Just In: Ed Ruscha, In Silhouette

April 3, 2020

Living and working in Los Angeles from 1956 onward, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Ed Ruscha turned to the city’s cinematic legacy during his greatest moments of transition. Offering smog-dappled skies and deadpan frames, Ruscha has delivered both explicit renderings of icons like the Hollywood sign as well as more subtle allusions to “film language,” such as appropriating movie credit-esque compositions.

In the mid-1980s Ruscha shifted away from the text-based work that he is so commonly associated with and began working on a series of paintings and prints that featured silhouetted objects and figures, toying with the visuality of film noir. We are pleased to be presenting three works featuring these subjects — Hourglass (1988), Spattership (1990), and Untitled (1989) — in our next Modern Art & Design Auction.

Ed Ruscha, Untitled (1989)
Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) Summer 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Described by New York Magazine critic Kay Larson as “fresh from Goya,” Ruscha’s silhouettes are at once grim and humorous. Within the series, the artist articulates the “nighttime mind of his times” through his blend of sultry noir shadows and unabashed references to commercial print culture. His smooth surfaces shroud ordinary sites and objects in an ominous gloom that echoes the mood of 1940s mystery and crime films. Larson argues that just as Ruscha’s earlier works explored the linguistic hallmarks of American life, his silhouettes employ the visual characteristics of this “Pop Americana” movie genre to convey easy-to-identify “caricatures” of emotion. 

Ed Ruscha, Spattership (1990)
Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) Summer 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Consistent with Ruscha’s body of work, these images encourage the viewer to take up the creative act themselves. A blank sign asks to be supplied with content, a liquid-splotched obstruction questions whether the ship that it frames is real or imagined. The formal mechanisms that create these interactive opportunities come from Ruscha’s incorporation of a strict Modernist mandate—to constantly renew and reveal the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. The stark white field that strikes out against its photograph-like setting in Untitled, and the flat, foregrounded droplets that encircle the hazy ship in Spattership, both discredit the realism of the image. They remind the viewer that each composition is simply ink on surface.

With these silhouettes, Ruscha showcases continued, playful exploration of the questions that animate his well-known textual works — just from the opposite angle. Conjuring mood and asking how meaning may be cast in shadow, these prints reaffirm Ruscha’s position as a commandant of semiotics in modern art.

Ed Ruscha, Hourglass (1988)
Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) Summer 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Editorial Staff. “The Many Sides of Ed Ruscha.” Artsy, 2 May 2014,
“Ed Ruscha and the Art of the Everyday.” Tate,
Larson, Kay. “Apocalypse Now.” New York Magazine, 29 May 1989.
Lawrence Rinder. Ed Ruscha / MATRIX 134. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, 1990.


Ed Ruscha
Soap-ground aquatint, drypoint, and roulette
#11 of 20
Published and printed by Crown Point Press, San Francisco
Signed and dated in graphite lower right margin beneath image; edition lower left
Image: 43.75″ x 29″; Sheet (vis.): 45.75″ x 31″; Frame: 57.125″ x 42.125″

Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000
Summer 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Ed Ruscha
2-color lithograph on white Rives BFK paper
#11 of 100
Published by Art for Thirteen (WNET-TV), New York; printed by Hamilton Press, Venice
Signed and dated lower right; edition lower left
Image/sheet: 36″ x 27″; Frame: 38.875″ x 29.75″

Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000
Summer 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

Ed Ruscha
2-color lithograph on gray Rives BFK paper
#25 of 35
Published by the artist; printed by Ed Hamilton, Hollywood
Signed and dated in graphite lower right edge of sheet; edition lower left; printer’s blind stamp lower left
Image/sheet: 27″ x 36″

Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000
Summer 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction

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