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  • Provenance

    Anthony d’Offay, London; Sprüth Magers Lee, London; Private Collection, London

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Sometimes I don’t care about the definition of the word, sometimes you can study a word, like the word ‘the’, and looking at that word long enough, it just begins to lose its meaning.” (Ed Ruscha, in Karlstrom, ‘Interview with Edward Ruscha’, p. 192)
     
    While some of the giants of 20th-century art like, Pablo Picasso and John Baldessari, have occasionally incorporated text in their work, Ed Ruscha has devoted the near entirety of his oeuvre to language. Dating back to the early 1960s, isolated words against a variety of backgrounds have been a hallmark of the conceptual artist's sensibility. Bee?, a monumental, shaped canvas which, as its title suggests, depicts an incomplete, ambiguous word running off the edge of the canvas – its last letter only partially revealed – is one of Ruscha’s most astute and adroit paintings. The intended clever word play, reminiscent of the work of Marcel Duchamp (famous for his puns and intellectual mind games), hints at several possible meanings. Given the letterform used, the fourth letter of the word could either be an R, an F or a P, spelling BEER, BEEF or BEEP.
     
    Ruscha’s synthesis of text and background imagery would suggest that the intended word is BEER. This interpretation is enhanced when the barrelshapedcanvas is taken into account as well as the two horizontal and parallel thickly painted silver bands which faithfully mimic the metal hoops that bind a beer barrel’s wooden staves. Bee?’s playfully reductive technique, in which the juxtaposition of text and imagery wittily plays off each other, is consistent with some of his most iconic paintings. A year earlier, in 1998, Ruscha painted The mountain, a similarly sized barrel-shaped canvas depicting the pronoun THE against the sublime landscape of Mount Everest. Both The mountainand Bee? are works in which Ruscha is at the height of his surrealist powers,
    happily playing with the paradoxes between text and image by questioning their reliance on one another.
     
    René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, The Treachery of Images, must have been in the back of Ruscha’s mind when he executed the present lot. Both works present a banal image executed in a trompe l’oeil illusionistic technique and with descriptive language commonly associated with the image in an attempt to subvert and undermine the preconditioned perceptions of the image and its description. But whereas Magritte literally wrote out ‘this is not a pipe’ to imply that his painting was not a pipe but rather an image of a pipe, Ruscha leaves the R in BEER unfinished and unclear so that the viewer questions whether it is really the word BEER that he is reading and really an image of a barrel that he is seeing. This phenomenological disparity between object and language runs throughout the core of Ruscha’s oeuvre and informs his most successful works of which Bee? is a remarkable example.

  • Artist Biography

    Ed Ruscha

    American • 1937

    Ed Ruscha is an Los Angeles-based artist whose art, like California itself, is both geographically rooted and a metaphor for an American state of mind. A deft creator of photography, film, painting, drawing, prints and artist books, Ruscha has executed works for over 60 years that are simultaneously unexpected and familiar, both ironic and sincere.

    His most iconic works are 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 the post-war world.

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15

Bee?

1999

Acrylic and oil on shaped canvas.

187.6 × 147.3 cm (73 7/8 × 58 in).
Signed and dated ‘Ed Ruscha 1997-99’ on the reverse.

Estimate
£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £331,250

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

13 October 2010
London