Ed Ruscha - Contemporary Art Part I New York Wednesday, May 11, 2011 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Eric and Carol Schwartz, Denver; Anthony Grant Inc., New York; Edward Taylor Nahem Fine Art, New York; Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    H. Hopkins, California Painters: New Work, San Francisco, 1989, p. 112 (illustrated in color); R. Dean and E. Wright, Edward Ruscha Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, Germany, 2007, pp. 274-275, no. P1987.08 (illustrated in color)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Maybe they are brighter than they appear.


    (Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2001)

    Indeed, one must presume that, though the canvas of Inferno (1987) is a predominantly dark object, the glare of its title and single scrawled word illuminates all of its gloomy spaces. Ed Ruscha’s singular vision of America has been thriving for nearly six decades, and, in that time, has taken the form of panoramic views of Los Angeles (seen in his book Every Building of Sunset Strip), red wine blotting (from his series “Stains”), and even short films (he directed “Premium” in 1971 and “Miracle” in 1975). However, in the present lot, we see him return to his most trusted form, the word painting. By the time he created the “City Lights” series, of which Inferno (1987) is part, he had been employing this form for over twenty-five years. It is a prime example of Ruscha’s most reliable medium for distilling the essence of his America.

    Fascinated with poetry from a young age, one might label Ruscha a poet of economy, or, in the present lot’s case, a one-word poet. “Inferno”, which he employs here, is one of the many words that he generates on the road, driving to Los Angeles. It is an example of what he calls a “hot” word, or one that, regardless of whether it refers to heat at all, conjures endless amounts of connotations. Ruscha’s words occasionally take a bent toward the theme of Southwestern Americana (“Rancho, “Talk Radio”), doubtless a product of their highway-borne nature. In this manner, Ruscha’s artistic subject is not the wholly material still-life or whimsical abstraction. Rather, it is a filtered impression, a refined vision.

    The present lot is a bundle of two opposing colors—deep navy and stark white—and the gradients between them. The canvas measures six feet square. On the backdrop, we see the sprawl of Los Angeles seen from an elevated perspective; the quintessential locus of Hollywood glamour and booming suburbia—two essential American components. Yet, the bright spots made from generous bubbles of urban nightlife are suspiciously well organized: in a perfect grid. There seems to be no break in their regularity for the entirety of the canvas, which, presumably, exhibits a distance miles upon miles in its scope. Indeed, we may even be invited to consider the possibility
    of a sinister infinity of this regularity. Layered on top of the delicately faded and blurred acrylics of the city lights, in the upper center of the canvas, sits the word “Inferno” in Ruscha’s own scrawl. It stretches nearly the entirety of the canvas, screaming against the urban background. The enormous starkwhite block letters are not haphazardly dashed across the painting, however; each letter is from a unique font based upon Ruscha’s own handwriting. He blows up the letters to desired proportion, and exacts them upon the canvas. Curiously, surrounding each bend and curve of Ruscha’s terrific letters, the grouped and blurred lights of the city appear with more frequency, as if the excitement of the word itself makes them flare up with nightlife. One has to wonder as to the nature of these particular flare-ups within the universe of the painting—are they an urban landscape’s reaction to the “hot” power of Ruscha’s word, or did Ruscha’s “Inferno” find its place among the greatest area animation in the world below? One thing is for certain: His word choice signals a resurgence of a motif; Ruscha had found inspiration in the transformative power of fire in several his most lauded contributions, namely 1964’s Gas Station on Fire and Norm’s, La Cienega, On Fire and 1968’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire.

    With the presence of the block letters, set in Ruscha’s type-face, we perceive an added personality to the canvas, one that drastically alters the meaning of the work. It is as if a graffiti artist has hijacked a landscape study, and imbued it with his own writhing passion and fervor. The text manipulates the viewer’s consciousness with respect to the city below. For, now, the landscape is not free to exhibit its neutral reality, but it is paired with opinion. It is taken out of the realm of presentation and accident driven toward the end of conversation and argument.

    Yet how can we explain this relationship between text and image? Inferno (1987) presents not only sparkling letters over a sparkling landscape, but it pushes the limits of cognitive dissonance. As we gaze over the darkened canvas, our minds pulse with questions of meaning: how should we interpret this mismatch of darkness and a word that implies a blazing conflagration? Where are we to look for significance in Ruscha’s intentional distance between his visual landscape and textual implications? In other words, the first question with which we may find ourselves wrestling when first viewing the painting is one of confusion. This alone would have given Ruscha status as a provocateur of the imagination.

    But, as he mentions in his quote, perhaps things are brighter and more intense than they initially seem to be. The city below the emblazoned letters sparks with the energy of millions of lightbulbs, infernos unto themselves. Indeed, it is they that light the way for hundreds of thousands of souls to gather below in maelstroms of ambition, passion, and excessive indulgence. Perhaps the dissonance between the text and the visual landscape is not so dramatic as it initially appears to be. In the words of author and critic Alexandra Schwartz, “his playfulness belies another, graver purpose stirring just below the surface.”(Introduction, Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, MIT Press, 2004).

    Taken one step further, Ruscha’s inferno is metaphorical. The city grid below, stretching into a limitless beyond, displays the destruction of the landscape. The infinite city, with its disturbing regularity, presents something ominous and vaguely dystopian. The inferno here is not one of roaring fires and hellscapes; it is the absence of the natural world, overcome and quietly eradicated from the surface of the earth by the American blaze west.

    Ruscha never points fingers nor assesses blame for this inferno, however. It is merely one of the many eccentric qualities of America that fascinates him and spurs him on:

    “It’s fairly sick. Southern California is all one big city now. But what do you say about progress? Birth control? Everybody wants to have one large family and the best in life. So something’s gotta give., and the landscape’s the first thing that goes. On the other hand, I’m not just looking for pretty flowers to paint. There is a certain flavor of decadence that inspires me. And when I drive into some sort of industrial wasteland in America, with themeparks and warehouses, there’s something saying something to me” (Esquire, v. 109, June 1988, pp.190-191).

  • Artist Biography

    Ed Ruscha

    American • 1937

    Ed Ruscha is an Los Angeles-based artist whose art, like California itself, is both geographically rooted and a metaphor for an American state of mind. A deft creator of photography, film, painting, drawing, prints and artist books, Ruscha has executed works for over 60 years that are simultaneously unexpected and familiar, both ironic and sincere.

    His most iconic works are 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 the post-war world.

    View More Works

Ο ◆7


Acrylic on canvas.
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm).
Signed and dated “Ed Ruscha ‘87” on the reverse; also signed, titled and dated “Ed Ruscha ‘Inferno’ 1987” on the stretcher.

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $2,210,500

Contemporary Art Part I

12 May 2011
New York