ED RUSCHA (B. 1937) S-Farm, 1985

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Lot 6
(B. 1937)
S-Farm, 1985

Sold for US$ 336,500 inc. premium
ED RUSCHA (B. 1937)
S-Farm, 1985

signed and dated 'Ed Ruscha 1985' (lower right)
dry pigment and acrylic on paper

40 1/4 x 60 in.
102.2 x 152.4 cm


  • Provenance
    Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
    Robert Miller Gallery, New York.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1988.

    Atlanta, Gallery Two Nine One, Contemporary Drawings, 6 September–30 October 1986. This exhibition later traveled to Athens, Georgia, Georgia Museum of Art, 12 December 1986-4 January 1987 and Knoxville, University of Tennessee, Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture, 8 January-1 February 1987.
    New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Ed Ruscha: New Paintings, 3 November-28 November 1987.

    This work will be included in Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 2: 1977-1997, edited by Lisa Turvey (forthcoming).

    A quintessentially American artist whose anthology is largely rooted in text-based allegorical constructs, Ed Ruscha has epitomized the nuanced relationship between symbolic imagery and vocabulary within post-war American art. Wryly confronting notions of spirituality, humanity, and the verisimilitudes of everyday life, Ruscha acutely elevates the banality of individual words and phrases into veritable masterpieces. Producing a uniquely extensive body of enigmatically charged works over the course of six decades, Ruscha thus conceived a practice heavily immersed in the semantic, his graphic typography, recalled from a distinctly American vernacular, elucidating the sublime minutiae of life with formal precision.

    Born to self-described 'traditional' parents in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937, Ruscha was encouraged to pursue illustration at an early age. Of his fascination with communication and the pictorial look of words on paper, Ruscha states, "I have always felt attracted to anything that had to do with the phenomenon of people speaking to each other."1 In the mid-1950s, Ruscha moved to California to pursue a career in commercial art, culling inspiration from street signs, the counterculture of Los Angeles, and his contemporaries such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were beginning to incorporate the aesthetic of text into their own visual lexicons. Spurred by the creation of Johns' Target with Four Faces, 1955, Ruscha found himself at the crux of a newly diverging discourse in contemporary art, with one path offering the witty irreverence of Pop and the other, the wildly gestural energy of Abstract Expressionism. Ruscha explained, "I was so profoundly moved by Jasper Johns's work when I first saw it, that it really motivated me, it was the sole motivating factor in my becoming an artist. My mind was a clash of these two different things, and I began painting words, and then I would just fill the space with abstract jabber. And so I had two ideologies coming together when I first started painting. I had Abstract Expressionist modes, and also I was beginning to see the possibility of using non-subjects for subject matter, like words and certain objects."2

    Beginning with painted and written words splayed across horizontal landscapes, Ruscha carefully employed a dexterous approach to translating his visions from idea to paper, largely concerning himself with the physical aspects of representational language. Often linguistically paradoxical and deceptively simple, Ruscha's textual arrangements were parsed directly from memory, the artist's surroundings, and from within his close-knit group of peers that included John McCracken, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin. By the early 1980s, Ruscha's practice had matured through decades of thoughtful and ceaseless experimentation with the recontextualization of words and phrases. S-Farm, 1985, and A Nightclub Named "The Universe", 1982, were created at the apex of Ruscha's prolific output, standing as monumental effigies of his archetypal visual abstraction. Rendered in the artist's trademark typeface, both S-Farm and A Nightclub Named "The Universe" are suggestive of a force larger than life, emphasized by their cosmic subject matter. The tactility of this angular font used is singular to the artist: in 1980, Ruscha designed the lettering himself, calling it "Boy Scout Utility Modern." It would then come to serve as an important moniker within his longstanding oeuvre.

    With their stylistic compositions highly evocative of the aura surrounding their descriptors, Ruscha's word-based paintings are simultaneously cynical and quixotic: they inhabit a feeling that encompasses both the melancholic and the cheerful aspects of the built environment. By illuminating both positive and negative conflict within one architectural frame, Ruscha's granular interpretation of life and his surroundings eschews any slanted, overarching commentary about the nature of existence and experience. Rather, his conceptually communicative works such as S-Farm and A Nightclub Named "The Universe" seek to elucidate the relationship between image and information, taking us on Ruscha's exhilarating 'quest for paradox.'3 In S-Farm and A Nightclub Named "The Universe", content and text coexist on an ethereal plane, an effect which is intensified as Ruscha classically withholds punctuation, intonation, and any point of reference from his viewers that might otherwise elicit a controlled response. Ruscha presents his verbiage to the audience in a detached manner – vertically aligned in A Nightclub Named "The Universe" and separated by stretches of open space in S-Farm – forcing us to contend with one individual fragmented thought at a time. These words, once severed from circumstantial meaning, are particularly engaging and arresting; their projection into open space leaves the audience to fill the visual and metaphoric void with their own conjectures. As Contemporary artist Sterling Ruby notes, "Single words or curious phrases often float spectrally across his works, yet without the heavy-handed, cerebral cool of conceptualism or the winking public appeal of pop; rather, like potential conduits, the word pieces seem to burrow into the synapse between objective signifier and subjective meaning."4

    Executed in cool tones and possessing a definitively celestial dimensionality, S-Farm and A Nightclub Named "The Universe" emerge as paradigmatic examples among Ruscha's most iconic works. When spoken aloud, the titular and compositional alliteration produce a vocal sound that is inherently fluid, adding to Ruscha's mystification of meaning. The artist's removed perspective in both pieces reinforces their obscured nature, positing the viewer at a vantage point which emphasizes the drama within the pictorial element. Isolated from textual relation, Ruscha's words assume a dynamic cadence all their own. Bold, capitalized letters take on a luminous silhouette against cobalt blue and crystalline backdrops, their surfaces radiating a lushness akin to paint. Ruscha endows dry pigment on paper with a resplendent quality, in a demonstration of his mastery of medium. Architectural critic and historian Reynar Banham speaks to Ruscha's inimitable prowess as a draftsman, stating, "He is the kind of realist who perceives with fanatical exactitude; he pays attention to things until he appears to penetrate their very essences."5 Banham further suggests, "Whatever Ed fanatically scrutinizes and fastidiously selects is delivered, visually, with fetching exactitude and impeccable technical quality."6

    Both S-Farm and A Nightclub Named "The Universe" exhibit a complex synthesis of scale and motion in comparison to the perceived flatness of previous works, further implied by the orientation and location of text in relation to the visual image. Very few of Ruscha's works are oriented vertically, solidifying the rarity of A Nightclub Named "The Universe" within his body of work. In the lower left corner, an unknown orb threatens to disappear just out of sight, tethered to the vertically stacked text only by a fine white line. S-Farm is notably more nebulous, simultaneously assertive and wistful, the systematic repetition of the circling "S" echoing its way through an indeterminate loop. The deep cerulean tone present in S-Farm is a Ruscha favorite, a palette that the artist continually returns to and one that saw the genesis of his genius. Prominent author and contributing editor of Ruscha's catalogue raisonné, Robert Dean, notes that the 1980s were a decade of prodigal innovation for the artist, remarking, "We leave this period of the artist's work immersed in the dark, or near dark, between the shadows, full knowing that his subjects linger even after the lights have flickered out."7

    Ed Ruscha has built a momentous and enduring career of deconstructing and repositioning signs and symbols, immortalizing the archetypal connection between the printed word and the imagery conjured by his illustrated phrases. The subject of numerous international retrospectives and exhibitions, major pieces by Ruscha are now held in the collections of prestigious museums and illustrious private hands. Undoubtedly, Ruscha's captivating body of work is one which consistently reinvents dialectical relationships, with S-Farm and A Nightclub Named "The Universe" delicately straddling the line between the tangible and the cerebral, the lucid and the elusive, their ultimate signifiers bewitchingly just out of reach.

    1. E. Ruscha interview with P. Karlstrom, in Oral history interview with Ed Ruscha, 29 October 1980-2 October 1981, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
    2. Ibid.
    3. E. Ruscha interviewed by S. Muchnic, in "Interview: Getting a Read on Ed Ruscha", in The Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1990.
    4. S. Ruby, "Ed Ruscha", in Interview Magazine, 7 September 2016.
    5. R. Banham, "Under the Hollywood Sign", reproduced in R. Dean (ed.), Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Two: 1971-1982, New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2005, p. 5.
    6. Ibid.
    7. R. Dean, "Overlapping Dialogues: The Paintings of Edward Ruscha, 1983-1987", in R. Dean (ed.), Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Three: 1983-1987, New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2007, p. 8.
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