Ed Ruscha - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 17, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Manual Mobility, 1994, is an iconic example of Ed Ruscha’s career-defining text painting. Known for a body of work that falls between the Pop and Conceptual art movements, Ruscha got his start in advertising before switching to fine art, and like his peers Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, his commercial beginnings had a strong influence on his art practice.i In the present work, a phrase that reads like the title of a textbook floats in the center of the canvas:








    The lines MANUAL MOBILITY and OPERATION OF VEHICLES are stenciled larger than the rest, creating a hierarchy of text that suggests these two lines are the most important textual elements. The words sit in front of a cloudy blue sky, and the shadow of a window frame hangs in front of them. Manual Mobility brings Ruscha’s early Surrealist, trompe l’oeil interest together with his career-long fascinations with the Western United States, the aesthetics of Hollywood films, and the relationship between text and image.


    Manual Mobility is a prime example of Ruscha’s use of an airbrush, a tool he began using in the mid-1980s to achieve a “strokeless,” photorealistic quality in his paintings.ii Ruscha begins compositions like Manual Mobility by first blocking off the letter forms with tape, a process he calls “reverse-stenciling.”iii He then uses the airbrush to paint the background (in this case, the cloudy sky), and removes the tape to reveal the letter forms, crisp and strong against the wispy, sfumato effect of the airbrush. In Manual Mobility, however, Ruscha picks up the airbrush one more time, and paints the shadowy window shape over the lettering. The microscopic spray of the airbrushed black paint along the lines of the windowpanes makes the view into the sky beyond seem hazy. The image softens and sharpens depending on the viewer’s distance from the canvas, like a camera lens snapping into focus.


    [Left] City, 1968. Art Institute of Chicago. Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Ed Ruscha
    [Right] City #1, 1967. The Broad Museum, Los Angeles. Artwork: © Ed Ruscha

    The trompe l’oeil effect of Manual Mobility shows the lasting influence of the Surrealists on Ruscha’s art practice. Ruscha’s Surreal impulse is more direct in his early works, such as his liquid series, where the text behaves like water—the “C” in City, 1968, Art Institute of Chicago, takes the shape of a ring of condensation from a cold glass, for instance—and his ribbon drawings, where cursive words unfurl across a grisaille ground. That said, his interest in photorealism towards creating an uncanny, surreal effect stays true in Manual Mobility. As Ruscha recalls, he was drawn to Surrealism as a young artist because “their nonsense was synonymous with seriousness, and I’ve always been dead serious about being nonsensical.”iv


    Indeed, there is a “nonsensical” element to the composition of Manual Mobility; while the clouds and shadowy window frame are ostensibly photo-realistic, the viewer has to wonder, where could they see a shadow like this against the sky? The shadow of a window frame is more likely seen on the ground as sunlight falls through a window, as in An Exhibition of Gasoline Powered Engines, 1993, Seattle Art Museum. At what angle is the viewer in Manual Mobility, then? Is the sky of Manual Mobility actually on the ground?


    René Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1987.55.1, Artwork: © 2023 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Perhaps a clue lies in the text on the work—“THE HISTORY OF MANUAL MOBILITY WITH RESPECT TO THE OPERATION OF VEHICLES”—which the artist explains is “a reflection on the arrogance of a possible scientific study that investigates the act of driving cars or any conveyance that moves.”v In other words, the text is nonsensical on purpose, and so, a serious, rational interpretation of the text, or the supposed angle of the viewer to the window, is futile.


    Instead, the viewer may lean into the “movie magic” of painting; the age-old trope that a good painting is a window onto the world. This art historical myth has its origins in the Italian Renaissance painter, Leon Battista Alberti, who described his practice as drawing “a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.”vi In this sense, the viewer of Manual Mobility sees the primary subjects of Ruscha’s œuvre in the 1990s—light, shadow, and text—filtered through his long-term interest in Hollywood films and the mythic American West.


    In addition to using the airbrush to achieve photorealistic effects, Ruscha also used the tool to cultivate a film noir aesthetic in his 1990s works. The aesthetics of the film industry had long been an interest of Ruscha, ever since he moved to California from Oklahoma in the 1950s. The smoky edge created by the airbrush recalls the glowing quality of such old films, and the accompanying intrigue of their plots. His The End series of the early 1990s most directly engages this aesthetic, though one could argue that the quadrant composition of Manual Mobility also invokes the visuals of a film leader, with its centered countdown to the film itself.


    More broadly, critics cite how Ruscha’s suspension of text over landscape recalls the title sequences of Golden Age Hollywood movies.vii The text in the sky also recalls airplane advertisements, where messages are spelled out in smoke behind a plane, an effect highly suited to the open skies of the West. This effect found fictive representation in the iconic Hollywood film, The Wizard of Oz, 1939, when the Wicked Witch of the West spells out a warning to the protagonist, Dorothy.


    Title card and film still from The Wizard of Oz, 1939.

    This aesthetic, of text floating against a sky, or landscape, is distinctly Californian, overlapping in real-world and fictive influences; the wide open spaces of the Wild West combined with the cinema magic of Hollywood. And this, per Ruscha, is his painting practice in a nutshell.


    “When you’re on a highway, viewing the western US with the mountains and the flatness and the desert and all that, it’s very much like my paintings. I’m into the way movie theaters spread out into the world of Cinemascope and Panavision.”
    —Ed Ruscha

    Manual Mobility represents the crystallization of Ruscha’s career influences—Surrealist, Western, Hollywood—in one united aesthetic. Every aspect of the painting contributes to these thematic values, in the combination of sky, shadow, and text. The very title of Ruscha’s font, even—the custom-designed “Boy Scout Utility Modern,” a staple of his aesthetic from the 1980s onwards—recalls the distinctly American, mythic experience of a young boy finding his identity in the wide, unconquered wilderness. Manual Mobility stands as an excellent example of Ruscha’s mature practice.



    i “Ed Ruscha – Learning Resource,” National Galleries Scotland, accessed Feb. 2023, online.

    ii Ruscha, quoted in Thomas Beller, “Ed Ruscha,” Splash, Feb. 1989, n.p.

    iii Ruscha, quoted in Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, vol. 5, 1993-1997, cat. rais., Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., New York, 2012, p. 13.

    iv Ruscha, quoted in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, Phaidon, London, 2003, p. 131.

    v Ruscha, quoted in Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, vol. 5, p. 122.

    vi Leon Battista Alberti, De Pictura, translated from Latin, and quoted in Joseph Masheck, “Alberti’s ‘Window’: Art-Historiographic notes on an Antimodernist Misprision,” Art Journal 50, no. 1, Spring 1991, p. 35.

    vii Calvin Tomkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.,” The New Yorker, Jun. 24, 2013, online; “Ed Ruscha and the Art of the Everyday,” Tate, accessed March 2023, online.

    • Provenance

      Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London
      Kukje Gallery, Seoul
      Arario Gallery, Cheonan
      Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Seoul, Kukje Gallery, Edward Ruscha, November 17–December 18, 1999, no. 2, pp. 6, 38 (illustrated, p. 7)
      Cheonan, Arario Gallery, Pop Thru Out, May 27–July 20, 2003, no. 34, n.p. (illustrated, n.p.)

    • Literature

      John Sullivan, “Artistic Perspectives: U.S. artist reveals another side of America,” Newsreview: Korea’s Weekly Magazine, Vol. 28, no. 48, November 27, 1999, p. 19 (illustrated)
      Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, eds., Edward Ruscha. Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings. Volume Five: 1993-1997, New York, 2012, no. P1994.19, pp. 122, 492 (illustrated, p. 123)

    • 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

Property from an Important Private Collection

Ο ◆29

Manual Mobility

signed and dated “Ed Ruscha 1994” on the overlap
acrylic on canvas
60 x 84 in. (152.4 x 213.4 cm)
Painted in 1994.

Full Cataloguing

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $3,448,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2023