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Since the early 1960s, Ed Ruscha has used a wide variety of media, including painting, printmaking, photography, artist’s books, and film, to produce a body of work that resists easy categorization. His straightforward depiction of banal subjects taken from American popular culture has earned him a reputation as a West Coast Pop artist, while his interest in language aligns him with Conceptual art of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ruscha’s subject matter is often a single word or phrase that alludes to the culture and iconography of Los Angeles—its freeways, apartment buildings, billboards, and movie advertising.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956 because, as he later recalled, “I liked palm trees and hot rods.” He attended the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts) from 1956 to 1960, studying with Robert Irwin, John Altoon, and Billy Al Bengston. After graduating from Chouinard, Ruscha took a job at a commercial advertising agency, but he quit soon thereafter in order to work exclusively on his art, landing a solo show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963. His inclusion in several early important exhibitions of Pop art established his reputation as a central figure in the Los Angeles manifestation of the movement, even as the artist’s books he was publishing anticipated the discourse that would develop around Conceptual art. Since that time, Ruscha’s work has met with popular and critical acclaim, including several travelling retrospective exhibitions and his selection as the U.S. representative at the 51st Venice Biennale.
Ruscha has stated that he considers the written words and phrases he uses in his paintings and drawings—such as “lisp,” “dimple,” and “cotton puffs”—to be objects. In his earliest works, Ruscha depicted words in fonts appropriated from advertising and commercial logos; subsequently, in the late 1960s, he began rendering the words with organic materials and other unusual substances, including folded strips of paper, gunpowder, fruit and vegetable juices, blood, egg yolk, and chocolate. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ruscha began using blocky capital letters that referenced print graphic design and the billboards of California freeways. According to Ruscha, the words are selected as much for their meaning as for their visual appearance and their sound to the ear.
Ruscha’s artist’s books, which featured his photographs, are also central to his oeuvre. In self-published books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), Various Small Fires (1964) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), he presented literal photographic accounts of the subjects as described in the titles. In these books, the photograph was no longer a singular, beautiful image, but a mundane data system—comprised of unglamorous, amateurish snapshots. More recently, in 2009, he created an artist’s book based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Claude Marks. World Artists 1950-1980: An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. (New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1984), 319.