Ed Ruscha - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, April 15, 2021 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • 'These gunpowder drawings are quintessential examples of Ruscha's singular manner of seeing. The lettering is three-dimensional, the modulated grounds are dramatic, the oblique angles are precise, and the framing is more sophisticated.' —Margit RowellStanding in front of Ed Ruscha's Oxides, one feels almost compelled to tilt their head backwards and squint their eyes, in the summoned quest of deciphering the message at its centre. Delineating the contours of each letter, which in turn compose the titular word 'Oxides', the present work demonstrates Ruscha's career-long investigation into typography, and the arbitrariness of a word's final appearance. Here, the denomination of a chemical compound in no way commands the visual representation of it; rather, it serves as an exercise into craftsmanship, denoting the skill necessitated to carve out calligraphic lettering and impart it with the appearance of printed matter. Words being Ruscha's prevailing medium, the artist conveys a voice to a variety of scripts and styles—from gothic to longhand, ribbonlike lettering to characters that seem poured rather than printed. Evocative of old films or classic neon signs, some words are easy to read; others, like Oxides, require a moment to decipher, inclining the words in an angle that make them appear to dig into a third dimension. Testament to Ruscha’s enduring significance in the contemporary canon, the artist was recently bestowed his first solo museum exhibition in his home state at Oklahoma Contemporary, running until 5 July 2021.


    Detail of the present work.
    Detail of the present work.


    A Passion For Words

    'I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again.' —Ed RuschaExecuted in 1971, Oxides is an early example of Ruscha's exploration of language and its decontextualization — a pursuit he began experimenting with in the mid-1960s, following a near-exclusive commitment to the genre of landscape and the medium of photography. In these new works, Ruscha employed subtle trompe l'oeil methods involving unusual materials. Seeking to transcend the limitations imposed by the painterly medium, he would experiment with graphite, stencils, tape, egg yolk, turpentine, and any other substance that could posit as painting material. Of all these materials, gunpowder was the one that achieved Ruscha's artistic intentions best; in the late 1960s, he embarked on a series of sorts which comprised a variety of paintings executed with the material. Applying the fine dry powder with cotton buds over the surfaces of his compositions, Ruscha would produce images both glamorous and mysterious, replete with illusory effects, and featuring calligraphic forms that seemed to float in space.


    Portrait of Edward Ruscha as he poses with several of his 'Gunpowder Ribbon Drawings', New York, 9 December, 1967.  Image: Getty Images. © Ed Ruscha.
    Portrait of Ed Ruscha as he poses with several of his Gunpowder Ribbon Drawings, New York, 9 December, 1967. Image: Getty Images. © Ed Ruscha.


    Considered as a group, the gunpowder drawings have collectively been described as 'one of Ruscha's most important bodies of drawing'.1 Summarising their importance in Ruscha's oeuvre, Margit Rowell further noted: 'these gunpowder drawings are quintessential examples of Ruscha's singular manner of seeing... Ruscha's translation of an abstract idea into a material but imaginary image through a controlled, invisible execution endows these works with a mysterious, uncanny atmosphere'.2 Executed in a hypnotising palette of muted greys and reds, Oxides echoes Ruscha's exquisite City of the same year, which resides at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's figurative Ball Bearing and Pencil, eschewing the linguistic theme but boasting the same colour scheme.


    Ed Ruscha, City, 1971, gunpowder and pastle on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha.
    Ed Ruscha, City, 1971, gunpowder and pastel on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha.

    'Ruscha's words hover between the flat, transversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting.' —Kerry BrougherDuring his studies at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) in the 1960s, Ruscha juggled between taking courses in photography and graphic design, and doing freelance work, first as a sign painter and later as a typesetter and pressman for an art book publisher. His experience in commercial media trained his eye for pairing imagery with text, whilst his academic background honed his appreciation for the fine arts. About a specific artistic encounter he experienced at Chouinard, Ruscha said, 'I saw a reproduction in some obscure magazine of Jasper Johns' Target with Four Faces and [one of] Robert Rauschenberg's combine[s]....I knew from then on that I was going to be a fine artist'.3 With his word paintings, and specifically his gunpowder paintings, Ruscha demonstrates a formal rigour that exists in the realm of high art, and is reminiscent of the infinitely meticulous work required on Renaissance-times trompes l'oeil. As such, a work such as Oxides exists within and without artistic categories: it is redolent of Pop and Conceptual Art, whilst resonating with paintings that reassess how words connect with photography, as well as traditional methods of figurative outlining. About this liminal and plural style, Kerry Brougher writes 'Ruscha's words hover between the flat, transversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting'.4


    Working with Gunpowder


    In his characteristic style where imagery and semantics exist in harmony, Ruscha wittily names the present work Oxides, alluding to the chemical composition of the primary material used for its creation. Consisting of a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate (saltpetre), gunpowder is a low explosive which burns slowly rather than detonating. The saltpetre is the oxidizer, which allows the gunpowder to burn without being exposed to air. Since the gunpowder itself is a granulated substance and coated in charcoal it can easily be applied in the same way as pastels. The importance of the drawing is reinforced by the dual tonality of the background; as the gunpowder burns, the charcoal component can often ignite red and orange sparks, which seemingly serve as inspiration for the gradual shift in hue from grey to the subtle shades of red.



    1 Lisa Turvey, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1, 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, p. 23.
    2 Margit Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., New York, 2004-05, p. 17.
    3 Ed Ruscha, quoted in 'Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors. The Drawings of Ed Ruscha', National Gallery of Art, 2004, online.
    4  Kerry Brougher, Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2000, p. 161.

    • Provenance

      Stephen Mazoh & Co., New York
      John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
      Judy Kay and Associates Art Consulting, San Francisco
      Bank of America Collection (acquired from the above in 1982)
      Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2013, lot 295
      Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      San Francisco, John Berggruen Gallery, Ed Ruscha. A Selection of Drawings, 31 March - 17 April 1982

    • Literature

      Lisa Turvey, ed., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume One: 1956-1976, New Haven, 2014, no. D1971.35, p. 289 (illustrated)

    • 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



signed and dated 'E. Ruscha 1971' lower left
gunpowder and pastel on paper
58.4 x 73.7 cm (23 x 29 in.)
Executed in 1971.

Full Cataloguing

£300,000 - 400,000 

Sold for £748,500

Contact Specialist


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021