive, and the radio is on” (R. Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, New York, 1971, p. 198).
In some ways, there are parallels between Warhol and Ruscha’s artistic beginnings. Both pursued early careers as commercial artists before turning to “high” art in order to satisfy their creativity, finding inspiration in the explosion of commercial imagery they saw around them. “Ruscha has often recounted his early fascination with commercial art and a parallel frustration with painting.
Initially Ruscha’s work as a commercial artist simply outweighed any compulsion to paint. In time he recoiled his doubt, conjoining his interest in vernacular imagery, typography, book design, filmmaking, and photo-documentary work with an emerging desire to paint. Paradoxically it was his work in a wide variety of non-traditional media, and a distrust of the career path of a painter, that enabled Ruscha to overcome his uncertainty and freed him to create paintings of striking originality” (N. Benezra, “Ed Ruscha, Painting and Artistic License,” Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 145).
Ruscha first began to include text in his paintings in the late 1950s when he discovered the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg while studying at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, and his first major paintings combined his interest in the strict formalism of printed material with the freedom he found in painting. These early works mainly consisted of hand-painted typography, ranging from crisp renderings of well-known logos, such as Actual Size and Annie, to more painterly interpretations of street signage spotted on a trip to Europe including Metropolitan, a 1961 painting based on the iconic Art Nouveau typography of the Paris subway, and Boulangerie, a thickly impastoed painting that mimics the crusty surface of a freshly baked loaf of bread. By 1962, he began to produce work on a much larger scale, producing a series of paintings which eschewed the brushy nature of his previous work in favor of vast expanses filled with more emphatic monosyllabic words, such as that featured in the present work. This imposing scale would soon morph effortlessly into his iconic large-scale paintings inspired by gas stations and advertising billboards such as Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963.
Given his developing visual aesthetic, curators and critics alike were keen to associate Ruscha with the burgeoning Pop Art scene, but the artist was hesitant, insisting that he was more closely aligned to the tradition of painting than perhaps the subject matter of his paintings suggested. “The term Pop Art made me nervous and ambivalent,” he said. “…It actually goes beyond painting. It was culture, and it was so many other modes of making art. …A Pop artist can be anyone who has thrown over a recent set of values” (E. Rusha, quoted by N. Benezra (ed.), Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 150). A chance meeting with Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in late 1963 would send Ruscha off in a different direction, transforming combinations of materials that were regarded as taboo and continuing a tradition of innovation that would become the hallmark of his long career.
Many of the artists Ruscha admired, such as Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Duchamp, laced their art with a strong sense of wit, which also became one of the hallmarks of Ruscha’s own oeuvre. “Absurdity and paradox had real meaning for me as an artist,” Ruscha has tellingly divulged. Such is the tone of one of his most notorious compositions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (Hirshhorn Museum), which shares important connections to its fiery predecessor, Burning Gas Sation, as well as the 1964 book that Ruscha produced titled Various Small Fires and Milk. After viewing the new building from a helicopter, Ruscha recounted, “I knew at the time that I started the picture that I was going to assault that building somehow” (E. Ruscha, Leave Any Information at the Signal, Cambridge, 2002, p. 45). Both paintings take subjects that have hallowed cultural associations and send them up in flames—in the case of Burning Gas Station, one of Edward Hopper’s quiet meditations on the modernism of America seems to have suddenly combusted.
Ed Ruscha’s paintings from the early 1960s stand at a pivotal point in the history of art as the tradition of painting fought to maintain its relevance in light of the beginnings of the nascent Pop movement. In work’s such as Hurting the Word Radio #2, Ruscha successfully straddles both, connecting the painterly tradition to the new contemporary culture of advertising and mass-media. Unbeknownst at the time, this culture would spread beyond the United States. Artists such as Ruscha, Warhol and Lichtenstein not only became the messenger, their works would also form part of the message, part of the universal language of art that reigned for much of the rest of the century.