Ed Ruscha comes home with a career-spanning show exploring his relationship to Oklahoma
The expanse between the Sooner State and the Golden State looms large in Oklahoma history. It was especially meaningful for Ed Ruscha, whose teenage road trip from the crimson Southern Plains to the bright lights of Los Angeles would set him on a path to become one of the most groundbreaking visual artists of the 20th century.
Now Oklahoma Contemporary presents Ruscha’s first-ever solo exhibition in his home state and hometown, featuring objects spanning the artist’s 60+ year career that explore his relationship to Oklahoma. Opening Feb. 18, Ed Ruscha: OKLA is a landmark survey of work from the Oklahoma-raised artist — from playful pop-art word paintings to American dreams of roadside gas stations, Los Angeles apartment buildings, Oklahoma landscapes and points in between. The exhibition will feature 70+ works across media, ranging from paintings and a large-scale installation to drawings, prints, books, photos and film.
“The mythos of Ed Ruscha is tied to Americana and the open road, both of which are rooted in his childhood here,” said Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis. “We’re excited to share this landmark exhibition with our visitors, and hope the programs created by our incredible educational and curatorial teams can leverage Ruscha’s work to inspire the next generation of artists in Oklahoma. We are thrilled to be working closely with Ed Ruscha and his studio to bring this important facet of his work to light, and to do so in the state’s first survey of his iconic artworks. Hopefully, Ed Ruscha: OKLA will help to broaden the public’s awareness of Oklahoma’s significant influence on Ruscha’s work throughout his storied career.”
Visitors to the free exhibition at Oklahoma Contemporary’s new 4.6-acre campus at NW 11th and Broadway in Oklahoma City can expect a rich retrospective, structured around four major themes running throughout Ruscha’s diverse body of work. Below we'll explore the themes you can expect to encounter in this can't-miss exhibition at your new arts center.
“Prior to Ruscha, how many took the opportunity to consider the word OOF?”
That’s gallerist Irving Blum in Felipe Lima’s MOCA documentary, Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words. The artist’s vibrant text-driven paintings of the early 1960s were inspired by a childhood love of comics and a brief career as a commercial illustrator, influencing Ruscha’s early “one-word knockouts” that would help define the burgeoning American pop art movement.
Oklahoma Contemporary’s Ruscha exhibition begins here, featuring works from his early days an impish pop art innovator. This style put the artist on the map, when Walter Hopps selected three of Ruscha’s one-word stunners to be included the curator’s breakthrough New Paintings of Common Objects exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962.
Travel between Oklahoma and California remained a constant in Ruscha’s life, and a similar impulse to re-visit and re-map can be found in his work. Over the years, the artist began reconfiguring his repertoire of word paintings, experimenting with alternative kerning techniques and visual disruptions to reveal new angles on familiar terrain.
That freedom of movement is the centerpiece of American car culture, a driving force in Ruscha’s art. It’s fitting that his first solo exhibit in Oklahoma would take place in the capital city’s Automobile Alley district — the once-beating heart of the local auto industry, now the epicenter in a new phase of Oklahoma City’s arts renaissance.
Gas stations were a point of fascination for Ruscha, who saw unlimited visual potential in their streamlined architecture and omnipresence on America’s roadways. They were the subject of his first artist’s book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), as well as his iconic Standard Station series of paintings, based on a filling station some 250 miles west of Oklahoma City in Amarillo, Texas.
“There can be no question that he’s a provocateur. But it is this discomfort, this refusal to let anyone predict how he will act and what sort of art he will make, that both defines Ruscha’s work and gives it its greatest strength.”
Like the words he tweaked and twisted, Ruscha returned frequently to the Standard Station outside Amarillo to re-purpose its banality in a rolling commentary on the oil and gas industry’s outsized role in American life. Sometimes the familiar scene is pastoral, punctuated by a surrealist touch like a lone olive or shredded comic book. Sometimes the station is on fire.
In addition to this automotive theme, Ed Ruscha: OKLA also looks at Ruscha’s perspective as an American more broadly (Made in USA) — from his depictions of the decline of American manufacturing to more direct engagements with politics — along with 51% Angel, 49% Devil, a section of the exhibition exploring the influence of Catholicism on Ruscha's work, underscoring the artist's provocative and iconoclastic vision of the artist's place in the world.
“There can be no question that he’s a provocateur,” Ed Ruscha: OKLA Co-Curator Alexandra Schwartz writes in the introduction to Leave Any Information at the Signal, a collection of interviews and writings she co-authored with the artist in 2002. “But it is this discomfort, this refusal to let anyone predict how he will act and what sort of art he will make, that both defines Ruscha’s work and gives it its greatest strength.”
The same gentle, sloping lines drawing Ruscha’s eye to the gas stations of America also drew it to the unmerciful flatness of his Oklahoma home in the lower Great Plains. Just as the artist elevated the everyday built environment, he brought a similar sensibility to bear on the natural world, crafting mesmerizing landscapes teetering between the impossible and the ordinary.
The curatorial team behind the Oklahoma Contemporary retrospective gives equal weight to Ruscha’s lesser-known penchant for landscapes, including haunting meditations on horizontality and the iconography of Oklahoma and the American West. Even without the words that made him famous, Ruscha’s environmental scenes have plenty to say about mythmaking and mystery in American life.
“Ed Ruscha: OKLA is the first exhibition to examine Ruscha’s work within the context of his formative years in Oklahoma,” Schwartz said. “While historically his work has always been closely associated with Los Angeles, his artistic sensibility was shaped by his midwestern upbringing. This exhibition traces the roots of his art in Oklahoma and the American heartland.”
Admission to Ed Ruscha: OKLA and related programming is free. The artist’s drawings, prints, books, photos, films, and graphic designs will be on display at Oklahoma Contemporary (NW 11th and Broadway) through July 5. Starting Feb. 4, get your limited access, timed tickets here.
Editor's note: Tickets to this landmark exhibition will go fast, but members get exclusive advance access before the show opens to the public. Not yet a member? Join here.
Images: Ed Ruscha. Trademark #7, 1962 Oil, ink, tape on paper. Unframed: 8 ¾ x 14 ¼ in. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of Ed Ruscha Studio Oklahoma E, 1962. Pencil, colored pencil, charcoal on tracing paper. 17 x 14 in. UBS Art Collection ©Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Twentysix Gasoline Stations from Book Covers, 1970. Lithograph on paper. 16 1/8 x 20 3/16 in. UBS Art Collection © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Openscape from Cameo Cuts, 1992 Lithograph on paper. 12 x 12 in. © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of Ed Ruscha Studio
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