Ed Ruscha - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Executed in 1973, Local Storms is a superb example of Ed Ruscha’s decontextualization of language and text that he interrogated in his multi-word paintings beginning in the early 1970s. The title of the work is written across the silk surface in large, uppercase letters in a dark garnet tone against a crimson expanse, reminiscent of the Surrealists’ titles that seemingly did not relate to their corresponding imagery. Possessing an intricate variations in shade which establish an aura of intensity and tumult, the text appears to take on a life of its own in Local Storms, as we consider not only the meanings of the words but the thingliness of the letters and the intricate shapes that comprise written language. The silk background, which Ruscha recognized as a “stage-setting” mechanism, underscores the ominous tone and influences our perception of the dangerous message presented to the viewer.



    An Unconventional Approach


    Throughout his practice, the artist has rebelled against tradition by exploring eccentric materials. When Ruscha began creating multi-word paintings in the 1970s, he expanded his palette to incorporate untraditional, eccentric material such as gunpowder, chili sauce, vegetable juice—and, in the present work, egg whites. A notoriously difficult medium, eggs were used in tempera paint, a technique very frequently used in the Byzantine world and Early Renaissance frescoes. The luminous surface resulting from the interaction between the silk and the egg white evoke this great art historical tradition as well as Chinese silk painting. “I wanted to expand my ideas about materials and the value they have,”i Ruscha elucidated, and he sought to investigate the ways in which distinct materials altered the perception of both the text and the background.


    Advertising Beginnings


    Beginning his career in commercial media in the 1960s, Ruscha developed graphics for a Los Angeles advertising agency, where he trained his eye for pairing immediate imagery with text. It was during this time that he recognized the ubiquity and power held in the proliferation of advertisements and its uncontested place in the mid-20th century zeitgeist. Possessing a deep fascination in the inexplicably influential forces of imagery, Ruscha embraced and regularly experimented in print making, painting, photography, and film in his early years. A major breakthrough came with the artist was only 25 years old and living in France, when he studied French modernism and specifically the Cubist tradition. As he began making paintings of the street signs and storefronts that adorned Paris, he starting merging text with imagery, just as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso had done decades before in their masterpieces such as the latter’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913, Tate, London and Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912.


    Pablo Picasso, Still-life with Chair Caning, 1912. Musée national Picasso, Paris, Photo credit © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Pablo Picasso, Still-life with Chair Caning, 1912. Musée national Picasso, Paris, Photo credit © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    "When I first became attracted to the idea of being an artist, painting was the last method, it was an almost obsolete, archaic form of communication. I felt newspapers, magazines, books, words, to be more meaningful than what some damn oil painter was doing." 
    — Ed Ruscha


    Investigating semiotics and the symbiotic relationship between text and image, Ruscha began merging the flat space of typography with the illusionistic depth of painting in his “word” works, as in Local Storms. In his initial works on paper, Ruscha began to experiment regularly, altering his palette, medium, and text. Throughout his practice, Ruscha enjoyed the juxtaposition of bringing unrelated text and image together with no clear meaning, noting, “I see myself working with two things that don’t even ask to understand each other.”ii 


    The Power of Text


    Through other artists of the post-Pop generation, including his peers Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, were similarly preoccupied with text during the period, their approaches differed dramatically; while Kruger and Holzer were using advertising language to bring attention to larger political and social issues, Ruscha had more conceptual concerns. Captivated by the tradition of signing paintings, Ruscha’s usage of language was rooted in how words had no predetermined size: they could be presented however large or small and yet the meaning remained static. While images had a consistent sizing to mimic reality, words could be presented in any which way the artist chose. 


    Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero), 1988. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Barbara Kruger
    Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero), 1988. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Barbara Kruger

    When questioned on the source of his narrative component, Ruscha responded, “Well, they just occur to me; sometimes people say them, and I write down and then I paint them. Sometimes I use a dictionary.”iii Some of his word paintings were imbued with illusions to the popular culture of Los Angeles, while others referenced his childhood in rural Oklahoma. Often, the phrases or words he incorporated in his work pose as comical or satirical commentaries on life. Despite these instances, his work’s textual component was seemingly illogical to the outsider, with the de-contextualized image furthering the work’s enigmatic nature. The artist indicated his belief that when the source and the meaning are not entirely clear, the value of the text appears strongest as in Local Storms, two words without preconceived artist associations.


    Seemingly painted free-handedly, the words foreground the work. With the conjunction of the anxiety-inducing background and the text “local storms,” seem to establish a sense of danger, but the absence of context creates a lack of understanding on the part of the viewer. Perhaps, he was referring to the 1973 tornadoes in his home state of Oklahoma, or was alluding to a surprisingly rainy day in sunny California as he heard the call of “local storms” on his radio. The present work possesses the unique quality of being both remarkably precise and entirely elusive. Despite his ability to lead the viewer’s imagination, the conjunction of image and text has an illogical and indefinite quality.  


    Cut from the Archives



    i Ed Ruscha, quoted in Margit Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, New York, 2004, p. 3.
    ii Ed Ruscha, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.,” The New Yorker, June 24, 2013, online.
    iii Ed Ruscha, quoted in ed. Alexandra Schwartz, Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, 2002, p. 39.

    • Provenance

      Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
      Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Weiss, Chicago
      Christie’s, New York, November 8, 1989, lot 365
      Private Collection
      Sotheby’s, New York, March 11, 1998, lot 265
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Ace Gallery, Edward Ruscha: New Works in Various Materials plus the 1969 Book of Stains, September 25 - October 16, 1973
      Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Paintings, Drawings and Other Works by Edward Ruscha, June 8 - July 11, 1976, p. 35 (illustrated on the front cover)
      Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Constellations: Paintings from the MCA Collection, July 25 - October 18, 2009

    • Literature

      Robert Dean and Erin Wright, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Two: 1971-1982, New York, 2005, no. P1973.22, p. 110 (illustrated, p. 111)

    • 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 a Distinguished Private Collection, Palm Beach


Local Storms

signed and dated "Edward Ruscha 1973" on the overlap
egg white on satin
19 7/8 x 24 in. (50.5 x 61 cm)
Executed in 1973.

Full Cataloguing

$800,000 - 1,200,000 

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278



20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020