Ed Ruscha - Contemporary Art and Design Evening Sale New York Tuesday, March 3, 2015 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Irving Blum Gallery, Los Angeles
    Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1967

  • Literature

    L. Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1: 1956-1976, Gagosian Gallery, New York & Yale University Press, New Haven, 2014, p. 213, no. D1967.96

  • Catalogue Essay

    "I was not totally satisfied with graphite, oil paint. And so I happened to have, just by accident, this little canister of gunpowder. I thought well that's a powder, like charcoal and like graphite, and why can't that be used?"
    Ed Ruscha, 2004

    Ed Ruscha, painter of American signs and symbols, is one of the leading interpreters of language and culture. While celebrated for his vast and monumental paintings, the sublime works on paper capture the artist's longstanding devotion to text and landscape. The monochromatic gunpowder drawings, unveiled at both Ferus Gallery and Alexandre Iolas Gallery in the late 1960s, provide a panorama of seemingly simple words plucked from the common American lexicon and transposed against a misty and indefinite backdrop. White ribbons curl and twist to form words like Cherry, Crackerjack, Quiet and Sin - a cross section of the mundanities and temptations that form our common identity. Amidst the sea of these literary riddles, Cherry emerges at the forefront of iconicity: the most delectable of linguistic puzzles.

    Beginning in 1966, Ruscha began exploring the representational power of seemingly superficial words and phrases. As both ethereal monuments to their medium and integral compositional elements, these works aesthetically reinterpret the quotidian and commercial context of the written word. In these trompe-l’oeil pictures, three-dimensional words transcend physicality, transforming traditional text in both typeface and meaning. It is here that they emerge as artistic and subjective compositional vehicles. Ruscha breathes into these delicately rendered fonts an elevated context, securing the art historical importance of these works within the practice of an artist who has come to embody the greatness of Americana in painting. Referring to his California influence, Ruscha explains, “This idea of American culture, it's an old one. And the words and all that are just the tail end of an ancient tradition that began with man scribbling on a cave wall. I'm observing that these words, which sometimes represent objects and meanings, are made up of these squiggly little forms we call an alphabet. It's another way of looking at things, that's all." (The Guardian, Ed Ruscha: 'There's room for saying things in bright shiny colours” September 2010, Rachel Cooke) The present lot, Cherry, 1967, exemplifies Ruscha’s mastery of linguistic pictorial representation and its aesthetic limits. When thrust into the American cultural landscape, this work challenges the pretense, perceptions, and power structures that dictate our epistemological interaction with the world around us.

    Though the theory and practice of the Abstract Expressionists dominated the artistic community at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) during Ruscha's studies there in the late 1950s, Ruscha determinedly evolved his own artistic voice. Initially inspired by Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces, Ruscha conjured Johns’s calculated approach to his subjects in his own work: it was Johns’s Combine Paintings that first inspired Ruscha, prior to his eventual and ultimate focus on text. In the process of juxtaposing, reinterpreting, and finally polishing words for the canvas, Ruscha looked to his environment and the uncharted commercialism in American culture-at-large. This very undertaking cemented his lifelong association with the Pop Art movement. Recalling his formal training in the field of graphic design, Cherry is a fantastical combination of the artist’s conceptual endeavors and the deliberate yet wry Pop contextualization of a bittersweet American emblem – the Cherry. Here, Ruscha’s unconventional use of gunpowder, a medium that allowed the artist a more precise control of his composition, enhances the sublime nature of this work. This reimaging and reapplication of a non-traditional medium alters the semiotic understanding of the word from its original context. Explaining his practice, Ruscha noted in 1980, “I used imagery from commercial sources, and imagery that was not usually associated, or was not usually meant to be cloudy and poetic and sensitive, and I used subjects that came from a less thoughtful side of life, a more decadent side of life, something that was not born out of a true poetic background.” (P. Karlstrom, “Oral history interview with Edward Ruscha, 1980 October 29-1981 October 2,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

    Cherry is but one example of Ruscha’s iconic gunpowder drawings, which remain one of his most celebrated series from the 1960’s. In this work, we see Ruscha’s masterful handling of this prosaic medium; where the artist rubs the fine powder in billowy motions, the fibrous paper partially absorbs these particles, while others rest on the paper’s surface, resulting in an effortless ombre effect that transforms this ephemeral text into a gritty yet dazzling display of texture. Ribboned lettering obliquely slopes across the sheet, disappearing towards an invisible horizon. Devoid of any crimson red or organic, bulbous signifiers to depict the fruity delight, Ruscha allows the word to obtain an objective value completely independent of its original meaning. Carefully rendering his pale letters – gauzy shades of grey chiseling each figure against a gunmetal landscape – Ruscha engages the viewer in a clever game of sign versus symbol, illustrating the blurred line between the linear physicality of the word Cherry and the possibility of its delicious interpretation.

  • 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.

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gunpowder on paper
14 1/4 x 22 3/4 in. (36.2 x 57.8 cm)
Signed, dated and inscribed "E. Ruscha 1967 gp" along the lower margin.

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $665,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale, Contemporary Art
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Meaghan Roddy
Head of Sale, Design
New York
+ 1 212 940 1266

Contemporary Art and Design Evening Sale

New York Auction 3 March 2015 6pm