Ed Ruscha, ‘The Sixties and Seventies’, 1979, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

"The horizon paintings partially come out of long drives across the desert. Those are the kinds of drives I really get into. The vastness just asks to be filled with something, and those paintings are a lot about putting a voice into that vastness. When you are driving, you just start thinking about getting to the other side of the horizon—what city do I want to get to; where am I going?" —Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha’s vibrant The Sixties and Seventies demonstrates the artist’s remarkable mastery of his craft as a painter while also displaying his keen ability to inventively challenge how we perceive language, space and time. The work brings to mind the fiery red and orange Hollywood sign paintings that Ruscha began in 1968. In those works he sought to expose the shallowness and vapidity of Hollywood culture by reversing the Hollywood sign and setting the word against a blazing Technicolor sunset. In The Sixties and Seventies, Ruscha similarly questions how our perception of time is skewed, unrealistic and nostalgic.

In the present work, Ruscha traverses a complexity of expression within the parameters of color. Fluctuating tonal values and shifts captivate a viewer as the electric sunset burns hot and then slowly simmers off into an abyss of dark vermillion. Fixing one’s eyes at the bottom of The Sixties and Seventies, a bright band of lemon yellow emerges from a cloud-like, atmospheric haze as the color of the canvas gradually turns from cinnamon to apricot and then glows amber orange. Oscillating back and forth through a spectrum of tonalities the color transforms from auburn to bourbon and then scarlet red as it finally turns into a deep burgundy at the top edge of the canvas. One can imagine the night sky extending beyond the edge. Delicate, white clusters of dates float like puffs of smoke across the canvas. These constellations, each year from the 1960s and 1970s painted in typeset lettering, dance diagonally across Ruscha’s dramatic backdrop until the chain ends at the upper right edge of the canvas at 1979. A viewer wonders if the chain will extend to 1980, then 1981 and then until the end of time—floating forever into the fathomless universe. Ruscha stages an exquisitely intense and poetic arrangement with a spatio-temporal dimension by brilliantly juxtaposing the temporality of the background with the concreteness of the numbers themselves.

In 1957, Ruscha arrived at an artistic epiphany upon seeing a reproduction of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces in the magazine Print. Johns’ Pop Art literalness and Abstract sensibility aligned the two poles between which Ruscha was vacillating: the authority of gestural expressionism driving the fine art discourse of the time, with the world of commercial graphics that Ruscha studied at Chouinard Art Institute. After graduating from Chouinard in 1960, Ruscha traveled to Paris that summer and saw Johns’ work firsthand in the artist’s solo show at the Galerie Rive Droite. The use of numbers in the present work calls to minds Johns’ 0-9 from 1960. Although where Johns presents us with numbers devoid of mathematical context or application—using them as purely graphic, aesthetic forms—in The Sixties and Seventies, Ruscha presents us with a middle ground between the aesthetic use of the numbers and their implied meaning. The flatness of the numbers against the luminous backdrop provide a sense of depth and implied spatial presence. The vivid color and atmospheric nature of the work emphasize the physicality of the picture plane. The dates possess an enigmatic metaphorical quality. These two decades—the 1960s and 1970s—are loaded with meaning not only from an American historical perspective—the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate—but also from an autobiographical perspective for Ruscha. The artist rose to prominence in the beginning of the 1960s and, by the end of the 1970s, he had catapulted to artistic fame as a trailblazing ‘Pop Artist of the West coast’.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed, titled and dated 1979 on the stretcher

Houston, Texas Gallery, Edward Ruscha: New Works, 1979
Art Institute of Chicago, The 73rd American Exhibition, June - August 1979, p. 40, illustrated
Wellesley College, Davis Museum, 1976-1986: Ten Years of Collecting Contemporary American Art, Selections from the Edward R. Downe, Jr. Collection, November 1986 - January 1987, p. 61, illustrated in color
New York, Richard Gray Gallery, Ed Ruscha: Works from the 60's and 70's, November - December 1998

Judith L. Dunham, "Review: Ed Ruscha Paintings," Artweek, Vol. 10, No. 16, 21 April 1979, p. 4, illustrated
Robert Dean and Erin Wright, Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Volume Two: 1971-1982, New York 2005, cat no. P1979.09, pp. 258-259, illustrated in color

Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Texas Gallery, Houston
Edward R. Downe, Jr., New York
Christie's, New York, 8 November 1989, Lot 424
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Acquired from the above by the present owner in June 2001

About Ed Ruscha

Despite being credited with a Pop sensibility, Ed Ruscha defies categorization with his diverse output of photographic books and tongue-in-cheek photo-collages, paintings, and drawings. Ruscha’s work is inspired by the ironies and idiosyncrasies of life in Los Angeles, which he often conveys by placing glib words and phrases from colloquial and consumerist usage atop photographic images or fields of color. Known for painting and drawing with unusual materials such as gunpowder, blood, and Pepto Bismol, Ruscha draws attention to the deterioration of language and the pervasive cliches in pop culture, illustrated by his iconic 1979 painting I Don’t Want No Retro Spective. “You see this badly done on purpose, but the badly-done-on-purpose thing was done so well that it just becomes, let’s say, profound,” he once said. Equally renowned were his photographic books, in which he transferred the deadpan Pop style into series of images of LA—apartments, palm trees, or Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), his most famous work.

American, b. 1937, Omaha, Nebraska, based in Los Angeles, California