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Ed Ruscha is an American artist who blends pop art iconography with conceptual art tropes, and features words as the leading subjects of many of his works. A key influence for many contemporary artists worldwide, his experimentation with the American vernacular has paved the way for word art entering the public consciousness.
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“I’m dead serious about being nonsensical” – Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha art has soared in value over recent years, and many works by the artist have sold for more than $1 million at auction. His large-scale word painting Smash (1963) sold at Christie’s New York for $30.4 million in November 2014, making him one of the most expensive living artists in America.
Ruscha has held several retrospectives throughout the US and Europe, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001, and represented the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005.
His works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London among others. Many celebrities have also chosen to invest in Ed Ruscha art, and his works feature in the private collections of Leonardo DiCaprio, Marc Jacob, Sofia Coppola and Jay-Z.
Born in 1937 in Nebraska, Ed Ruscha was raised in Oklahoma City, and moved to Los Angeles to study graphic design in 1956. After graduating he worked for ad agencies, developing skills in design, scale, abstraction and viewpoint which were integral to his art in later life.
Ruscha first came to prominence in the late 1950s, initially making small collages similar to those of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. He then began to refine these works by isolating and recombining words and images in increasingly subtle and unique ways.
Taking things out of context is a useful tool to an artist. It’s the concept of taking something that’s not subject matter and making it subject matter – Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha art is hugely informed by Los Angeles, its film industry and the pop art movement more broadly. Having lived and worked in the city since 1956, the artist’s visual vocabulary reflects his surroundings. Ruscha draws inspiration from everyday familiar objects and commercial imagery, with apartment blocks, car parks and palm trees appearing in his photographs, while gas stations, the Hollywood sign and trademarks feature in his paintings.
The artist’s iconic word paintings of the 1960s also explore the fluidity of language. Block letters and bright colours encourage viewers to verbalise the visual, and the meaning of the words are skewed by opposing concepts and abstract phrases.
Ruscha has additionally created more than a dozen artists’ books which have been highly influential within the conceptual art movement. The first, ‘Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations’ (1963), consists of a series of photographs taken by the artist on the Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, leading themes of structure, serial imagery and the mundane.
“I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again” – Ed Ruscha