Ed Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska on December 16, 1937 into a Roman Catholic family with an older sister, Shelby, and a younger brother, Paul. His father Edward Ruscha, Sr. was an insurance auditor and his mother took interest in young Ruscha's artistic skill and interest. The family moved to Oklahoma City, living there for 15 years. In 1956, Ruscha finished high school and moved to Los Angeles. He recalls that LA "was swanky and slick, its drive-in and drive-by architecture, perfect weather, palm trees, beaches and waves … promised a faster life than I had known." *
Once in Southern California, Ruscha studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now The California Institute of the Arts). In the 1950s most discussions at Chouinard focused on Abstract expressionism, and Ed’s interest in LA’s popular culture and Pop Art was not an easy fit. His artistic direction included an interest in Conceptual art; and his works stood out with the critical lens of the conceptualist tempered by a quirky interest in the architecture of Sunset Strip and the long openness of the desert horizon.
Here is a NPR documentary about the artists affiliated with the Ferus Gallery, known as The Cool School. Read more…
After he graduated from Chouinard, he took a job as a layout artist for Carson-Roberts Adviertising Agency in LA. He worked as a layout designer for the art publication Artforum and taught at UCLA as Visiting Professor of painting and drawing, in 1969. Ruscha became associated with the Ferus Gallery group, which also included Edward Kienholz, Alan Light, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, John Altoon, and Craig Kauffman. In the 1950s LA was a conservative city and it was the Ferus Gallery that broke ground for a contemporary art scene in LA known as "The Cool School."
Ruscha's work was influenced by many artists, including Jasper Johns, who eventually became well known. Other influential artists included John McLaughlin, H.C. Westermann, Arthur Dove, Robert Rauschenberg, and Edward Hopper. In 1962, the retrospective exhibition of work by Marcel Duchamp, at the Pasadena Art Museum, became a transformative influence.
Ruscha found subject matter in the cityscapes of LA and Southern California, which led to books, like Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), which contained continuous photographs of buildings along a two and one half mile stretch of the 24-mile boulevard. In 1973, he produced another book from photographs of the entire 24 miles, using a motorized camera. It comes as no surprise, then, that his paintings, drawings and prints are frequently composed from that culture of Trademarks, Modern Gas Stations, and typography in a slick modern style. (Take a look …)
Many of Ruscha’s works are composed in a long, horizon-like format that is reminiscent of the wide movie screens that had become common in theaters, in the mid Twentieth Century. Other influences from the Hollywood film industry, led to such paintings as "Hollywood" (1968). And his "Mountain Series" parodied the Paramount Pictures logo and his "Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights" (1962) referenced the 20th Century Fox logo.
Drawing upon his interest in conceptual art, Ruscha spun typography into word paintings with comic and satirical sayings about popular culture in LA. Drawings made with Gunpowder and graphite featured single words rendered in a three-dimensional illusion of curling paper. By the 1970s Ruscha was creating paintings of entire phrases, like other conceptual artists did: Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. He also drew upon his fascination with the horizon in the 1980s, when he produced paintings of words in front of the backdrop of sunsets, night skies, and wheat fields. Ruscha also designed an all-caps typeface for these works, which he called "Boy Scout Utility Modern."
The dream-like feel to many of Ruscha’s paintings drew upon an interest in Surrealism in works with subjects like bouncing and floating, oversized red birds, or a glass hovering in front of a simple background. Fish are important subjects in this series as well as the continual appearance of a graphite pencil broken, splintered, melted, or otherwise transformed.
From Ruscha’s conceptual interests came experiments with untraditional media, including gunpowder, vinyl, blood, red wine, fruit and vegetable juices, axle grease, and more. His screenprints "News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews, Dues" (1970) were printed in such edible substances as pie filling, bolognese sauce, caviar and chocolate syrup.
Some of Ruscha's major commissioned works included a large mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (1966) and a 360-degree mural surround at the Denver Public Library (1995). One unusual public commission was made from a sheet of sateen on a billboard that was placed opposite the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and designed to be seen in the rear view mirror of a car. A complete list of Commissioned works is found in Wikipedia.
* Carlo McCormick. “West of Here: Ed Ruscha at the De Young Museum. Juxtapoz, Issue 187, August, 2016.
Page author: C.F.