Since the 1960s, after graduating from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Nebraska-born Ed Ruscha quickly became an iconic American artist known for his enigmatic works featuring glib words and phrases in combination with color field backgrounds and the iconography of place. In addition to his intermedia explorations in photography, artist books, and film, the artist is admired for textual paintings and prints that teasingly withhold meaning and seek tension. These paintings interrogate dichotic relationships between spoken and visual language, sign and referent — slippery interplays presented in deadpan imagery edged with wry humor. After graduating from Chouinard in 1960, Ruscha embarked on a series of images in which the form of the word floats tantalizingly free of its content. This loosening allowed him to plumb words for their expressive foothold in our minds and poetic potential in their graphic and auditory attributes.
Ruscha considers himself an artist inspired by Americana just as much as the cultural climate of Southern California. He is an artist of America’s roadways, both the highways stretching across the country and the freeways and boulevards slithering through Los Angeles, flanked by signs. Familiar vistas and tropes derived from the film industry feature prominently in Ruscha’s work. The mountain in his Mountain Series plays upon the Paramount Pictures logo and white words emblazoned over mountain ranges as in Evolution Revolution (2013) or Fruit-Metrecal Hollywood (1971) recall the Hollywood sign upon Mount Lee. In the mid-80s, Ruscha’s silhouettes gesture to film language, particularly the visuality of film noir. The concoction of lettering like billboards or poster billings and imagery bespoke to Los Angeles compels connection-reaching in kind: anything large scale evokes the cinematic and words recall titles and subtitles.
The textual depth of Ruscha’s ostensibly flat works reproduces a paradox of Los Angeles. Los Angeles natives and newcomers have teased out in writing a felt dimensionality to the sprawling and oppressively flat city. Each element of Ruscha’s pared down paintings punches above its weight; every sly choice makes these flat paintings dimensional. The oil on canvas Six Oh (2003) is of a kind with Suspension (1971), in which white stenciled letters are spaced horizontally across deep-hued color fields. The deep, cool blue of Six Oh promises profundity while the spelled-out number resists comprehension.
Ruscha and his cohort of Cool School actors – the artists Billy Al Bengston, Walter Hopps, Ed Kienholz, Ed Moses, Larry Rivers, and others— produced self-aware art. Colloquialisms can be unwitting scripts, or they can be mined for their use value embedded in emotion. A word pitched, attenuated, or glowing orange achieves some heightened valence. So too when they’re dripped and drawn in such diverse materials as blood and beer, axle grease and gunpowder. The visual language of words achieves a certain synesthesia. Sounded, the words have texture. The way snippy phrases and words roll, slide, or dance against each other is another formal element verging on mechanical. “S-i-x-o-h” slips together and the spaced stenciling of the word draws it out seductively. In other works, ellipses and slanted fonts extend a word, as in So… (1989). The process of stenciling, airbrushing, and rubbing not only align his work with commercial graphic design, but also removes the artist’s hand, positioning him at a remove. Sleek and aloof, Ruscha’s work bears antecedents of Conceptualism, Minimalism, Pop Art, even Dada and Surrealism. But most befittingly, Six Oh fortifies Ruscha’s reputation as California Cool.
“Ed Ruscha in His Studio, Venice, California, June 27” (2005), Gelatin silver print, 40 x 60 in. Laura Wilson.
Ed Ruscha, “Suspension” (1971), oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station” (1966), seven-color screenprint, 26 ¼ x 40 ¼ in. LACMA’s collection includes more than 300 works by Ruscha.
- Ruscha is among the most expensive living artists, achieving prices at auction comparable to David Hockney, Jeff Koons, and Gerhard Richter. The record for a Ruscha painting at auction was set in November 2019 when Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) sold for nearly $53 million.
- The graph prepared by Art Market Research shows that since 1976, paintings by Ruscha have increased at a 9.4% annual rate of return.
- Word paintings, such as Six Oh, are Ruscha’s most sought-after subject matter: lettering with cultural, colloquial or consumerist meanings set against expertly-handled pigment.
Top Results at Auction
Comparable Paintings Sold at Auction
- Earlier painting
- Twice the size of Six Oh, but in muted color
- Earlier paintings are generally more valuable
- Smaller than Six Oh with similar color application
- Earlier paintings achieve higher prices
- Identical in text application, but yellow is the worst-performing color for art
- Comparable to Six Oh in size and period
- May have gone higher with more color, or had the sale taken place after Ruscha set his $52M record the following year