Ed Ruscha
Biography of American Pop Artist Noted for Word Paintings and Photographs.

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Ed Ruscha (b.1937)


Arts Training and Early Career
Mature Work
Word Paintings
Record Prices for Works by Ed Ruscha



An interesting and thought-provoking contributor to American art, Ed Ruscha is seen as an important figure in the Pop Art movement, and also as a key influence on the development of fine art photography and conceptualism. In fact, while his oeuvre embraces collage and printmaking as well as painting and sculpture, he is also one of the top contemporary art photographers, and is probably best-known for his dispassionate photos of American life in the 60s: see, for example, his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962). His textual, flat paintings portray advertising signs in a vigorous, irreverent manner, and typically incorporate words and text set against bright backgrounds: see, for instance, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962, Whitney Museum of American Art). The experimental nature of his modern art is exemplified by his use of unconventional materials: for example, he has used gunpowder in his drawings; axle grease in his oil painting; and blood, orange juice, chocolate syrup, coffee, caviar, bolognese sauce, and raw eggs in his watercolour painting. Surely one of the most innovative of 20th century painters. (For later practitioners, see: Top Contemporary Artists.)

Arts Training and Early Career

Born Edward Joseph Ruscha in Omaha, Nebraska, he grew up in Oklahoma City and later Los Angeles, and was - like his fellow Pop artist James Rosenquist (b.1933) - encouraged to take up drawing and sketching by his mother. He became especially interested in cartooning and caricature art. In Los Angeles, from 1956 to 1960, he trained at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) under the installation artist Robert Irwin (b.1928) and the abstract expressionist Emerson Woelffer (1914-2003). During this time he attracted attention for his photographic art as well as a number of collages he made, reminiscent of similar works by Neo-Dada artists Jasper Johns (b.1930) and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). After this he worked as a layout artist for the Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency in Los Angeles. From 1965 to 1969 he did layout design for Artforum magazine, using the pseudonym "Eddie Russia", and in 1969 he was visiting professor at UCLA, in printing and drawing.

Early influences on Ruscha included the Surrealism movement - see for instance his paintings Angry Because It’s Plaster, Not Milk (1965) and Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish (1965) - and the genre-painting Gas (1940, Museum of Modern Art) by Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Compare the latter for instance with Ruscha's oil painting, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1966, MOMA, NY). Another important influence in his photographs, paintings, and books, is the scenery, highways and mundane sights of Los Angeles and Southern California. Examples of this include Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), a book of continuous photographs of a two mile stretch of the 24-mile boulevard, along with paintings like Standard Station (1966), Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1961-2), and Hollywood (1982).

Pop Art

In his painting, Ruscha began to refine his collages, both isolating and recombining text and images in an increasingly subtle manner. Although he used consumerist imagery and commercial art techniques in his pictures, and was included in the seminal exhibition of Pop art called New Painting of Common Objects (1962) at the Pasadena Art Museum, his handling of language and his skill with photography - see his photographic books Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965) and Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) - made him an important link with the conceptual art movement of the 1970s and thus a pioneer of postmodernism.

Note: Other modern artists associated with the Pop art movement include: Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), Alex Katz (b.1927), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Robert Indiana (b.1928), Claes Oldenburg (b.1929), Tom Wesselmann (b.1931) Jim Dine (b.1935) and James Rosenquist (b.1933). See also: Andy Warhol's Pop Art (c.1959-73).

In fact, from the earliest images that he captured during a trip to Europe in 1961, photography has played a very important part in Ruscha's career. Typically deadpan, his photos depict relatively banal subjects not usually associated with fine art. Ruscha's "Products" photographs, for instance, depict boxes of Sunmaid raisins and Oxydol detergent plus a can of Sherwin Williams turpentine in relatively formalized still life painting.

Word Paintings

The primary subject of his paintings was his interest in words and typography. Since 1964, Ruscha experimented constantly with different words and phrases. From 1966 to 1969, he painted his "liquid word" paintings, whose words were made to look like liquid spilled or sprayed over a flat surface. Examples include: Adios (1967), Steel (1967–9) and Desire (1969). In another work a painting of water had the word WATER spelled out in a trompe l'oeil spill of water. In his gunpowder and graphite drawings, single words were drawn as though they were formed from ribbons of paper. In his lithography he also experimented with rhyming word plays, such as: News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970).

In the 1970s, Ruscha started to include entire phrases in his works, thus entering the post-Pop Art phase. His pastel drawings, for example, contained short phrases set against a field of colour. In some of his early 80s paintings, he included words over wheat fields, sunsets, night skies.

Record Prices for Works by Ed Ruscha

Over fifty of Ruscha's 20th-century paintings have reached the $1 million price mark. In 2007, Burning Gas Station (1965–66) sold at Christie's New York for $7 million, still a world record for the artist. In 2011, Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish (1965) went for $4.1 million at Christie's New York. Other top priced works include: the word painting Talk About Space (1963) which was sold in 2002 for $3.5 million at Christie's New York; the "liquid word" painting Desire (1969) which was hammered down for $2.4 million at Sothebys, in 2008; and Angry Because It's Plaster, Not Milk (1965) which went for $3.2 million at Phillips de Pury & Company in 2010. See also: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 10.


In 2001, Ruscha was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters as a member of the Department of Art. In 2004 he was elected an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts, in London. In 2006 he was awarded the cultural prize of the German Society for Photography (DGPh, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Photographie), for his muted form of street photography of America. In 2014, Artnet announced that Ed Ruscha was the most valuable living artist on America's west coast.

Paintings and photographs by Ed Ruscha can be seen in some of the best art museums in America.


• For biographies of other American painters of the Pop Art movement, see: Homepage.

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