Ruscha's fascination for words in his art derived both from formative personal experience and a keen knowledge of art history. Growing up in Oklahoma, Ruscha saw very little fine art in the flesh and was much more influenced by the immediacy of vernacular imagery: comic strips, typography, book design, and vivid commercial advertising. When he first moved to LA in 1956, he worked as a sign painter and graphic designer, as well as hand-setting type and working the presses for art book publishers. Defining the West Coast Pop sensibility, Ruscha was among the stable of the legendary Ferus Gallery, the gallery that staged Warhol's breakthrough show of Campbell's Soup Cans in 1962. In this explosive creative environment, Ruscha fashioned an independent voice and line of pictorial inquiry that revolved around text.
Isolating his texts against an empty horizon line, Ruscha exposes the strangeness of his words and forces a semantic re-examination of their meaning. It is this spirit of Duchampian intellectual inquiry which is the hallmark of his best work and which distinguishes him from the pop tendencies of his peers. This inquiry is nonetheless embedded in his vernacular culture. The motif of words floating in emptiness is grounded in his personal experience, recalling the road journey west from his hometown to LA along Route 66, a trip Ruscha later made frequently in both directions to visit his family. Along that road, the endlessly flat, featureless horizon line is only occasionally punctuated by the huge billboards which start as specs on the horizon and gradually get bigger until they slide past the window, contemporary signposts of modern America set against the limitless sky and setting sun of the mythical landscape of the Wild West.
Born on December 16, 1937 in Omaha, NE, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma City before moving to Los Angeles to study art at the Chouinard Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts). In 2016, he was the subject of a sprawling exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, titled “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” it included 99 works which dealt with America’s captivation with the western landscape and manifest destiny. The artist’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Gallery in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He continues to live and work in Los Angeles, CA.