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The World According to Ed Ruscha, L.A.’s Elusive Art Legend

The 86-year-old king of cool is getting the star treatment at LACMA with his first major retrospective in 20 years.

Ed Ruscha, running late to class one day in 1950, accidentally stiff-armed a glass-panel door at his junior high in Oklahoma City. “My hand went right through that door, all the students looked up, and there I was just dripping with blood,” says Ruscha, sipping a macchiato while seated behind a marble-topped desk in the skylit library of his Culver City studio, a sprawling 9,000-square-foot affair that was previously a movie prop house and before that an aerospace factory for Howard Hughes.

“I had this scar on my wrist for years,” he explains, rolling up the sleeve of an indigo button-down to inspect his left forearm, a rakish smile curling over his lips at the prospect of unearthing some remnants of that lacerating memory. “It’s almost gone by now.”

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At 86, Ruscha — widely considered the high priest of the Los Angeles art world — is a bit whiter around the edges and a bit stiffer in his gait after a string of surgeries, including a knee replacement and spinal fusion. Still, his aqua blue eyes electrify as he recalls that fateful day, which led to the first Ed Ruscha artwork dealing with his most beloved theme: the passage of time. A decade after the accident, the year he graduated from Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), Ruscha photographed his wrist, in 1960; he did so again in 2014. His self-portraits of his forearm are now in the collection of several museums, including the Tate.

“Observing things over periods of time is real juicy. It’s a juicy concept to me,” says Ruscha. Even his Okie-meets-Western-film-star cadence — which calls to mind the plainspoken pop poetry in his famed word paintings like High-Speed Gardening or Hollywood Is a Verb — is an exercise in the passage of time. “I’m constantly reflecting on how things evolve, and they don’t always change for the good. I use that as a stepping-off point.”

Ruscha’s sardonic reflections have been attracting admirers to his work for nearly seven decades. The packed private opening on April 3 for Ed Ruscha/Now Then, his highly anticipated LACMA retrospective, drew everyone from Kim Gordon, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda to Irving Azoff, Bob Gersh and Lyn Lear (who all lent pieces for the show). It arrived on the heels of a glitzy debut last fall at MoMA in New York and is a chance for Angelenos to indulge in the splendor of Ruscha’s greatest hits — be it his painterly investigations of the 20th Century Fox logo from the vantage of the Lumière brothers’ 1896 short film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat or his renderings of the Hollywood sign in oil, gunpowder, Pepto Bismol and caviar — to more rarefied works like his multisensory Chocolate Room installation.

Ed Ruscha, next to a 1933 Ford truck, was photographed March 22 near the citrus grove at his studio in Culver City. Photographed by Ryan Schude

The Academy Museum will screen his short films (including one made with his old pal and Chouinard classmate Larry Bell, a legend of the Light and Space movement). Also getting their full due at the exhibition are his influential photography books that document everything from 26 gas stations along Route 66 to his seminal 27-foot-long, accordion-folded Every Building on the Sunset Strip, for which he captured every edifice along the 1.5-mile Hollywood stretch in 1966 by mounting a motorized Nikon to the back of a pickup truck.

Though Ruscha’s multivalent work was the subject of a mid-career survey at LACMA in 1982, his retrospective — eight years in the making, partly because of COVID — has arrived at a peak moment. Artnet just ranked Ruscha as one of “the most bankable artists of 2023,” noting that his work generated $115 million at auction. In 2020, his painting Hurting the Word Radio #2 (1964) gaveled in at a record-breaking $52.5 million to Jeff Bezos. Meanwhile, his work is now in the collections of just about every major museum in the world, from the Met to the Getty, which has more than a million photos in its collection that Ruscha snapped of L.A. streets over four decades. One top entertainment-industry art collector, when asked which heavies have his work on their walls, deadpanned: “Who doesn’t own a Ruscha?”

Ruscha’s painting Hollywood, 1968 Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of LACMA

But these things don’t interest the artist himself. They don’t “blow his hair back,” explains his pal Owen Wilson, noting a phrase Ruscha loves to say. “I’m somebody who loved to read as a kid, I get more into song lyrics than the melodies, so I just appreciate the lyrics on his paintings,” adds the actor, who first met Ruscha at a Rolling Stones show in Vegas 25 years ago (through dealer Tony Shafrazi) and owns several Ruschas, including one of his mountain paintings, The Celluloid Light Projection. “That was because I wrote Ed something and I was going to film a movie,” recalls Wilson, “and he wrote me back and said, ‘Good luck on your celluloid light projection.’ I’d never a heard a movie referred to that way and just thought it was funny. Later I was talking to him about that phrase and laughing about it and he thought it would make a good painting.”

“I think a lot of his work just sits on that razor edge of making sure you can’t pin it down. It’s suggestive and beautiful and keeps you engaged,” says Michael Govan, the CEO and Wallis Annenberg director of LACMA, who co-curated Now Then with MoMA’s Christophe Cherix. “Somebody said to me the other day that L.A. is the only city in America that’s gonna truly look drastically different in 30 years. Everyone associates Los Angeles with Ruscha, and change is so much part of this place and Ed’s work.”

For his part, though, Ruscha says that Hollywood “has not been a grandiose subject for me.” Govan seconds this notion: “Hollywood images are actually not a big percentage of his work, it’s just something people like to seize on.” Though he does note that the LACMA show features many variations of the Hollywood sign, including a collage, an image of the sign deteriorating, and the 7-foot-long painting Back of Hollywood, which captures the sign from the top of Mount Lee. “He painted that in ’77 when he moved out to the desert for a lot of the time, so there’s something very relevant looking at the Hollywood sign from the back, being in the desert, creating space for himself,” says Govan.

Work items on his desk Photographed by Ryan Schude

Nonetheless, Central Casting could not have delivered a more cinematic and handsome stylist to capture the dark comedy, the sunshine noir, of Tinseltown. Ruscha jokes that he’d want Andy Devine or Gabby Hayes, long-gone cowboy actors, to play him if someone makes a movie of his life. Still, few artists have experienced the glamour of Hollywood life like Ruscha. For decades he palled around with folks like Dennis Hopper and Wilson and as a young man dated actresses and models including Samantha Eggar and Lauren Hutton, who loaned the pithy redacted word painting I’ll Be Getting Out Soon and I Haven’t Forgotten Your Testimony Put Me in Here to the LACMA show. Ruscha and his wife, Danna, even call Swifty Lazar’s old Trousdale estate their L.A. home. They retreat to a mighty compound in the high desert, where he goes for weeks at a time, wrangling snakes, getting ideas for new works.

When asked if he’d ever considered directing a feature film, he says he has considered making a movie about the desert. Ruscha recently made a short film about Elysian Park narrated by Benicio Del Toro and shot a couple of narrative art films in the ’70s, Miracle and Premium, starring, respectively, his lifelong artist pals Jim Ganzer as a Cinderella-like auto mechanic and the one with Bell, who fondly recalls “pouring salad oil over the actress’ tight black dress and her hysterical laughter,” as a lothario who brings crackers into bed. Bell says, “I learned a lot from doing that film with Ed. Never volunteer again for an acting job. Never go after an acting job, Never go after any kind of job. Stay unemployed.”

Says Ruscha of the experience, “Those films were easy enough, and hard enough that I got a taste of it. It’s kind of a noisy enterprise. You’ve gotta be up at 4 a.m. I’ve had thoughts about making what you’d call a feature-length film, but I know about the unacceptable cooperation with an enormous amount of people required to do such a thing, and I can’t see myself doing that. But I really admire those people who can. But you know it would be great. And I’m not ruling that out because it’s got enormous potential and I’ve always loved narrative kind of art. I mean, pictures on the wall that actually move.”

Installation photograph, Ed Ruscha / NOW THEN, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Apr. 7–Oct. 6, 2024 Museum Associates/LACMA

If artists like Julian Schnabel and Rashid Johnson can make a real play in Hollywood, why not Ed Ruscha? “I’d like to see a movie that he directed, and I think the desert would be a good setting for one, the way you think Sam Shepard would play it,” says Wilson. “It seems like if Criterion did a Chinatown edition, [his Elysian Park film] could be a starting point. Anything that taps into that part of Los Angeles, and is so removed from Hollywood, that could be interesting.”

Perhaps by keeping an arm’s distance from Hollywood proper, Ruscha has avoided succumbing to this town’s vampires or excesses. He also apparently learned a little something about the value of the oldest Hollywood notion: mystique. “He’s a man of few words,” says Larry Gagosian, his dealer of more than three decades.

Though there are constant themes running through Ruscha’s lustrous career — poetry, prose, the built landscape, the open road, humor and, to a degree, politics — change may be the most consistent facet of his utterly American oeuvre. He addresses our rapidly changing world in broad terms the way Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson or Martin Scorsese might — or as the abstract painter Ed Moses once suggested, like an alien encountering Earth for the first time — so his output appeals to top curators and elementary school teachers alike.

L.A. Artists in Their Cars, 1969 color photo-offset lithograph calendar Joe Goode Studio

“His work deals with cultural values and ironies. It’s subtle, but it can also have a biting sense of humor. I think he’s kept his audience because he’s kept his work very fresh,” says Gagosian, who first met Ruscha in the 1970s when he had a studio on Western Avenue in a complex Ruscha shared with Ed Begley Jr. “To me, he looks like a young artist. I mean, it’s sort of elegantly radical.” 

He’s also just a radically elegant human. Ruscha —pronounced “Rew-Shay,” as he famously enunciated on a cheeky 1968 business-card project with his old Ferus Gallery comrade Billy Al Bengston — was born in Omaha, Nebraska, where his father, Edward Ruscha III, was an insurance adjuster, World War I veteran and a strict Roman Catholic who raised his children, as Ruscha once recalled, “properly, despite all the psycho this and that involved in growing up with being healthy-minded.” His mother, Dorothy Driscoll Ruscha, was more freewheeling, interested in the arts; she encouraged Ruscha and his two siblings to pursue their own creative interests. As a sixth grader, Ruscha took classes from a man who “painted pictures of old people, funky old portraits,” and by the time he was in middle school was seeking out his own adventures, hitchhiking to Miami with a slightly older friend. 

“You don’t see hitchhikers today, but in the ’50s and ’60s you did,” says Ruscha, though he admits he would not have been thrilled to have Eddie Ruscha — his artist-musician son with Danna — thumbing rides cross-country as a teenager. “Don’t give him any ideas,” Ruscha says, chuckling, then raising his eyebrows. “Maybe I should get him to do that, to honor his old man.” (Ruscha also has a daughter, Sonny Granade, from another relationship.)

A trio of Ruscha’s paintings, all included in the new Now Then retrospective at LACMA, include Actual Size, 1962 Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of LACMA

When he first visited Los Angeles at age 9, Ruscha recalls, his impressions of the city “were kind of scrambled eggs.” “We drove through Hollywood and I said to myself, ‘Is that all there is?’ But I really liked the streets, the facades of buildings.” 

Ruscha moved to L.A. in 1956 at 18 to study commercial art at Chouinard. It was a trajectory his father could get behind because Walt Disney supported the school and many graduates got a job with him, but shortly after he graduated, Ruscha began a series of oil paintings centered on monosyllabic words (like “Oof,” “Boss” and “Ace,” which fill the first gallery of the LACMA show). In 1962, legendary curator Walter Hopps chose three Ruscha paintings, including Actual Size, to include in the Pasadena Art Museum’s New Painting of Common Objects exhibition, the first pop art survey in America. This comedic word painting — acquired in 1963 by LACMA, the first institution to collect his work — features the word “SPAM” in bright yellow letters over the image of a tin of the canned meat (rendered in, yes, actual size) rocketing through a cosmos of Pollock-like paint splatters. Hopps even tapped Ruscha, who once designed covers for Artforum in its early days, to create the exhibition poster.

American pop artist Ed Ruscha holding a box of daffodils outside a florist’s shop, circa 1970 Tony Evans/Getty Images

“We do this stuff for the sport of it first,” Ruscha told me a few years ago. In the ’60s, there wasn’t a big audience for his art in L.A. (or beyond), aside from his pals and a very small market.

“We’ve hardly ever talked about business or money. He’s not the kind of guy with a lot of contracts, he’s kind of a handshake artist. It’s refreshing,” says Gagosian, who vacations with Ruscha and considers him a “real friend — he’s just a pleasure to represent, not a pain in the ass, but he knows what he wants and he’s not somebody who’s careless about his career decisions.” 

Nor has he ever been. When abstract expressionism was the talk of the town early in his career, Ruscha made the conscious decision to throw conceptual art, pop and dada in a blender. A tiny oil painting on paper, Five Cents, is a layered example of this path. It’s a reference to the part-time gig he had painting kids’ names on toys at a gift shop called Sunset House. This job, which sounds like its own Ruscha work, allowed him to keep his practice alive in those salad days. “One of the products was a wooden bird house with a little roof and a chimney, and you opened it up and it had pads of paper, pencils and erasers,” recalls Ruscha. “We got a nickel a name, and the most popular name back then was John John for John John Kennedy. I did thousands of them. I even had dreams about it. They’d be lined up like apartment houses: you do 40 of ’em, then they’d take ’em away and mail ’em off to people. But they would continually make the product cheaper and cheaper and cheaper until they were just plastic.”

Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (detail), 1966, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Balch Library, Special Collections © Ed Ruscha, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Perhaps the boldest achievement of his early career was Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, which took Ruscha three years to paint and caused a stir when it debuted at Irving Blum Gallery in 1968. Blum, the former Ferus Gallery owner who gave Warhol his first solo show, announced the exhibition with a Western Union telegram reading: “Fire Marshall says he will attend. See the most controversial painting to be shown in Los Angeles in our time.”

But the painting of LACMA has never been shown at LACMA — until now. Blum sold it to financier Joseph Hirshhorn, who donated it to his eponymous museum in Washington that’s run by the Smithsonian. At the exhibition preview Govan said he’d been joking with the Hirshhorn that LACMA has a “cultural patrimony case” at this point.

“I like that it has gone someplace else,” says Ruscha with a wink as he stands over a model of the LACMA exhibition, where the painting now hangs in a gallery facing Wilshire Boulevard.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, 1965-68 Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of LACMA

Other highlights of Now Then include a large display of Ruscha’s infamous Stains catalog of 76 prints made from uncommon art materials — tap water, sperm, bacon grease — and Ruscha’s only two installations, both of which debuted at the American Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. One is a re-creation of his 1970 Chocolate Room, which was originally made of 360 leaves of paper coated in “every tube of Nestlé’s chocolate” he and some friends could scrounge around Venice in the days before the exposition; it gave the appearance of a fragrant shingled roof.

When he came up with the idea for the Chocolate Room, explains Ruscha, “I had no idea what I was doing. It was this impromptu kind of activity,” he says. “I was actually on a trip from London where I was making silk screen prints using unconventional materials like caviar, axle grease, blood, and I used chocolate in one of them, so it was an extension of that.”

Installation photograph of the Chocolate Room in the exhbition, Ed Ruscha / NOW THEN, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Apr 7–Oct 6, 2024 Museum Associates/LACMA

Though it attracted bugs and some criticisms — mainly from activists who wanted Ruscha to boycott the Biennale as a protest to the Vietnam War — the Chocolate Room has become the stuff of Wonkaesque legend and was one of the first things Govan and Cherix wanted for Now Then

“It was so central from the beginning to have the Chocolate Room because it connects to the unexpected from Ed,” says Govan. “When people walk through this show they’ll think they know him, but they’ll see he’s a very complex artist.” 

That complexity is on further display in Course of Empire, a sequence of paintings that alighted at the 2005 Venice Biennale. For the series, Ruscha reinterpreted the titular 19th century painting cycle by Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole, who depicted the rise and fall of civilization over five canvases. In Ruscha’s flip, his monochromatic Blue Collar paintings of industrial buildings from 1992 are shown against new paintings of those same buildings two decades on, rendered in candy colors and plastered with signage from Chinese conglomerates or surrounded by security fences. Like more recent Ruscha paintings of roadside detritus in the final gallery at LACMA, they are quiet, if harsh, meditations on the decadence and decay of late-stage capitalism.

Included in LACMA’s exhibit, Ruscha’s Our Flag (2017) is on loan from the collection of music mogul Jimmy Iovine. Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of LACMA

Perhaps his most stinging rejoinder in the era of Donald Trump is Our Flag (2017), which depicts Old Glory waving in tatters. It’s the last thing one sees when exiting Now Then. “I never think of myself as flag-waving political, but I guess I’m a patriot. The American flag is at a curious place in the world, especially in the art world. It’s been flying for over 250 years, and it’s bound to be a little ragged, so why not make it that way?” asks Ruscha, who isn’t too keen on talking politics, though he would later show me a series of black-and-white posters he plans to give out during this election year that read “Grab Pussy Mandatory Pregnancy Vote Trump” or “American Soldiers: ‘Suckers, Losers’ Vote Trump.” They take a page from Andy Warhol’s silk screens of a rabid Nixon over the artist’s handwritten entreaty to “Vote McGovern.”

A political poster Ruscha intends to give out this year THR

These days, amid the hype of his new retrospective, one thing that does blow Ruscha’s silver mane back is the citrus grove behind his studio where he’s been growing ghost peppers “hot enough to burn your pants” and an elm tree gifted to him by the mayor of Oklahoma City. On the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, he says, “There was a heritage elm and it just got blown apart in the bombing, but around it all these little volunteers came up.” As he grabs a tiny branch with the delicacy he’d use to handle a newborn, he says, “It’s doing fine. It’ll get leaves in another three weeks or so.”

While he waits, Ruscha (who uses a flip phone, not a smartphone) is happy to make another pivot in the studio with a new series of “bite-size” paintings filled with just two words — like “Vegas Plates” or “This City” — that “don’t lead you down any path to enlightenment,” says Ruscha. “They’re just personal things that I find quirky and unexplored. I have to get ’em out, make ’em official.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the April 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Installation photograph, Ed Ruscha / NOW THEN, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Apr 7–Oct 6, 2024 Museum Associates/LACMA