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

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  • 'I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again.' —Ed Ruscha  Featuring a single, untethered word that appears to be floating off into a smoky-grey expanse, Spots is an especially significant example of Los Angeles-based Ed Ruscha’s examination of language and its decontextulisation and his transformation of words into images. Strangely onomatopoeic, and visually self-referential with its repetition of looping, rounded forms, with the word ‘spots’ Ruscha playfully explores the unique spatiality of words and the tension between text and image, while the drawing itself also records his innovative approach to media and techniques during this highly productive period. 


    Words and Image


    Often described as Ruscha’s preferred medium, words and phrases have occupied the artist throughout his sixty year career, first appearing in his work as early as 1959 and evolving across a remarkable variety of scripts and styles. Born in Nebraska in 1937, Ruscha’s artistic beginnings were rooted in commercial art and 1960s Pop. Tellingly, Ruscha pinpoints an early encounter with magazine reproductions of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces and one of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines as the moment that he decided that he wanted to pursue a career as an artist himself, and the present work dramatises a synthesis of certain aesthetic trends in the earlier decades of the twentieth century towards a purely abstract visual language on the one hand, and a fascination with the material of the everyday life on the other. 

    With everyday vernacular as his raw material, Ruscha blurred the boundaries between advertising, graphic design and fine art, drawing inspiration from comic strips, the sharp interplay of word and image set to work in advertising, and even the omnipresent Hollywood sign floating in the hills above the city.  


    The iconic white Hollywood sign featured heavily in Ruscha’s drawing and printmaking in the late 1960s and - alongside gas station signs billboards - represented an important conceptual precursor to the more abstract treatment of free-floating words as images seen in Spots. The arrangement of letters as if seen at an angle from below and the extreme horizontal format used to such dynamic effect in the present work draws on this real-world proliferation of text as much as on the cinematic widescreen experience and is a defining feature of Ruscha’s drawing from this period. 

    While the influence of Roy Lichtenstein’s brand of highly graphic Pop and the increasingly sophisticated visual languages of advertising and consumerism is evident here, Spots also recalls the Surrealist juxtaposition of word and image most famously explored in a series of works by 20th century Belgian artist René Magritte. 


    René Magritte, Le palais de rideaux, III (The Palace of Curtains III), 1929, Museum of Modern Art, New York The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. Acc. n.: 631.1967.© 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

    While not as bluntly presented as in Magritte’s work, in Spots Ruscha playfully engages with the equivalence between verbal and visual sign, probing the extent to which both text and image stand in for the same, shared concept. Neither solid nor liquid, ‘spots’ sit in an indeterminate order of matter alongside ‘stains’ or ‘rot’, particularly privileged terms in Ruscha’s lexicon. Recording a transitory status as they pass from one state into another, this group of words seems to capture a sense of the mobile qualities of language itself, emphasised by the equivalences established between word and image here: not only do the shape and spatial relationship of the letters themselves seem to visually reference the idea of ‘spots’, but the mottled grey background is itself executed as a field of spots and speckles. 


    Material Realities


    As part of a generation of West Coast artists who redefined the boundaries of drawing in the 1960s, Ruscha’s contribution to the genre was decisive and far-reaching, especially in his approach to materials and erasure of the hand of the artist. Executed in 1972, the present work belongs to a period of intensive activity for the artist. Setting aside painting, Ruscha became especially absorbed with drawing and printmaking in the early 1970s, his practice from these years marked by a deeply experimental approach to non-traditional materials including egg yolk, turpentine and tape. Unsatisfied with the effects of graphite or oil paint, Ruscha stumbled across a new material while experimenting with his so-called ribbon drawings in 1967. With its distinctive colour, mutable qualities and ability to conceal process to some degree, gunpowder quickly took prominence in the artist’s repertoire, which he applied to the surfaces of his compositions with cotton buds and a variety of other, non-traditional tools. 
    'He had a canister of gunpowder pellets at his studio, and found that the salt in them separated out when the granules were soaked in water, leaving a powder of charcoal and sulphur that not only permitted a warmer span of tones than graphite, but was easier to manipulate and correct.' —Lisa Turvey Considered as a group, the gunpowder drawings are recognised as a highly significant body of work in Ruscha’s oeuvre, Margit Rowell identifying them as ‘quintessential examples of Ruscha's singular manner of seeing’.i Hugely influential, Ruscha’s innovative approach to materials can be traced in the focus on the elevation of everyday ‘Harlem dirt’ to valuable artist’s material in contemporary artist David Hammon’s basketball drawings or gunpowder’s experimental treatment in the work of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. 


    David Hammons, Out of Bounds, 1995-96, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

    With comparable gunpowder works held in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the increased focus on Ruscha’s drawings in the wake of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2004 exhibition, the gunpowder drawings remain especially compelling examples of Ruscha’s sustained examination of the materiality of language and spatial logic and his idiosyncratic blend of Conceptualism and Pop Art. 


    Ed Ruscha, ‘The Tension of Words and Images’, Tate Shorts, Ed Ruscha explains why he is drawn to words and how he uses stencils and backgrounds


    Collector’s Digest


    •    Based in L.A., Ed Ruscha’s career spans over 50 years across a variety of mediums and has become representative of a kind of American idealism. 


    •    Of his drawings, his gunpowder pieces are particularly sought-after, with a comparable work recently achieving well above its estimate at auction with Phillips. 


    •    Alongside an exhibition of new drawings with Gagosian this summer, Ruscha recently enjoyed his first solo show in his home state at the Oklahoma Contemporary, which ran until the end of July 2021. 

    i Margit Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors. The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, (exh. cat.), New York, 2004-05, p. 17.

    • Provenance

      John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco (acquired directly from the artist)
      Lewis Kaplan, London (acquired from the above)
      Larry Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
      Blake R. Nevius, Los Angeles
      Sotheby's, New York, 16 November 1995, lot 371
      Private Collection, Sigean (acquired at the above sale)
      Phillips, London, 2 July 2014, lot 15
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Avignon, Collection Lambert, Collection d'artistes. Textes, entretiens, proses et correspondances, 1 July - 30 October 2001, n.p. (illustrated, p. 217)

    • Literature

      Lisa Turvey, ed., Edward Ruscha Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper Volume One: 1956-1976, New York, 2014, no. D1975.35, p. 315 (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.

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signed with the artist's initials and dated 'E.R. 1972' lower left
gunpowder and pastel on paper
29.2 x 73.3 cm (11 1/2 x 28 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1972.

Full Cataloguing

£180,000 - 250,000 

Sold for £252,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


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

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021