Edward Joseph Ruscha IV was born on 16 December 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Oklahoma City. His love affair with California began at a young age, and has remained a defining theme of his art.
Childhood holidays in the state, along with the powerful photography of Walker Evans, and the John Ford film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, instilled in Ruscha a sense of California as the ‘new frontier’.
‘As a child, [California] just threw romance in my face,’ Ruscha said in a recent interview. ‘The sunsets, the glamorous aspects of things, sunshine, speedy cars. The culture was different than where I came from in Oklahoma… and so it had a strong effect on me and that started it all up.’
In 1956, Ruscha left Oklahoma and drove to Los Angeles. He enrolled at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts), taking courses in lettering, design and advertising. During this period he also worked as a freelance sign painter and typesetter.
Ruscha started to paint while at Chouinard, and while he was unmoved by the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism, he was inspired by the then little-known Jasper Johns, whose 1955 collage painting Target with Four Faces Ruscha later described as the ‘atomic bomb of my training’.
A love of typography and everyday subject matter remained a significant source of inspiration for Ruscha, and the influence of his commercial art training can be traced in his prints and paintings throughout his career.
After graduating from Chouinard, Ruscha took a job as a commercial artist at an advertising agency, but quit after a few months. In 1961 he toured Europe with his mother and brother.
In France, he produced paintings of street and shop signs that caught his eye, such as Boulangerie (1961). Although he could not understand the language, the shape of the words and the suggestion of an exotic foreign lifestyle intrigued the young artist.
The trip was to prove a revelation which ultimately opened his eyes to his own possibilities as an artist, and to his unique view of America and American life as a fascinating landscape of signs. After returning to America, his paintings continued to reproduce individual words such as Boss (1961), Smash (1963) (which sold for $30,405,000 at Christie’s New York in November 2014), Honk (1962), Oof (1963) and Automatic (1966).
‘I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,’ Ruscha once said. ‘I see myself working with two things that don’t even ask to understand each other.’ In a 2013 profile in The New Yorker his early paintings are described as ‘not pictures of words but words treated as visual constructs’.
Ruscha’s work was featured alongside that of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine and other artists in New Painting of Common Objects, a groundbreaking exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Pasadena Museum of California Art). This pioneering museum survey of American Pop Art in 1962 was pivotal for Ruscha, leading to his first solo show one year later at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Ruscha himself resisted being labelled a Pop or Conceptual artist, but his work drew from both practices.
While living in California, Ruscha travelled Route 66 multiple times a year to visit his family in Oklahoma. His imagination was fired by the seemingly endless stretch of tarmac dotted with gasoline stations. These journeys resulted in his first photobook, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), now considered one of the most important artist books in history. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ruscha produced a total of 16 photobooks documenting the built environment of Los Angeles.
In an interview with Robert Enright in 2008, Ruscha said, ‘I felt when I got going on the books that it was really the red meat of my work. It was the choice bit. Although I was painting pictures at that time, I felt that the books were more advanced as a concept than the individual paintings I had been doing.’
Despite the prominence of photography in his early career, Ruscha stopped using the medium after the publication of his last photobook, Hard Light, in 1978. He never considered photography as the end product but, instead, used it as ‘a process tool’ for creating his artist books, or as source material for his paintings. Ruscha also never combined his photography with his painting, despite mixed media being popular with contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton.
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Ruscha painted in alternative mediums such gunpowder, food, condiments and blood. He used these materials to reflect contemporary American life: what people ate and used every day. An example from this period is Corrosive Liquids from 1973, using gunpowder on paper.
Ruscha’s subject matter has evolved in parallel with changes in Los Angeles’ culture, slang and architecture. In his early career he frequently drew and painted the Hollywood sign, the symbol of Hollywood glamour and the fantasy of the Los Angeles film industry.
His later works evoke a sense of nostalgia and loss amid accelerating urban development. Liquids, Gases and Solids (1989) from his ‘City Lights’ series frames the night landscape of Los Angeles as a starry expanse — where the stars are actually an aerial view of the lights from cars, buildings and streetlamps.
Despite his fascination with changing environments, Ruscha’s art-making has remained remarkably consistent. In the decade that he employed unusual media he still preferred traditional painting and printmaking to experimenting with new techniques such as digital art. Over time, gasoline stations were gradually replaced by sunsets and mountains, although words have been a recurring theme.
Now in his eighties, Ruscha continues to work energetically. In 2016 he held an exhibition of new paintings, all made that year, at the Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, and also contributed to the catalogue of his major solo exhibition at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.
Likewise, the market for Ruscha’s work shows no signs of slowing down. In 2014, his painting Smash (1963) realised more than $30 million in Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York, setting a new world record for the artist.