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Ed Ruscha's richly diverse investigations of the book as a subject explored in new exhibition at Gagosian
Ed Ruscha, Gilded, Marbled and Foibled, 2011-12. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 84 inches. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
NEW YORK, NY.- Ed Ruscha’s oeuvre has never been confined to established categories of style or media; for instance, books, drawings, prints, photography, and painting are used in parallel, together with materials as unconventional as gunpowder, fruit juice, bleach, coffee, and syrup. But throughout his restrained yet daring experimentation, writing as act and subject, in print form or painted on canvas, has remained a constant inspiration for his iconic images of the American vernacular. His singular, sometimes oblique use of words allows for the exploration of the role of signifiers in language and thought, while his range of artistic means allow the act of reading to be literally manipulated as a process by which to generate meaning.

This exhibition follows the recent exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz "Reading Ed Ruscha,” which fully explored Ruscha's obsession with books and language from the outset of his career. In New York the focus is his richly diverse investigations of the book as a subject, as a support for making pictures, or as an actual object. It includes acrylic and oil paintings, on stretched, un-stretched, and shaped canvases, drawings on paper, watercolors on vellum, photographs, and book works.

In the modestly scaled painting History (2005), the prone spine of the reference book demarcates two contrasting zones of light and dark, a schematic depiction of the Manichean forces at work in the march of time. The large-scale painting Gilded, Marbled and Foibled (2011–12)—the title a wry nod to early Conceptual Art instruction—combines the exquisite detail of an illuminated manuscript with the hallucinatory patterns of marbled paper. Material references to traditional bookmaking are evident in the small-scale Open Book series (2002–05), where blank double pages are weightlessly painted on untreated linen; or the circular vellum paintings with their obtuse, gilded thoughts. The three monumental canvases that form the Old Book cycle present a vanitas in which the ravages of time appear in the painted exactitude of fraying bindings, mold spots, and worm holes.

Various bookworks provide corollaries to the paintings. A strategy for a series of small abstract paintings from 1994–95, where insidious threats are rendered in paint or bleach as blank widths of contrasting color like Morse communication, resurfaces a decade later in book covers, where the oppositional actions of enunciation and erasure meet. In another book series, Ruscha has again used bleach to leach a single large initial on the colored linen covers of found books, such as a gothic M on the cover of Imaginary Gardens, or L L on two matching tomes of Shakespeare plays, by which they become Twins (diptych) in form if not content. In another, monochrome books mimic Minimalist objects, sporting weighty, generic titles such as Atlas or Bible.

Ed Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937 and studied painting, photography, and graphic design at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). His work is collected by museums worldwide. Major museum exhibitions include the drawing retrospective “Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors,” which toured U.S. museums in 2004–05; “Ed Ruscha: Photographer,” Whitney Museum of American Art and the Musée National Jeu de Paume, Paris (2006); and, “Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting,” Hayward Gallery, London (2009, traveling to Haus der Kunst, Munich and Moderna Museet, Stockholm in 2010). “Ed Ruscha: Road Tested,” Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2011); “On the Road,” The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2011). "Reading Ed Ruscha" concluded at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria in mid-October, just as "The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas" opened at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, an exhibition that Ruscha was invited to curate, working from the national art and natural history collections. It remains on view until December 2, 2012.

Sometimes I wonder whether I am painting pictures of words or whether I’m painting pictures with words.
—Ed Ruscha



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November 18, 2012

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