Ed Ruscha On Inspiration

"I was looking for things that went beyond putting a skin of paint on a canvas."

13 Aug 2018

At 80 years old Ed Ruscha is one of America’s most influential living artists – and one of its most innovative.

His remarkable career is celebrated in Ed Ruscha – VERY, an exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark that presents works from the UBS Art Collection, created across several decades. The artist joined Mary Rozell, Global Head of the UBS Art Collection, in conversation at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, discussing his early career, inspiration and the unique processes behind some of contemporary art’s most iconic images.

Technically brilliant, Ruscha has become renowned for his innovative approach to materials. Rozell highlights works in the exhibition that incorporate strawberries, caviar and Pepto-Bismol. “I was looking for things that went beyond putting a skin of paint on a canvas,” explains Ruscha. “I went through 100 or so organic materials to find what would work, experimenting for several years until it became part of my routine.” Gunpowder, which Ruscha discovered “by accident”, became a staple material, used to create works including his mesmerizing Ribbon Words.

Rozell, who worked closely with Anders Kold, Curator and Head of Acquisitions at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, begins the talk with a reference to an early photograph of the artist. “I might have been 12 or 13 years old,” says Ruscha, discussing the black and white image of himself drawing a cartoon. “I read comic books, and somehow that imagery leaked into my perception of the world. Funny pictures and sign painting began to have an influence on me in later life; I started to think I could use that vocabulary to make art.”

Not long after that photograph was taken, Ruscha traveled to California for the first time. “I remember the palm trees and sunsets, which held a magnetic attraction,” he recalls. The trip made a lasting impression and, in 1956, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles to study art. “All of the great things were happening in New York, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t make art elsewhere.” The city’s architecture inspired his later work: cinematic images of gas stations, Hollywood logos and archetypal landscapes.

Upon graduating, Ruscha took jobs in commercial sign painting and advertising, returning home to paint at night. He soon quit, realizing he wanted to become an artist full-time: “I figured as long as I could make $50 a week, I could continue to make art,” he justifies. Advertising gave Ruscha a remarkable technical virtuosity, allowing him to convincingly replicate the commercial signage that has become a trademark of his work.

Ruscha’s relentless innovation, Rozell concludes, has had a profound impact on a generation of younger artists. The remarkable nature of his output is reflected in the UBS Art Collection, where the concentration of works by Ruscha is unsurpassed by that of any other artist. The exhibition at the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art represents a rare opportunity to see fifty-four of these works together, with the earliest dating from the 1960s.

Ed Ruscha – VERY is on view at the Louisiana Museum of Art in Denmark until August 19 2018.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Hatje Cantz.

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