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The Drawings of Ed Ruscha at National Gallery of Art
Ed Ruscha. Brave Manís Camera, 1996. Acrylic on paper, 60 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. (152.4 x 97.2 cm). The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles. Photograph by Anthony Peres. © Ed Ruscha.

WASHINGTON, DC.-One of America’s most important and influential contemporary artists and the U.S. representative to the 2005 Venice Biennale, artist Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) has cast a critical eye on American popular culture for over four decades. Cotton Puffs, Q-tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is the first museum retrospective of the artist’s drawings. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from February 13 through May 30, 2005, the exhibition features works from the past four decades, highlighting Ruscha’s genius for the wry and deadpan juxtaposition of words and objects.

The exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where it was on view from June 24 through September 26, 2004, before traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles from October 17, 2004, through January 17, 2005. Pared down to ninety-four works, the National Gallery of Art’s presentation is a more condensed version of the original exhibition.

“Ruscha is a recognized master who has inspired many of today’s young artists,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are grateful to our funders for their support of this exhibition, a particularly timely occurrence in light of Ruscha’s selection as the featured U.S. artist at the Venice Biennale.”

The title of the exhibition derives from a conversation between exhibition curator Margit Rowell and the artist, in which Ruscha stated, "You know, it's just cotton puffs, Q-tips®, smoke and mirrors." "Cotton puffs" and "Q-tips®" are items Ruscha regularly utilizes in the making of his drawings; "smoke and mirrors" refers to the illusory quality of the works.

Ranging in date from 1959 to 2002, the drawings in the exhibition are made with conventional materials such as graphite and pastel but also unorthodox ones, including gunpowder, vegetable juices, and tobacco stain.

As much a photorealist as a pop artist, a conceptualist as a minimalist, Ruscha defies easy categorization. He has recorded the shifting emblems of American life in the form of classic Hollywood logos and stylized gas stations. Examples include Trademark #5 (1962), an image of the Twentieth Century Fox trademark complete with klieg lights and dramatically streamlined diagonals, as well as Standard Study #2 (1962), a brightly colored study of a classic 1950s gas station in Amarillo, Texas.

Ruscha also embraces language as the very subject of his work, probing both its power and relativism as a means of communication. In a variety of scripts and styles—from gothic to longhand, from ribbonlike lettering to words that seem poured rather than printed—Ruscha gives words a physical voice. “They’re almost not words,” he remarks. “They are objects that become words.” Examples in the exhibition include Pool (1968), a so-called “liquid” drawing, Dirty Baby (1977), and The End #23 (2002), a seemingly scratched image of that now virtually obsolete cinematic tag line.

Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956. He attended the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) until 1960, studying painting, photography, and the graphic arts. In 1961, Ruscha embarked on a career as an artist and produced enigmatic paintings, drawings, and photographic books of gasoline stations, apartment buildings, palm trees, and vacant lots. Ruscha was recently chosen by a committee of American museum curators to represent the United States at the 2005 Venice Biennale. His work will be featured in the U.S. pavilion at the prestigious art festival during June 2005.

The exhibition is curated by independent curator Margit Rowell, formerly at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. National Gallery curator of modern prints and drawings Judith Brodie is coordinating the Washington presentation.

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