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Art Index: Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, "Hurting the Word Radio # 2", 1964, oil on canvas. Photo: Christie's through Barnebys Price Bank

American pop artist Ed Ruscha's 1964 "textual" painting Hurting the Word Radio #2 sold for $52.4 million in 2019 at Christie's, making Ruscha the third most expensive living artist in the world (and the second most expensive living American artist). The work is emblematic of his bold pop works that combine commercial products, typography, surrealism, and satire.

Edward Joseph Ruscha IV (born December 16, 1937) is an American artist associated with the pop art movement which achieved recognition for paintings incorporating words and phrases and for his many photographic books, all influenced by the deadpan irreverence of the Pop Art movement. His textual, flat paintings have been linked with both the Pop Art movement and the beat generation.

As with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, his East Coast counterparts, Ed Ruscha's artistic training was rooted in commercial art. His interest in words and typography ultimately provided the primary subject of his paintings, prints and photographs.

Since 1964, Ruscha has been experimenting regularly with painting and drawing words and phrases, often oddly comic and satirical sayings alluding to popular culture and life in LA. When asked where he got his inspiration for his paintings, 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.” From 1966 to 1969, Ruscha painted his “liquid word” paintings: Words such as Adios (1967), Steel (1967–9) and Desire (1969) were written as if with liquid spilled, dribbled or sprayed over a flat monochromatic surface. His gunpowder and graphite drawings (made during a period of self-imposed exile from painting from 1967 to 1970) feature single words depicted in a trompe l’oeil technique, as if the words are formed from ribbons of curling paper.

In the 1970s, Ruscha, with Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, among others, began using entire phrases in their works, thereby making it a distinctive characteristic of the post-Pop Art generation. During the mid-1970s, he made a series of drawings in pastel using pithy phrases against a field of colour. In the early 1980s he produced a series of paintings of words over sunsets, night skies and wheat fields. In the photo-realist painting Brave Men Run In My Family (1988), part of the artist's "Dysfuntional Family" series, Ruscha runs the text over the silhouetted image of a great, listing tall ship; the piece was a collaboration with fellow Los Angeles artist Nancy Reese (she did the painting, he the lettering). In a series of insidious small abstract paintings from 1994 to 1995, words forming threats are rendered as blank widths of contrasting color like Morse code. Later, words appeared on a photorealist mountain-range series which Ruscha started producing in 1998. For these acrylic-on-canvas works, Ruscha pulled his mountain images either from photographs, commercial logos, or from his imagination.

Brave Men Run In My Family (1988), copyright Ed Ruscha

In his drawings, prints, and paintings throughout the 1970s, Ruscha experimented with a range of materials including gunpowder, vinyl, blood, red wine, fruit and vegetable juices, axle grease, chocolate syrup, tomato paste, bolognese sauce, cherry pie, coffee, caviar, daffodils, tulips, raw eggs, and grass stains. Stains, an editioned portfolio of 75 stained sheets of paper produced and published by Ruscha in 1969, bears the traces of a variety of materials and fluids. Ruscha has also produced his word paintings with food products on moiré and silks, since they were more stain-absorbent; paintings like A Blvd. Called Sunset (1975) were executed in blackberry juice on moiré.

A Blvd. Called Sunset (1975), copyright by Ed Ruscha

His photographs are straightforward, even deadpan, in their depiction of subjects that are not generally thought of as having aesthetic qualities.

Mostly devoid of human presence, these photographs emphasize the essential form of the structure and its placement within the built environment. Ruscha's photographic editions are most often based on his conceptual art-books of same or similar name. Ruscha re-worked the negatives of six of the images from his book Every Building on Sunset Strip. The artist then cut and painted directly on the negatives, resulting in photographs that have the appearance of a faded black-and-white film.

Auctions results

As early as 2002, the oil on canvas word painting Talk About Space (1963), a takeoff on the American billboard in which a single word is the subject, was expected to sell for $1.5 million to $2 million from a private European collection. It was eventually sold for $3.5 million at Christie's in New York, a record for the artist. In 2008, Eli Broad acquired Ruscha's "liquid word" painting Desire (1969) for $2.4 millions at Sotheby's, which back then was 40 percent under the $4 million low estimate. A navy blue canvas with the word Smash in yellow, which Ruscha painted in 1963, was purchased by Larry Gagosian for $30.4 million at a 2014 Christie's auction in New York. His word painting Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) sold by L.A. collectors Joan and Jack Quinn to an anonymous bidder at Christie's for a record-shattering $52.5 million with fees in 2019.

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Angry Because It’s Plaster, Not Milk from 1965, which had been shown at Ferus Gallery that year, was sold by Halsey Minor to Gagosian Gallery for $3.2 million at Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, in 2010. From the same series, Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish (1965) made $4.1 million at Christie's New York in 2011.[117]

Ruscha's classic prints, published as multiples, command up to $40,000 apiece.

According to, $100 invested in a work by Ed Ruscha in 2000 would be worth an average of $922 (+822%) in June 2020 and he is 32nd in 2020 ranking in the website.

He sold 125 lots during last year, even if the price evolution has been negative (-29.4%), with a turnover of 39 million dollars, and most of his collectors are in the USA (88.5%).

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