Ed Ruscha - Contemporary Art Part I New York Thursday, November 12, 2009 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Patrick Painter Inc., Los Angeles

  • Catalogue Essay

    This work will be included in a forthcoming volume of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, edited by Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey.
    "Western history, western expansion… migration, restlessness, and lives played out in the front and back seats of the automobile. Out there on the highway was a no man’s land with points of no return, a landscape representing both danger and freedom—halfway between heaven and hell," (N. Benezra & K. Brougher, Ed Ruscha, Washington, D. C., Hirshhorn, p. 158).
    By 2002, Ed Ruscha had long established his formidable place in the American art scene. After decades of investigations into the pictorial use of language to describe the underbelly of American culture, followed by explorations in filmmaking, the artist returned to the canvas with a new scope of words and images reflective of his life’s experience. Born and raised in Oklahoma City in the wake of the dust bowl, Ruscha had artistically come into his own after driving out West in 1956. There, he encountered the sun and industry of Los Angeles, the cultural force of Hollywood, and the archetypal ethic of the quintessential American rogue figure: the cowboy.
    The trajectory of the American artist during the second half of the 20th century produced Ruscha’s early influences, and was later largely influenced by his outstanding body of work. Ruscha was inspired by the success of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in their elimination of the figure-ground relationship through reliance on public imagery. Likewise, with his west coast sentimentality, Ruscha explored iconic symbols of the California lifestyle.
    "Ruscha portrays Los Angeles primarily through images of its facades, its signage, its roadside attractions… He also paints the hills that rise up behind the city and the mountains that loom even higher in the distance as you leave it, away from the ocean… away from Autopia and Freewayland, the flatlands, the avenues of Anywheresville… the dingbat architecture, the tower blocks, the wavy-line moderne, the neat little homes, every variety of architectural style from Tacoburger Aztec, the towers and slabs, the bungalows and the gas stations,"  (P. Wollen, “Hard Cues”, Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Two: 1971-1982, New York, 2005, p. 8-9).
    The present lot is a return to a series Rusha began in the 1980s, which paired views of epic city-light grids with short phrases that ironically combined the speed of city life with the stereotypical “country” tone of America’s rural, Wild West past. The grid is a veritable survey of the Los Angeles landscape: instead of focusing on a single emblematic object, Ruscha illuminates the cityscape, perhaps the most immediate and general symbol of civilization. Compositionally, the works represent a further step toward breaking down a space in the manner of Piet Mondrian’s abstracted landscapes. Ruscha’s Mean As Hell shows a slanted view of city lights from above. Though photorealistic, the work also breaks the canvas into an abstracted plane.
    "Ruscha’s continuing interest in mapping, identifying locations, and exploring in-flight vantage points… is apparent in these airborne streetlight paintings. The artist attributes this predisposition to a childhood experience: ‘I think that [being a newspaper delivery boy] also had something to do with my feelings about surveying, my interest in diagrams, rigid street patterns," (R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York, 2003, p. 208-209).
    The present lot represents a theological revision to the 1980s set: instead of critiquing the monotony of civilization and its cultural attitude toward rural America, Ruscha introduces a more direct allusion to the rogue identity of the Western cowboy. Referencing, as he frequently has, film and Hollywood culture, Ruscha appropriates the words “MEAN AS HELL” to reflect a dramatized view of the American landscape. Meanwhile, we are reminded of another influence, RobertFrank’s The Americans, a cynical yet hopeful survey of American life in the 1950s as people worked to reconcile the industrial emergence of their nation, while coping with private struggles.
    The present lot equates the iconic cityscape as both a monument to civilization and a place for struggle, requiring the same toughness for survival as the raw American terrain. It is a menacing reminder of the challenges inherent to success in an urban environment. Yet the work is also a hopeful homage to the vastness of America and the beauty embodied in the broad span of the West Coast, as well as the history of individualism embedded in the tradition of America. Painted in deep blue with white city lights and red letters, it references both studded denim and the American flag, emblems that connect America’s history to its present, and the archetypal cowboy to Hollywood. Thus, Ruscha re-appropriates elements of Americana, bringing both biting critique and thoughtful humor into his works, and blurring the lines between landscape and language; advertisement and art; commercial culture and historical realism.
    Thus, the present lot represents a culmination of Ruscha’s life: his appreciation for the rural American west gleaned from his Oklahoma upbringing; his early artistic development in the great lush expanse of California and allure of Hollywood; and the scope and development of Los Angeles as he witnessed its growth. The picture itself straddles a boundary between painting and graphic design, involving layers of meaning derived through words, images, and composition. This aesthetic is exemplary of Ruscha’s oeuvre, which has always eradicated lines between forms of expression and instead probed the impact of theatrics.
    "The question of seriousness is the question of the heart of Ruscha… whether his cultural stance is to be taken seriously. Ruscha flirts with being mistaken for a slick commercial artist, and he slips in and out of Pop art, that style based on sticking low art devices in high art places… The enigma in Ruscha is thus not art-world esoteric, but rather accessible in his layering of sentimental banality and stand-up-comic wit… Ruscha’s method of criticizing without criticism blends with his ability to illustrate without illustration. Ruscha becomes an important modern artist, indeed wedges himself as close to the core of it as any artist of the sixties and seventies, by staying at the edge. His traversal from Oklahoma kid to California cutie to cosmopolitan subversive is not quite a paradigm of recent American art, but the saga wouldn’t be the same without him," (P. Plagens, “Ed Ruscha, Seriously,” The Works of Edward Ruscha, San Fransisco, p. 40).

  • Artist Biography

    Ed Ruscha

    American • 1937

    Quintessentially American, Ed Ruscha is an L.A.-based artist whose art, like California itself, is both geographically rooted and a metaphor for an American state of mind. Ruscha is a deft creator of photography, film, painting, drawing, prints and artist books, whose works are simultaneously unexpected and familiar, both ironic and sincere.

    His most iconic works are at turns poetic and deadpan, epigrammatic text with nods to advertising copy, juxtaposed with imagery that is either cinematic and sublime or seemingly wry documentary. Whether the subject is his iconic Standard Gas Station or the Hollywood Sign, a parking lot or highway, his works are a distillation of American idealism, echoing the expansive Western landscape and optimism unique to postwar America.

    View More Works


Mean As Hell


Acrylic on canvas.

36 x 40 in. (91.4 x 101.9 cm).

Signed and dated “Ed Ruscha 2002” on the reverse.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $590,500

Contemporary Art Part I

12 Nov 2009
New York