Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Photo by Charles Phillips, 1995

Washington, DC




Ed Ruscha Retrospective


"Ed Ruscha," an exhibition of more than 80 paintings, drawings and photo-narrative books representing nearly 40 years of work by this California-based American artist (b. 1937), continues through Sept. 17, 2000, then travels (until January 2002) to museums in Chicago, Miami, Fort Worth and Oxford (England). (left: The Mountain, 1998, acrylic on shaped canvas, 76 x 72 inches, Private collection, London)

Restlessly inventive, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) has remained a step ahead and apart from the art trends and movements of his time. Pop Art, Process Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, media-based imagery and today's renewed focus on painting resonate in a body of work that ultimately defies categorization.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha drove to Los Angeles in 1956, at age 19, to become a commercial artist but also studied fine arts until 1960, at Chouinard Art Institute. Side jobs in typography and layout, a revelatory trip to Europe, influential encounters with Jasper Johns's art and the stimulation of such contemporaries as Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin and John Altoon helped hone an artistic vision attuned to the prosaic, prepackaged look and language of popular culture. (left: Five Past Eleven, 1989, oil and acrylic on canvas, 59 x 145 1/2 inches, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H, Hirschhorn Purchase Fund, 1989)

The show opens with works for which Ruscha first became widely known in the 1960s--dramatic, diagonal compositions celebrating roadside architecture and signs, and paintings and drawings that probe the visual and emotive power of single words. A signature work of dark humor from the Hirshhorn Museum's collection, "The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire," 1965-68, will be on view as well. (left: Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963, oil on canvas, 65 x 124 inches, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, Gift of James. J. Meeker, in Memory of Lee English, Class of 1958)

Between 1963 and 1978, Ruscha also systematically photographed Southern California's built environment and a handful of other subjects that he composed as wordless narratives in bound "artist's books." This art form became a staple of Conceptualism. All 16 of his books will be in the exhibition.

Ruscha's "liquid word" paintings of the late 1960s will also be on view. The rust-colored "Rancho," a typical example, depicts this word in trompe l'oeil as if applied with clear fluid rather than paint. In a series of works on paper, Ruscha drew expressive images of words such as "Optics," "Sin" and "Opera" in the nontraditional medium of gunpowder. (left: Rancho,1958, oil on canvas, 60 x 54 inches, Collection of the artist)

In 1969, in part wishing to avoid labels such as "West Coast Pop" and "the L.A. Look," Ruscha stopped painting altogether, turning after a few years to a more process-oriented approach in conceptually loaded imagery. In the evocative, optically stimulating "Very Angry People," 1973, bannerlike block letters spell out this phrase in cherry juice stained into moire fabric.

Extreme horizontal landscapes and blazing sunsets heralded Ruscha's later return to oil paint. "The Back of Hollywood," 1977, and "Industrial Village and Its Hill," 1982, evoke filmlike panoramic views. In the next canvases, automobiles laboring uphill, an elephant, ranch-style houses and teepees were conceived as silhouettes. The artist turned from oil to acrylic applied it with an airbrush in these works of the mid to late 1980s. (left: Electric, 1963, oil on canvas, 72 x 67 inches, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Charles Clifton and Edmund Hayes Funds, 1987)

Ruscha's paintings of the past decade have evolved from small abstractions notable for the absence of words to his most recent series--hyper-realist images of snow-capped mountain peaks, superimposed with incongruous words, and the maplike "Metro Plots" depicting Los Angeles intersections.

The exhibition has been jointly organized by the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (England). Its co-curators are Kerry Brougher, Director of MOMA Oxford, and Neal Benezra, formerly of the Hirshhorn, who is the Art Institute of Chicago's Deputy Director and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Benezra, Brougher and Phyllis Rosenzweig, Associate Curator at the Hirshhorn and the exhibition's coordinator in Washington, have each contributed an essay to a fully illustrated, 196-page hardbound catalog to be published by Scalo and available at the Hirshhorn Museum Store. (left: Optics, 1967, gunpowder on paper, 14 1/4 x 22 3/4 inches, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H, Hirschhorn Bequest,1981)

After the Hirshhorn showing, the exhibition will be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Nov. 20, 2000 - Feb. 5, 2001), the Miami Art Museum (March 22 - June 3, 2001), the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (July 1 - Sept. 30, 2001) and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (Oct. 28, 2001 - Jan. 13, 2002). (left: Ice, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches, Collection of Melva Bucksbaum, Aspen)

Major funding for the exhibition was provided by The Henry Luce Foundation, with additional support from Melva Bucksbaum, J. Tomilson and Janine Hill, and The Broad Art Foundation. Other funding was provided by The Ansley I. Graham Trust and Emily Fisher Landau.

rev. 8/7/00

Read more about the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Resource Library Magazine

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/18/11

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