Curiosity and wit, a knack for communicating visually, and a keen ability to capture disillusions and desires. Those are just a few qualities displayed in the work of Ed Ruscha, a California-based painter regarded as one of the most important and influential contemporary American artists.
Before becoming a major name in the art world, Ruscha (pronounced roo-shay) spent his early youth in Omaha, where he was born in 1937. He was about 5 when his family moved to Oklahoma City. In 1956, at age 18, he left home for Los Angeles to study at the Chouinard Art Institute, now the California Institute of the Arts. His acclaimed career encompasses drawings, paintings, books, prints, and photographs of mundane subject matter: gasoline stations, apartment buildings, desolate landscapes, roadside billboards, stylized mountains, and the famous Hollywood sign.
His creations over the past six decades are the focus of a large, exhilarating exhibition that opened in February at Joslyn Art Museum. On view through May 6, the Joslyn show—117 pieces in a range of media and scale—is titled Word/Play: Prints, Photographs, and Paintings by Ed Ruscha. It’s the first major exhibition to feature the contemporary art master in his home state.
“The works sort of span my whole life as an artist, and everything I do comes from the same old mix master anyway,” Ruscha, 80, says by phone from Los Angeles. “I feel like I’ve been doing basically the same kind of work that I was doing when I was 18 years old. I’m just kind of a variation on a theme. It moves from one thing to another, and so I just follow it along. And here I am.”
Although he’s primarily described as a West Coast artist inspired by his adopted Southern California home, the Midwest, he says, had “a profound influence” on him. “Psychologists say the first three years of your life you pick up on things that actually stay with you the rest of your life,” says Ruscha, who still recalls his childhood home on Lafayette Avenue. “I was upstairs asleep and I woke up, and I distinctly heard and saw an owl in a tree. So maybe that owl was talking to me and said something about why not be an artist?”
During trips back to Omaha, once in the early 1970s and again in February when he spoke at the Joslyn, he visited a couple of his old homes and photographed them. They still look the same, he says, right down to the cracks on the sidewalk.
Ruscha, whose work blends conceptual art, pop art, and other styles, is known for paintings that often incorporate words and phrases. His evocative word paintings contain playful language, double meanings, onomatopoeia, and other linguistic devices. Palindromes are featured in two dramatic mountain paintings on view at the Joslyn: “Never Odd or Even” and “Lion in Oil.”
Nearby is a 2001 acrylic painting of a craggy mountain peak overlaid with blocky white letters that read: “Clarence Jones 1906-1987 Really Knew How to Sharpen Knives.” At 6 feet high and more than 10 feet across, it’s the exhibition’s key image and Ruscha’s favorite piece in the show. “It’s a big painting that will eventually be part of the collection at the Joslyn,” he says. “I feel like it’s a major work of mine. It’s positioned in the show that you see it right when you walk in. I feel particularly good about that one.”
Ruscha’s art showcases a range of elements, particularly his interests in advertising, cinema, commercial signage, and typography. Over the years, he has experimented with unorthodox artistic materials, including axle grease, tobacco, blood, gunpowder, and carrot and beet juices. Included in the show is a series of screen prints, “News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues,” created with pie filling, chocolate syrup, bolognese sauce, and other food.
A desire to go beyond using oil paint on canvas started around 1970. “I felt like maybe I want to do something else besides this. I want to do something that maybe involves a staining of a canvas,” Ruscha recalls. “What are the mark-making devices that I can use? And so I came up with gunpowder, I came up with natural substances. It became just this big wide world.”
The show also offers a look at his photography. On view is a striking selection of images of consumer goods, including a box of raisins. A 1963 photo of a Standard Oil gas station became the basis for several paintings and prints from Ruscha’s celebrated Standard Station series. Museumgoers can peruse several small artist’s books he produced during the 1960s, including the landmark Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Also featured is Royal Road Test, a 1967 booklet that documents the wreckage of a Royal typewriter thrown from a speeding car. It’s a treat to leaf through their pages.
Ruscha is pleased with how the exhibition turned out, calling it “beautifully curated and designed.” Museum officials and the building itself also made an impression. “I had never really seen the Joslyn, and I was very impressed…it’s a beautiful museum,” he says. “I’m really proud to have my work up there.”
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.