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Why Ed Ruscha’s Art Has Enthralled Collectors for Nearly Six Decades

Ed Ruscha working on his mixed-media lithograph Pews, circa 1970. Photo by Tony Evans. Image via Getty Images.

Ed Ruscha working on his mixed-media lithograph Pews, circa 1970. Photo by Tony Evans. Image via Getty Images.

’s life and art have enjoyed a celebrity gleam for nearly six decades. In the 1960s, the artist painted and printed the iconic Hollywood sign and 20th Century Fox logo, compiled photographs of himself and five of his former girlfriends (all possessing movie star looks) into a book called Five Girlfriends (1965), befriended actor and photographer , and began showing with Los Angeles’s esteemed Ferus Gallery. Last fall, Ruscha garnered attention from a different cultural sphere when the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, reportedly purchased his Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) at Christie’s for a record-breaking $52.5 million.
This July, Ruscha will again take the art world spotlight as his 1962 painting Annie is poised to be one of the star lots of a global Christie’s auction on July 10th, with an estimate of $20 million to $30 million. The canvas features a number of classic Ruscha elements: an engagement with pop culture, an emphasis on typography, and a rejection of gestural painting that privileges the artist’s hand. Yet while collectors and auction houses vie for Ruscha’s canvases from the 1960s, curator Alexandra Schwartz noted that Ruscha’s most radical art might be his cheapest—the books he mass-produced. “He was both smart about and critical of the market,” Schwartz said, a sentiment borne out in the work itself.
Ed Ruscha, Annie, 1962. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Ed Ruscha, Annie, 1962. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Ed Ruscha, Hurting the Word Radio #2, 1964. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Though the name “Ruscha” conjures California cool, the artist is a transplant; he was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937 and was raised in Oklahoma City. In 1956, he moved westward to attend Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), sharing studio space with artists including and . Ruscha will return to his Oklahoma roots with a major exhibition in the spring of 2021: As a guest curator, Schwartz will mount “Ed Ruscha: OKLA” at Oklahoma Contemporary. “A lot of the language he uses comes from Midwestern slang,” she said, a detail she’ll explore in her presentation. You can take a Los Angeles–obsessed artist out of the Midwest, etc.
Throughout the 1960s, Ruscha “basically created the artist’s book,” according to Schwartz. His first effort, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), is a deadpan compilation of photographs of the titular elements (“deadpan” is a ubiquitous adjective in descriptions of Ruscha’s work). Various Small Fires (1964) and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965) followed. Ruscha initially priced all three works at $4, their costs as quotidian as the imagery and architecture they featured. The price rose with Business Cards (1968), which sold for $10.
Ruscha didn’t even take the photographs in many of his books, outsourcing that responsibility to Goode, McMillan, and other friends. In a further democratizing move, Ruscha began mass-producing his volumes, undermining the singularity and exclusivity of his art objects. Today, you can purchase Twentysix Gasoline Stations on Amazon for $900, plus shipping and tax—not exactly pennies, but tens of thousands times less than what Bezos recently paid for Hurting the Word Radio #2.
All the while, Ruscha cultivated his image. In 1967, he took out an advertisement in Artforum(where he worked under the name “Eddie Russia” from 1965 to 1969) that featured him in bed with two women. “Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye to College Joys,” read the accompanying text, which referenced his impending marriage to Danna Knego. Ruscha fans weren’t just buying into his art, but into a kind of mythologized masculinity—Schwartz used the word “swashbuckling”—and stardom as well. “He was really smart about using advertising,” said the curator. “It worked in Hollywood. That’s the currency in Hollywood.”
In his paintings, Ruscha took inspiration from . He called Johns’s Target with Four Faces (1955) an “atomic bomb” in his training. The older artist was a master at many elements for which Ruscha, too, would become known: deploying a certain American vernacular, working with repeated motifs, and making paintings more invested in ideas than in the unique brushstrokes that the prior generation’s Abstract Expressionists had worshipped.
Ruscha’s paintings also turn text and typography into major subjects. Over the decades, the artist has sprawled phrases including “OOF,” “Pay Nothing Until April,” “Honk,” and “Honey…I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic to Get Here” across his canvases. Some of his phrasings have specific origin stories; often they don’t. “Every piece, everything Ed creates is a bit of double entendre,” said Leta Grzan, an artist liaison at Gagosian. She added that “Ed isn’t using words as a message, but he’s using it as a composition.” In the 1980s, Ruscha developed his own font, Boy Scout Utility Modern, with thin, angular letters that recall sign painting—a major influence on the artist.
Ruscha has occasionally employed organic and household materials in his works including carrot juice, gunpowder, and Pepto-Bismol, which have made some of his canvases and works on paper particularly unfriendly to collectors. They’re conservation nightmares. In 1969, he made a portfolio of stains: sheets stained with beer, coffee, L.A. tap water, and more mundane, degradable substances. Owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the work has faded and decreased its own value over time. Ruscha has experimented with his surfaces as well: The Blanton Museum of Art is currently exhibiting his recent paintings on drum skins, which he made between 2017 and 2019. Some of the works from that show were recently featured in Gagosian’s online viewing rooms and on galleryplatform.la, an online art sales portal featuring L.A. galleries, where paintings were priced at $250,000 and $300,000.
Yet there’s still plenty of Ruscha work that sells for four figures—printmaking has long been a part of the artist’s practice. He’s been working with Crown Point Press in San Francisco since 1982, and has made etchings, silkscreens, lithographs, and handmade paper at the space. Director Valerie Wade said Ruscha’s prints, which have featured elongated words and California street intersections, typically sell for figures between $6,500 and $9,500.
According to Wade, print purchasers care less about the era in which the prints were made than their subject matter. Collectors prefer certain phrases “that make them smile or ponder”; Wade named a repeated motif, “Cold Beer Beautiful Girls,” as a perennial favorite. “His pop references appeal across generations,” she said. Ruscha “definitely has an allure. He’s so associated with L.A. and the Cool School and Hollywood. He’s a legend, really.”
Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the cheekiness of his work, Ruscha has long enjoyed broad appeal. As Ferus represented him on the West Coast, iconic dealer Leo Castelli began showing Ruscha in New York. In Los Angeles, the artist found loyal collectors in the scions of the Max Factor makeup fortune—Don and Lynn Factor, and Monte and Betty Factor. Other early, prominent regional collectors included Betty Asher and Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr.
Yet it took a few decades for Ruscha to reach the global acclaim he enjoys today. Gagosian took Ruscha onto its roster in 1993 and began building his reputation at a different scale than Castelli could. Throughout the 2000s, global institutions and major art world affairs boosted Ruscha’s profile (and market value): He represented the United States in the 2005 Venice Biennale, and enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery in London and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
In the aughts, Ruscha’s auction record hovered in the mid-seven figures, led by two 1960s canvases auctioned by Christie’s—Talk About Space (1963), which sold for $3.5 million in 2002, and Burning Gas Station (1966), which sold for $7 million in 2007. After the rise in curatorial attention, Kat Widing, a specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s in New York, noted the astronomical rise of Ruscha’s market: “It was Smash (1963), in November 2014, that smashed all previous records at $30.4 million, blasting past its pre-sale estimate of $15 million to $20 million, at the time and underscoring Ruscha as a worthy market rival to his contemporaries and ,” she said. The text of Ruscha’s canvas began to look less like a simple composition and more like a statement of possibility.
In recent years, why have collectors jumped for Ruscha’s 1960s canvases in particular? During that era, said Grzan, “there was a sense of discovery that working with language as subject matter in painting was a possibility. It’s a statement that the later works didn’t need to make, and I think that appeals to collectors.” Widing added that the high prices are also a response to simple supply and demand: “Ruscha’s early paintings from the 1960s remain the most valuable and coveted works by the artist, as they are so rare.” Since 2017, 81 Ruscha paintings have gone up for sale. Six of them were made in the 1960s, and all but one of those sold for over $1 million. By contrast, the top auction result for a 1970s Ruscha painting is $2.1 million; $8.2 million for a painting from the 1980s; and $6.5 million for a painting from the 1990s.
Annie, the forthcoming lot at Christie’s, is on sale for the first time in over 30 years—the same private collection has held it since 1987. Such a provenance enhances its value. Another factor that makes the painting particularly special is its integral place in the history of the artist’s practice. Widing shared that Annie “marks the first time Ruscha appropriated typography from its source, in addition to the word itself.”
For all this market excitement, Ruscha himself has expressed very little interest in where his paintings end up. He has been more intrigued in the domestic receptacles that might eventually house his books. In a 1972 interview, he said—in utterly apt, simultaneously lyrical and slangy language—“People take a painting and they put it back in a vault somewhere, but these books they’ll just throw on a shelf and that amuses me, the fact that it just turns over and it affects people, people get the pictures and look at the pictures and they put it away and eventually somehow it just kind of ends up in the trash, which is OKAY—that’s all right with me.”
Alina Cohen