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David and Art - “From the Midwest to LA”

A California artist named Ed Ruscha offered a distinctive vision to the 20th century art world.

Of the crop of Los Angeles artists who rose to worldwide fame in the second half of the twentieth century, the best known is perhaps painter Ed Ruscha. His work is among the most distinctive you’ll see, and his signature style so strong that you can spot him easily from across the museum.

Born in 1937 in Omaha Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City with his family when he was about 4. He showed signs of being a natural artist, and he moved to LA in 1956 and studied at what is today the California Institute for the Arts. After graduation he worked as a layout artist for an ad agency but was still dedicated to making art of his own. He soon became associated with the Ferus Gallery. He’s still painting and indeed is one of the last ones of that cohort still alive.

Because he started work as an artist in LA, the famous Hollywood sign up in the hills and the Twentieth Century Fox movie studio logo are representative of the elements of contemporary life that he puts into his paintings. The open road and the ubiquitous gas station are recurring elements as well.

A few years ago, after seeing an exhibit of his work at the Modern in Fort Worth I wrote that “You don’t have to wonder why Ruscha is painting a Standard [Oil] gas station or the Hollywood sign, any more than why Frederick Remington painted his stagecoaches. Like Remington, Ruscha specializes in western and California landscapes: wide-open vistas that are now punctuated, however, by gas stations and billboards instead of mesas and cowboys. As French impressionist painter Claude Monet had the Seine River, Ruscha once said, I’ve got Route 66 from Oklahoma to LA. Many of his landscapes including his series of gas stations, evoke the westward feel of the US at mid-century.

Other of his work is more difficult because he often uses words and phrases as the objects for his paintings. We’re not accustomed to interacting with words themselves as images and so it’s difficult to see them as having any visual component at all. “Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head,” he said.

In 2020 he did the cover art and the typography of Paul McCartney’s album entitled McCartney III and last year, created the cover art for the new Beatles single “Now and Then,” which is a Ruscha-type phrase for one of his paintings if ever there was one. Speaking of now, there’s currently an exhibit of his work up at the LACMA. If you’re in LA before October, don’t miss it.