Ed Ruscha is an American artist whose oeuvre melds Pop Art iconography with the documentarian rigor of Conceptual Art. With a practice that spans drawing, painting, photography, film, printmaking, and publishing, Ruscha’s background as a graphic designer is evident in his subtle use of typography. Born on December 16, 1937 in Omaha, NE, he grew up in Oklahoma City before moving to Los Angeles to study art at the Chouinard Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts). Deeply influenced by the culture and atmosphere of Southern California, Los Angeles as a place has proved to be a consistent wellspring for Ruscha’s imagination.
In 1956, Ruscha moved from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. During his time in art school, he had been painting in the manner of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, and came across a reproduction of Jasper Johns’s Target with Four Faces (1955). Struck by Johns’s use of readymade images as supports for abstraction, Ruscha began to consider how he could employ graphics in order to expose painting’s dual-identity as both object and illusion. For his first word-painting, E.Ruscha (1959), he intentionally miscalculated the space it would take to write his first initial and surname on the canvas, inserting the last two letters, HA, above and indicating the “error” with an arrow. After graduation, Ruscha began to work for ad agencies, honing his skills in schematic design and considering questions of scale, abstraction, and viewpoint, which became integral to his painting and photography. He produced his first artist’s book, Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations—a series of deadpan photographs the artist took while driving on Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City—in 1963. Ruscha since has gone on to create over a dozen artists’ books, including the 25-foot-long, accordion-folded Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and his version of Kerouac's iconic On the Road (2009). Ruscha also paints trompe-l’oeil bound volumes and alters book spines and interiors with painted words: books in all forms pervade his investigations of language and the distribution of art and information.
Ruscha’s paintings of the 1960s explore the noise and the fluidity of language. With works such as OOF (1962–63)—which presents the exclamation in yellow block letters on a blue ground—it is nearly impossible to look at the painting without verbalizing the visual. Since his first exhibition with Gagosian in 1993, Ruscha has had twenty-one solo exhibitions with the gallery, including Custom-Built Intrigue: Drawings 1974-84 (2017), comprising a decade of reverse-stencil drawings of phrases rendered in pastel, dry pigment, and various edible substances, from spinach to carrot juice. The first retrospective of Ruscha’s drawings was held in 2004 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ruscha continues to influence contemporary artists worldwide, his formal experimentations and clever use of the American vernacular evolving in form and meaning as technology and internet platforms alter the essence of human communication.
Ruscha represented the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) with Course of Empire, an installation of ten paintings. Inspired by nineteenth century American artist Thomas Cole’s famous painting cycle of the same name, the work alludes to the pitfalls surrounding modernist visions of progress. In 2018 Ruscha’s Course of Empire was presented concurrently with Cole’s at the National Gallery in London.
In 2000, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, a branch of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, acquired Ruscha's complete graphic archive of 325 prints and 800 working proofs. The artist’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Gallery in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among many others. Ruscha has also received numerous awards, including being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters as a member of the Department of Art (2001); elected an Honorary Royal Academician of London’s Royal Academy of Arts (2001); received the National Arts Award for Artistic Excellence (2009); named in Time’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2013); and was awarded the J. Paul Getty Medal (2019).