Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco, CA


California Palace of the Legion of Honor, photos: John Hazeltine

The following essay by Karen Breuer, Curator, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is reprinted with permission of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is the catalogue essay for the exhibition Acquisition of an Archive: The Graphic Works of Ed Ruscha, showing May 12, 2001 - October 7, 2001 at the at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor


Acquisition of an Archive: The Graphic Works of Ed Ruscha

by Karen Breuer, Curator


For more than thirty years, Edward Ruscha (b. Omaha, Nebraska, 1937) has been an influential figure in postwar American painting and one of contemporary art's most significant graphic artists. Ruscha's work in painting and printmaking was recognized with two major retrospectives in 2000: Edward Ruscha: Editions 1959-1999, organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and Ed Ruscha, an exhibition of paintings jointly organized by the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. In October 2000 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announced the acquisition of Ruscha's complete graphic archive: 325 editioned prints and approximately 800 working proofs (color proofs, trial proofs, cancellation proofs). Also included will be an impression of every future editioned print, photograph, or other editioned project. The generosity of Mrs. Paul L.Wattis funded this important acquisition.

The Edward Ruscha Graphic Arts Archive joins the Anderson Graphic Arts Collection (acquired in 1996) and the Crown Point Press Archive (acquired in 1991) to further establish the Fine Arts Museums as a major center for the display and study of contemporary American prints. This exhibition, featuring fifty-seven prints and ten working proofs from the three archives, demonstrates the depth, scope, and interconnectedness of these collections.

Ruscha (pronounced "rew-shay") first began making prints as a student in the late 1950s. He had come to Los Angeles in 1956 to study commercial art at Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts). While there, he learned the fundamentals of layout, lettering, and illustration. He also took a printmaking class and apprenticed at Plantain Press, an art book publisher. These experiences proved influential in his future work, although not as a commercial artist. After working in design and layout for advertising agencies for a brief time, he left in 1961 determined to devote himself to making art.

Ruscha's first paintings as an exhibiting artist combined letterforms with familiar objects and elements of the western landscape. They were rendered in a flat, commercial style that immediately placed him in the forefront of 1960s pop art. The suggestion by art collector Audrey Sabol in 1966 that one of those early paintings, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963), would make a good image for a print that she would publish, formally introduced Ruscha to the world of collaborative printmaking. He soon discovered that the ideas used in one medium could be translated into the other. This successful adaptation is seen in some of his early screenprints such as Standard Station (1966) and Adios (1969), each of which contained an image that had been previously used in a painting. Hollywood (1968), one of his most famous prints from this period, had no painted antecedent and served as the inspiration for a 1977 painting and drawing.

Once acquainted with the world of edition printmaking, Ruscha found it hard to ignore the activities of innovative lithographic workshops (Tamarind, Gemini G.E.L., and Cirrus) that had recently been established in Los Angeles. He made prints at all three workshops beginning in 1967 and into the mid-1970s, discovering that lithography enabled him to render in prints many of the same effects that he was achieving concurrently in his drawings and paintings. Prints from this period consisted of single words that could be seen as both subject and object, placed in monochromatic or abstract backgrounds. Letterforms ranged from straightforward typeface (Evil, 1973) to words seemingly constructed from ribbons (Sin, 1969) to letters apparently made from pools of liquid (Anchovy, 1969). The playful addition of elements such as olives and flies rendered life-size in some of these prints imparted an aura of the surreal to the imagery and further accentuated the words as physical entities. In prints from the late 1970s Ruscha returned to the western landscape -- vast horizons punctuated by oil wells, telephone poles, or two people -- in which the only words involved were those in his deadpan titles for them, such as Let's Keep in Touch, or I've Never Seen Two People Looking Healthier.

Ruscha's editions frequently involved experimentation with printmaking media. He utilized foodstuffs and organic materials such as cherry pie filling, daffodils, chocolate syrup, and axle grease in the series News, Mews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970). In other prints, he substituted unusual supports such as sandpaper and wood veneer for paper (Flies, 1972). For his lithographs made in the 1980s in which letters, words, or archetypal images were rendered as soft-edged silhouettes against grainy, smoky backgrounds (Ship, 1986, and Coyote, 1989), Ruscha developed a method to attain the soft edges by airbrushing automotive lacquer directly onto lithographic plates.

In those "silhouette prints" of the 1980s, concurrent with a group of "silhouette paintings," Ruscha temporarily abandoned language, choosing instead to introduce ideas about memory and implied narrative. He did this by utilizing a repertoire of clichéd images such as a howling coyote, a masted ship in full sail, an hourglass, and a hunting dog. The images recalled the unfocused, slightly blurred appearance of nineteenth-century photographs and evoked a romantic sense of nostalgia.

Language and words have begun to appear again in Ruscha's most recent prints since 1998 in the form of gritty, flat, monochromatic maps of Los Angeles city streets (Street Meets Avenue, 2000). He has also returned to a series of Los Angeles parking lots and swimming pools with large-scale photographs that were the subjects of his groundbreaking books of the 1960s. Constantly inventive, Ruscha continues to work with intriguing combinations of picture and language in the editioned work that has become integral and essential to his art.


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