Maddie Phinney on Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha, Self, 1967, pastel and gunpowder on paper, 14 ½ x 22 ½ inches (36.8 x 57.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, 2004. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery / Photo: Ellen McDermott
Ed Ruscha, Self, 1967, pastel and gunpowder on paper, 14 ½ x 22 ½ inches (36.8 x 57.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, 2004. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery / Photo: Ellen McDermott

Ed Ruscha began his commentary on language as a system in the early 1960s, most often exploiting the connotative power of a single word as a means of commenting on the contingent relationship of form to content. Later in the 1970s, Ruscha began employing evocative phrases and sentences to point to cultural conventions, myths, or ideologies. Ruscha’s use of language is often analyzed in terms of the direct and immediately comprehensible imagery of Pop. Yet it is through the shifting interrelationship between form and content—between what is said and implied—that the artist examines the political power of language. Self (1967) is Ruscha’s earliest drawing in the exhibition, and it provides a useful point of departure in examining the power of the linguistic to evoke the relationship between individual and group identity.

In 1960s America, language began to re-enter the vocabulary of American artists, supplanting High Modernism’s four-decade promotion of abstraction. Pop is frequently theorized as an ironic response to Abstract Expressionism, which insisted on the autonomy of the image as evidence of the artist’s singular encounter with his materials.1 Pop images, when placed in dialogue with text, instead pointed to interpretative frames as referential and contingent, indicating our own deep engagement with popular culture. With Self, Ruscha enlists the political potential of Pop to speak to the constructedness of individual identity. By rendering the word Self in script, Ruscha gestures toward the autographic: the stable “truth” of the self as understood by High Modernism becomes a mere citation, a word, necessarily different in its shadings to anyone who reads it. By rendering the text in reserve and giving it the illusion of three-dimensionality, Ruscha turns this word into a scroll to be written on: the self as a screen. The drawing is part of Ruscha’s gunpowder series, which the artist began in the 1960s because he found graphite and charcoal lacking in their evocative potential. In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ruscha raises questions of individual responsibility for violence by illustrating the self with the materials of combat. In Self, text becomes image and image becomes text, allowing the word to act both as a physical object and as a conveyor of meaning.

1. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, December 1952: 22.

Ed Ruscha Biography

Edward Ruscha (b. 1937, Omaha, NE) studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles (1960). He has received grants and fellowships from the National Council on the Arts (1967); the National Endowment for the Arts (1969, 1978); the Tamarind Lithography Workshop (1969); and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1971). Ruscha has been awarded the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Award in Graphics (1974); the Achievement in Printmaking Award from the Graphic Arts Council, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1988); and the Achievement in Visual Arts Award from the California Arts Council (1995). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2001) and was the United States representative at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005). A major exhibition of Ruscha’s work was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2004) and traveled to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. A retrospective of his work took place at the Hayward Gallery, London (2009) and traveled to Haus der Kunst, Munich, and to Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Other recent solo and group exhibitions have been held at Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm (2010); Sprüth Magers, Berlin (2010); the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2011); Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, California (2011); the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2011); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2012); Peter Lund Gallery, Los Angeles (2012); Gagosian Gallery, New York (2012, 2014); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California (2012) and traveled to the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts (2012); Brandhorst Museum, Munich, Germany (2013); Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland (2013); and The Getty Center, Los Angeles (2013). Ruscha lives and works in Los Angeles. More information about his work can be found at

Maddie Phinney Biography
Maddie Phinney is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She received her MA from the University at Buffalo, New York (2014) and is currently Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Visual Studies. Her work centers on the art of identity and its critical reception, with particular attention paid to the politics of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Her writing has appeared in artcritical, V Magazine, Bomb, Nukta Art and others.