Ed Ruscha was born into a Roman Catholic family in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937. He graduated in 1960 from the Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles, where he studied under both Robert Irwin and Emerson Woelffer. Although typographically-set pithy words and phrases have provided the primary subjects of his painting, Ruscha has experimented regularly with painting and drawing since 1964, all of his work influenced by the deadpan irreverence of the Pop Art movement.
In 1957, Ruscha came across Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces in the magazine Print. During the summer of 1961, while travelling through Europe, he discovered further work by Johns as well as work by Robert Rauschenberg, Bertelli’s Head of Mussolini and Ophelia by Sir John Millais. Ruscha credited each of these pieces – as well as the impact of John McLaughlin, Arthur Dove and Marcel Duchamp – with his evolution from graphic artist to painter. The influence of Edward Hopper is also apparent in his early oil painting Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas.
As with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Ruscha’s artistic training was rooted in commercial art. After graduating, Ruscha took a job as a layout artist for the Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency. Already known for his own paintings, collages and photographs, not to mention his association with the Ferus Gallery, which included artists like Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and Ken Price, until the end of the sixties Ruscha worked as layout designer for Artforum magazine under the pseudonym ‘Eddie Russia’. He also taught at UCLA as visiting professor for printing and drawing.
Ruscha’s first word paintings were created as oils on paper in Paris in 1961. Between 1966 and 1969 he painted his Liquid Words series – words spilled, dribbled or sprayed over flat monochromatic surfaces. A few years later, in his Ribbon Words series, Ruscha used pastels, graphite and gunpowder in a complex trompe l’oeil technique depicting single words as if they were formed from ribbons of curling paper. During the mid-1970s, Ruscha made a series of drawings in pastel using phrases set against fields of colour. In the early 1980s he produced a series of paintings of words placed over sunsets, night skies and wheat fields. From 1980 onwards he started using an all-caps typeface of his own invention. Called Boy Scout Utility Modern, the curved letters are squared-off in a fashion redolent of the Hollywood sign. In 1998 Ruscha produced a photorealist series of snow-capped mountains overlayed with ironic phrases in this typeface. Ruscha sourced the images for these acrylic-on-canvas works from photographs, commercial logos as well as his own imagination.
Ruscha’s paintings, drawings and photographs record the shifting emblems of American life in the last half century. His deadpan representations of Hollywood logos, stylized gas stations and archetypal landscapes distil the imagery of popular culture into a language of cinematic and typographical codes as accessible as they are profound. Although his images are undeniably rooted in the vernacular of a closely observed American reality, his elegantly laconic art speaks to more complex and widespread issues regarding the appearance, feel and function of the world and our tenuous and transient place within it.
Ruscha’s work can be found in collections around the world including The Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Tate Gallery in London; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.