Ed Ruscha - 20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session New York Tuesday, December 8, 2020 | Phillips
  • Ed Ruscha’s Chick Unit from 2003 is an intimate example of the artist’s renowned airbrush paintings. A reprisal of the LA-based artist’s celebrated black and white Silhouette paintings from the mid-1980s, Chick Unit stands out among this earlier series for its use of color. Here, Ruscha depicts the dark, hazy silhouette of a small bird against a serene background painted in thin, wash-like layers of sunset-colored hues. As with Ruscha's early work, the subject is rendered in the same airbrushed black paint, devoid of brushstroke, but is now notably placed on one of the artist’s mysterious crimson horizon lines. Formerly in the collection of one of Ruscha’s studio managers, Pat Poncy, Chick Unit is one of just three paintings done of the subject and stands outs for its colored background - its sister painting Chick created in the same year features a monochromatic composition. 

    The present work, along with the Silhouettes it harkens back to, was created with an illustrator’s airbrush tool, a technique Ruscha himself claims to have previously renounced:"I always detested airbrush art. And I found myself using an airbrush ... I’m finding myself going against my own rules."i And yet the resulting stroke-less form in Chick Unit is quintessentially Ruscha, with its Pop sensibility turning the act of painting on its head. 

    Perhaps the most resounding effect of Chick Unit is its juxtaposition of light and dark. In Ruscha’s silhouette paintings, “light and shadow, which would traditionally have been rendered in painting’s most refined techniques to describe three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional plane…now tend to flatten things out. They create a fairly shallow sliver of space, in which shadows seem to play across a screen rather than open onto a fictional space beyond, or behind, the picture.” ii In the present work, the childlike chick, a symbol of new life and a reminder of the simplicity of a rural American existence, is now an ominous shadow floating on top of a red sky. While seemingly disparate in form, the chick and the space it occupies work together to evoke the light and the dark found in everyday American life. 


    Ed Ruscha in Conversation with Sterling Ruby

    STERLING RUBY: For me, your work represents the perfect balance of the apocalypse and serenity. It’s almost like it’s symbolizing some sort of dichotic meditation on existence. Do you think that’s a wrong reading?

    ED RUSCHA: I guess I’m a cynic and am able to spot the dark sides of life and of where I am in the whole swim of things and this city. In terms of the city representing whatever it does, I always thought, “What do you do out here? You chase rainbows.” I see the positives but I also see the dark side. I don’t mind commenting on it either. I’m not directly attempting to communicate with a political stance or a philosophical stance. These things just come to me, and I feel like I’ve got to hammer them out in stone and make them official by getting them down.

    Read full interview here


    Ed Ruscha, quoted in “Ed Ruscha on His Silhouette Paintings”, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, video, July 2004, online
    ii Briony Fer, “Mothman: Ruscha’s Light and Dark” in Ed Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings Volume 4: 1988-1992, ed. Robert Dean and Lisa Turvey, Gottingen, 2009, p. 7

    • Provenance

      Estate of Pat Poncy, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Robert Dean, ed., Edward Ruscha, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Six: 1998-2003, New York, 2013, P2003.23, p. 408 (illustrated, p. 409)

    • 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


Chick Unit

signed and dated "Ed Ruscha 2003" on the backing board
acrylic on linen
16 x 24 1/8 in. (40.6 x 61.3 cm)
Painted in 2003.

Full Cataloguing

$200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for $214,200

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261


20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session

New York 8 December 2020