Artist Ed Ruscha is someone who is most strongly associated with Los Angeles. One of the most famous, successful and celebrated living American artists, he is known for his instantly recognizable 2-D or linear. pop-art style that often consists of words and phrases or pictures of cities, or a combination of both. The artist’s unique voice and vernacular were very much shaped in the City of Angels after his installation in 1956.
However, Ruscha is originally from Oklahoman, and it is this provenance that is the subject of a new exhibition that explores the influence of his intermontane roots on his work.
Ed Ruscha’s first solo exhibition in his hometown and state opens today at Oklahoma Contemporary titled, Ed Ruscha: OKLA. The exhibition ties a thread between 70 works in all media, from paintings to prints, books and films, and includes iconic pieces such as Twenty-six gas stations and Chocolate Room alongside more recent or lesser-known works, including two new Drum skins paintings.
The exhibit chronicles how his upbringing in Oklahoma inspired and continued to inspire his work even after moving to Los Angeles. This is the first such exploration in the artist’s career. Given that this is done so late in the artist’s life and the artist is still alive – Ruscha is 83 years old and has been known for his work since the mid-1960s – makes the show all the more meaningful for the public and the artist. .
“I have the impression that he would not have wanted to do this show at the start of his career. I feel like he kind of pulls everything together and thinks about his past in Oklahoma and kisses it in a way that he doesn’t have as much as a young man, ”says Alexandra Schwartz, co -exhibition curator, academic, and well-known historian of the life and work of Ed Ruscha.
Schwartz, alongside Oklahoma Contemporary Art Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis, worked closely with Ruscha to create Ed Ruscha: OKLA, where many of the works in the exhibition come from the artist’s personal collection and archives.
“A lot of the pieces came straight from his house, so often we found things like dust accumulated on the frames, the kind of little personal details that make working with a contemporary artist fun,” says Davis.
According to Davis and Schwartz, the sons of his upbringing in Oklahoma are hiding in plain sight. There are direct references such as the piece titled Oklahoma-E, an earlier work that features a perfectly rendered large serif ‘e’ within which the artist has drawn images from the Oklahoman Sunday comics. Then there are others that are less obvious.
“’I never hurt anyone’ is a triple negative which to me is an example of what you would hear in rural Oklahoma where they always rely on this type of phraseology. Same as “understanding,” says Davis.
The show consists of five distinct, yet interrelated themes. Oklahoma OK has direct references to Oklahoma itself; Made in the USA. is the artist’s perspective as an American through concepts such as the decline of the American manufacturing industry as well as direct political references; 51% Angel, 49% Devil demonstrates the continuing influence of growing Catholic; Pop origins traces Ruscha’s pop culture references from his childhood in the 1940s; and United States 66 examines the route taken by Ruscha on his many trips from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City.
As soon as Ruscha first crossed the threshold of Route 66 in Los Angeles, he quickly became part of the LA scene, which Davis credits to a combination of luck and hard work, but also much more.
“He also has a detached sense of cool and observation and he brought that with him, which went well when he moved to Los Angeles and also adapted to the larger art movement of the world. ‘era,’ Davis said. “He liked this status of outsider which combined with him being one of the nicest people I’ve met set him apart. Cuteness, in particular, was different from white male performers of his generation.
“I think another aspect of his involvement in Hollywood culture is that he has a very strange understanding of media, so he intuitively understood LA,” says Schwartz.
“He knows how to play with the media and I think he understands that this is part of winning, like the ads he did in Art Forum for himself. He’s also devilishly handsome and he looks like a Hollywood icon. So besides being funny and beautiful to watch, he’s brilliant and very critical. He is also very collaborative. He was very close to Dennis Hopper who is an artist and collector and they had a very dynamic artistic exchange.
Schwartz — whose expertise on the artist manifested itself in the form of two books titled Leave all information at the signal: writings, interviews, extracts, pages by Ed Ruscha (MIT Press, 2002) and Los Angeles by Ed Ruscha (MIT Press, 2010) – Through an intimate working relationship that spanned almost 20 years, Ruscha has some interesting information about him.
“He is very knowledgeable about art history and has some fascinating things to say about other artists, like his appreciation for Caravaggio and his use of light,” she says. “He is very influenced by painting Ophelia à la Tate and what interested him in this painting was the angle, which he later used in his painting Los Angeles County Museum on fire.
This is the second major exhibit for Oklahoma Contemporary and one that the museum hopes will lead the museum’s efforts to send the message to native Oklahoma artists to stay and thrive in the state. The institution encourages this by supporting the burgeoning artistic community that the museum creates through its work. The institution would like to retain local talent rather than seeing them go to bigger markets, as Ruscha himself did in the past.
“This is a significant exhibition for us [Oklahoma Contemporary] and also for Ed, ”Davis says. “For us, this is an achievement. There has never been a contemporary art museum in Oklahoma, and to make this our second major exhibition and homecoming for an artist like Ruscha, we are very excited and delighted to welcome it.