Ed Ruscha- Learning Resource

Danna Ruscha Portrait of Ed Ruscha Courtesy of the artist

Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, Edward Ruscha was raised in Oklahoma City, where his family moved in 1941. In 1956 he moved to Los Angeles to study graphic design at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of Arts). Ruscha came to prominence in the late 1950s when he began making small collages similar to those of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and would have his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery.

Early in his career, Ruscha began to refine his collages, isolating and recombining words and images in increasingly subtle and unique ways. Because he drew upon sources from the everyday and embraced the techniques and imagery of commercial culture, his work is associated with pop art.


Ruscha used unconventional materials in his graphic work of the late 1960s and 1970s: he drew with gunpowder and painted and printed with foodstuffs and with a variety of organic substances such as blood and the medicine Pepto-Bismol. He is well known for his depiction of words and phrases and for the books he published of his series of deadpan photographs. Such works, characterised by their low-key humour, were influential in the development of conceptual art.

Ruscha has consistently combined the cityscape of his adopted hometown with vernacular language to communicate a particular urban experience. Encompassing painting, drawing, photography, and artist’s books, Ruscha’s work explores the banality of modern urban life and gives order to the barrage of mass media-fed images and information that confronts us daily. Ruscha’s early career as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence his aesthetic and thematic approach.



Ruscha has been the subject of numerous museum retrospectives that have travelled internationally, including those organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1982; the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2000; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in 2002; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2004; the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2004; and the Jeu de Paume in 2006. In 2005, Ruscha was the United States representative at the 51st Venice Biennale. In recent years exhibitions have included 'Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting' 2009 at the Hayward Gallery, London, 'Ruscha: Road Tested' 2011 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and 'On the Road' 2011 at the Hammer Museum.

In July of 2012 the major exhibition, 'Reading Ed Ruscha' opened at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria.


Words and Phrases

Words and phrases are at the centre of Ed Ruscha’s work and first appear in his paintings as early as 1959. The use of words and text in twentieth-century art can first be traced back to cubist painters such as Braque and Picasso who integrated letters and words, painted and found, into still lifes as they questioned the representation on the two-dimensional surface. Playful linguistic manipulations were central to the dadaists who left an important legacy with their radical, often humorous use of wordplay. Ruscha cites the dadaists as early influences and his use of words in an ambiguous and playful way could be seen as a manifestation of that influence.

Ruscha uses a range of linguistic devices in his text pieces such as onomatopoeia, puns, alliteration and contrasting meanings. Many of his early works such as Honk 1962 depict single words in a strong typographic format. A more brooding atmosphere emerges in the later series, The End, which illustrates the words overlaid with imagery recalling fading film credits. Other works such as PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL 2003 reference advertising while setting the text against a mountainous landscape. Ruscha’s group of ‘catch-phrase’ drawings dating from the 1970s, including PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS 1976, mix visual formality with playful language. In this series of pastel drawings Ruscha set his pithy phrases against fields of colour. The sentences and phrases evoke American vernacular and slang, draw attention to a particular experience or recall the excesses of Hollywood culture.

In the drawing PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS 1976, the juxtaposition of the phrases ‘PRETTY EYES ’ and ‘ELECTRIC BILLS’ is at odds; the first conjures romantic and evocative images while the second makes reference to a mundane chore. The artist has explained his own view of this drawing, stating: ‘Pretty Eyes, Electric Bills is my way of separating two subjects that are on the far end of the world from each other. This somehow gets to be the reason that I want to make a work of art of this discord.’


In groups identify what words or phrases you like and whether they are specific to your vernacular. Discuss why you like them: is it the shape of the individual letters, the way they sound or the meaning of the words.

Create a collage using different single words or phrases in different fonts, sizes and styles. Can you create playful linguistic manipulations with these words? Does the font and style change the meaning and impact of the words?

Artist Link
Much of Lawrence Weiner’s work takes the form of language. He makes ‘statements’, which then have the potential to be inscribed as a written text on a gallery wall, spoken as dialogue in a video, printed in a book or poster, sung, or even tattooed onto the skin.


The words Ed Ruscha uses in his work come from a variety of sources including books which occasionally suggest images to him: ‘I’ve done a few paintings using verbatim words from certain sections of books. Of course the words I use come from every source. Sometimes they happen on the radio and sometimes in conversations. I’ve had ideas come to me literally in my sleep and I tend to believe on blind faith, that I feel obliged to use.’

Ruscha is an admirer of the British writer J.G. Ballard and the American writers Don DeLillo and Tom McGuane. He has said that Ballard ‘cuts open the belly of what’s going on and everything falls out.’ Ballard’s transgressive fiction is associated with dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments. 

In his painting The Music from the Balconies (1984) Ruscha uses text from J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (1975). The novel, set in a high rise, is the tale of urban disillusionment where society slips into a violent reverse as the isolated inhabitants of the high-rise, driven by primal urges, recreate a dystopian world ruled by the laws of the jungle. In The Music from the Balconies Ruscha juxtaposes a beautiful landscape and serene skyline layered with the dark and unsettling quote “The Music from the Balconies Nearby Was Overlaid by the Noise of Sporadic Acts of Violence”. This juxtaposition seems itself an act of violence, overlying the tranquil landscape with the wordy Ballard quote.


In The Music from the Balconies Ruscha juxtaposes a rural landscape with text from a novel associated with urban life. Discuss your ideas about why Ruscha might be making associations between the two.

Think about a piece of text or literature you like and an image, which is at odds with the text. Carefully select a font style using word art and superimpose it on to images showing objects, that are large in scale’, so it reads: ‘showing objects that are large in scale e.g. tower blocks, hills, bridges, buildings, and billboards.

Artist Link
Ed Ruscha is an admirer of Sir John Everett Millias’ Ophelia (1951-2), which is inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and has described the painting as ‘an inspiration for what I’m doing’.

Books and Photographs

Ed Ruscha’s first book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) featured photographs taken by him along Route 66, on trips to and from Los Angeles to his parental home in Oklahoma City taking in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas en route. The pictures, which are void of people, do not document a particular journey and there is no sense of narrative. Twenty Six Gasoline Stations was the first of seventeen books Ruscha would make throughout the 1960s and 70s. These books are characterised by their use of serial photography, a wry sense of humour and use of minimal text. The titles of the books such as Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966) and Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967) function as banal descriptions of the subject matter.

The photographs in Ruscha’s books are black and white until Nine Swimming Pools (and A Broken Glass) (1968) when he introduces colour. This book featured nine photographs of pools from a selection of hotels in LA and Las Vegas interspersed throughout the book followed by a sequence of black pages. Again, these photographs are absent of people giving them a feeling of desertion and vacancy. The human subject is however referenced in Pool #5 (1968/97) where liquid footprints lead up to the diving board situated at the bottom centre of the image.

Ruscha’s books were highly influential in the conceptual art movement and they share many elements of its practice. In Ruscha’s books the idea dictates the form of the finished piece while an interest in structure, serial imagery and the mundane are also characteristic of conceptual art. Ruscha suggests that his books are ‘an extension of the readymade in a photographic form’.


Ruscha has said that he is not interested in books but he is interested in unusual publications. Discuss the titles, layout and content of Ruscha’s books and what relationship they have to one another.

Following the discussion select a topic based on the themes of place and the everyday for your own book. You could develop the title of your book first, then photograph the subject and compile your images into your book.

Artist Link
Lawrence Weiner, Bruce Nauman and Sol LeWitt all used the artist’s book as a central part of their art practice.


Ed Ruscha has lived and worked in Los Angeles since 1956 and since then his visual vocabulary has been hugely informed by the city and its film industry. Ruscha references Hollywood and cinema in a number of ways in his work. In PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL (2003) the words juxtaposed against a mountainous landscape allude to the opening credits in an action adventure film while words such as ‘Hollywood’ (in works such as Hollywood (1969)) and symbols such as the Twentieth Century Fox logo (in works such as Trademark #5 (1962)) appeared in Ruscha’s work from the 1960s.

The dimensions of Dec. 30th (2005) call to mind the format of widescreen movies; Ruscha had previously replicated the ratio of the widescreen Cinemascope in the size of several canvases. The Hollywood sign, an iconic feature of the Los Angeles skyline, is silhouetted and blurred with orange and red spray paint. The colours and the shaded sign suggest a sunset or blazing white heat. Ruscha has exploited the sign as a monument to the town’s myths and dreams in his work since the late-1960s.

Ruscha also created a series of works such as Miracle #64 (1975), where a bright beam of light entering a black space, which allude to a film being project in a cinema. Ruscha once commented, “‘Hollywood dreams’ – I mean, think about it. Close your eyes and what does it mean, visually? It means a ray of light, actually, to me, rather than a success story.” Movies are also referenced in The End series, which illustrate the words with imagery that recalls fading film credits (THE END #40 (2003)). Works such as Miracle #64 and The Final End (1992) allude to Hollywood success as a near religious experience.

Ruscha’s book Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966) also references the cinematic; the photographs for this book were created by attaching a camera to a moving vehicle and shooting in real time.


We associate certain visual styles with different genres of film e.g. western, thriller, science fiction or romantic comedy. Discuss how you might decide what a film might be like based on the style of the opening credits or title.

Use some of the key words or a catchphrase from the credits, poster or trailer from your favourite movie to create an artwork. Think about what the film might be like or whether or not you want to create a visual representation of the film.

Artist Link
Douglas Gordon references Hollywood film and film stars in a number of works including 100 Blind Stars (2002) where he appropriated images of Hollywood film stars exercising the eyes, thus creating a ‘blind’ portrait.


Ed Ruscha attributes the tactile quality of materials such as paper and Higgins India Ink as the catalyst for his interest in art. As a boy he discovered art through the medium of Higgins India ink. He recalls a neighbourhood friend using this material in his cartoons: ‘I had a very tactile sensation for that ink; it’s one of the strongest that has affected me as far as my interest in art.’ This fascination with the tools of the artist’s trade would continue throughout his career.

In the late 1960s Ed Ruscha began to experiment with materials creating the print portfolio Stains (1969). Among the varied substances used to create the seventy-five works on paper, which makes up the Stains portfolio, where egg yolk, turpentine, beer, salad dressing and gunpowder. Inside the portfolio case, which contains the series of prints, was one final stain: the blood of the artist. The artist’s tendency to work with unorthodox materials would continue into the 1970s.

The painting DANCE? (1973) was made using an array of materials including coffee, egg white, mustard, chilli sauce, ketchup and cheddar cheese. This work highlights Ruscha’s preoccupation not only with using unusual materials but also the symbols of American popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s, with the monosyllabic invitation to dance invoking light-hearted entertainment. The edible ingredients, which make up the painting, suggest the kind of foodstuffs that might be consumed in an American diner, and are in particular the condiments that accompany typically American fast food such as hotdogs and hamburgers.


Discuss the following quote from Ed Ruscha: ‘The nature of my interest [in materials] wasn’t in broadening horizon’s of artists’ materials; that was secondary.’

Experiment with materials when creating your text based drawing; anything that can make a mark on paper can be used. Perhaps you could start with India Ink to explore its ‘tactile’ properties.

Artist Link
Joseph Beuys uses a variety of materials in his sculptures such as beeswax, copper and felt. Beuys used materials in a different way to Ruscha, with each of these materials having very specific and personal meanings.


The everyday or commonplace form Ed Ruscha’s subject matter in his paintings, photographs, books, prints and drawings. His black and white photographs of banal and familiar subjects such as apartment blocks, car parks and palm trees feature in his books, while gas stations, the Hollywood sign and trademarks populate his paintings. Speaking of his first book Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) Ed Ruscha once said that his photographs were merely a collection of facts and his books are is like ‘a collection of readymades.’

Marcel Duchamp invented the term ‘readymade’ to describe a series of works in which appropriated objects were transformed by their presentation in the gallery. Duchamp argued that art was about ideas and by choosing an everyday object he was designating it as a work of art. Duchamp was a key influence on Ruscha and the emergence of conceptual art in the late 1960s. Artists grouped under this broad title increasingly questioned the nature of art, the role and status of the artist.

For his book Real Estate Opportunities (1970) Ruscha made a series of photographs, intended to look like conventional real estate photographs, of empty lots captioned with the locations. Four photographs from the Real Estate Opportunities shooting sessions were later editioned in 2003 as Vacant Lots (1970/2003).

As well as conceptual art Ed Ruscha’s work has much in common with pop art such as his appropriation of the everyday and references to mass media. While his paintings and drawings draw on popular references, his playful use of irony, paradox and absurdist juxtapositions have set him firmly apart from any movement.


Discuss the definition of conceptual art offered in the glossary and why you think Ruscha considered a conceptual artist.

Take photographs of places, which you encounter on a daily basis or are perhaps part of your daily routine. Think about how you might present them e.g. in a book form or a gallery wall.

Artist Link
Andy Warhol, like Ruscha, was associated with pop art because of his depiction of consumer goods and use of images from popular culture.


At the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century Ed Ruscha continued to appropriate images of landscapes though his metro plots his and mountain paintings. His metro plots are ariel views of metropolitan areas defined by intersecting parallel lines of the grid system or by actual written names of Los Angeles streets and avenues. These works such as BLVD.-AVE.-ST. (2006) bring together various concerns that have appeared in Ruscha’s work throughout the previous decades such as the photographic books of the 1960s that document subjects found along Los Angeles streets.

Plotting, mapping, identifying and labelling are among the most prominent themes in Ruscha’s work. With the metro plot series Ruscha began to elaborate on the axial-aerial perspective that he first introduced in his gasoline station paintings of 1962. Ruscha once said: ‘I guess I’ve always been intrigued by oblique perspectives, like ariel views. There’s something about the tabletop…taking a viewer up in the air, so you can look down from an angle.’ Around the same time as he began to make his metro plots Ruscha was also appropriating a backdrop unrelated to LA – bold and colourful mountain ranges. Some of these works superimposed words and phrases, such as ‘Pay Nothing Until April’ and ‘Daily Planet’, over the mountain landscape. The relationship between the text and the landscape is more elusive in these works.

The phrase ‘Pay Nothing Until April’ in the painting of the same name, overlaying the mountainous landscape, could refer to advertising slogans that follow the formula, ‘Buy Now, Pay Nothing until April’.


Create an artwork using stencils and maps of your town or city. Think about what kind of aesthetic you want to achieve and what materials will help with this.

Artist Link
Ed Ruscha’s metro plot paintings such as BLVD.-AVE.-ST. (2006) can be related to the work of Agnes Martin whose work is characterised by a geometric foundation of simple times and bands of subtle colour often inspired by the landscape of New Mexico, where she lived.



In partnership with

  • Tate

Supported by

  • Henry Moore Foundation
  • Art Fund - for ARTIST ROOMS only
  • HLF/Arts Council England
  • HLF/CreativeScotland