The king of California cool

A new exhibition of works by Ed Ruscha highlights the artist’s extraordinary six-decade career, drawn exclusively from the UBS Art Collection

Ed Ruscha - Brother, Sister, 1987. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96 in, 182.88 x 243.84 cm. UBS Art Collection © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

“Ed Ruscha is among America’s most recognized and influential living artists,” says Mary Rozell, Global Head UBS Art Collection. Spanning six decades, his remarkable career has resulted in work that is diverse both in subject matter and material – from whimsical paintings that transform cans of Spam into iconic emblems, to slickly rendered billboard signs.

The remarkable diversity of Ruscha’s output is captured in 'Ed Ruscha VERY: Works from the UBS Art Collection', a new exhibition at the UBS Art Gallery at 1285 Avenue of the Americas in New York. Ruscha's work is represented in depth in the Collection with fifty-six paintings, works on paper and prints that span the first four decades of his career and include some of his most seminal images. This group was recently featured in a traveling exhibition that originated at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. The works are shown together for the last time before returning to UBS offices around the world. The New York extension of the exhibition also showcases two exceptional paintings not in the original show: 'Jinx', 1974, and 'Brother, Sister', 1987.

“These works were assembled over the course of decades, starting in the 1960s – a moment that marks both the genesis of the UBS Art Collection and the beginnings of the artist’s career,” explains Rozell. Ruscha left his native Oklahoma in 1956 and drove to LA, drawn by the sunsets and glamor. He began a career in advertising, quitting soon after to pursue art. Ruscha employed early training in typography, deftly rendering words and phrases in pictorial form – and, in doing so, enhancing or distorting their meaning and connotations. 'Jinx' (1974) continues this interest, its letters hung precariously in mid-air.

Additional highlights of the exhibition include the stylized images of gasoline stations that have become associated with Ruscha. In 1963, the artist self-published his first book 'Twentysix Gasoline Stations', featuring a series of black-and-white photographs taken while driving on Route 66. The publication inspired a series of screenprints Rozell describes as “graphically bold,” all represented in the UBS Art Collection.

The famed Hollywood sign – visible from Ruscha’s studio in East Hollywood – would also become a recurrent subject. “The UBS Art Collection includes six variations of this subject in which the word-sign is juxtaposed with the mountainous California landscape, fusing Ruscha’s artistic impulses,” says Rozell. Two of these compositions allude to “the peculiarities and excesses of Hollywood life,” replacing printing ink with caviar, diet soda and Pepto-Bismol.

The monumental silhouette painting 'Brother, Sister' (1987) shows two galleons floating on a diagonal horizon in a restless sea, its blurry finish recalling nineteenth-century photography. White strips on the dark canvas evoke a projection screen – a nod to Ruscha’s interest in the movie industry. “They also signal that text has been blocked out, heightening the sense of ambiguity the picture presents,” adds Rozell.

Rich in its diversity, much of Ruscha’s work is underpinned by nostalgia – for a pre-digital age, of hand-written signs and the glamor he recognized as a young artist working in Hollywood. His stylized images of the American landscape are similarly evocative.

Visit the exhibition at the UBS Art Gallery, 1285 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019, USA.

'Ed Ruscha VERY: Works from the UBS Art Collection' on view from September 23, 2019 – January 10, 2020. Opening hours: Monday – Friday: 7:00am – 6:00pm.

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