Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha
February 13 – May 30, 2005
West Building, Ground Floor, Outer Tier Galleries G26 through G29
The Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha has been a major presence in the art world for more than forty years. Although initially identified with a Southern California variant of pop art, Ruscha's singular vision, deadpan humor, and focus on words have earned him a distinct place of his own. This first museum retrospective devoted to his drawings reveals that Ruscha works magic not only with words and images but also with media and techniques. The title of the exhibition, a quote from the artist, refers to some of his drawing tools (cotton puffs and Q-tips®) and his illusory effects (smoke and mirrors). Ruscha frequently uses cotton puffs to layer powdered graphite, gunpowder, or pastel onto his papers and Q-tips® for the finer touches.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma before moving to Los Angeles in 1956. His ambition was to become a commercial artist, and over the next four years he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), north of Los Angeles. He set out taking courses in photography and graphic design and did freelance work as well, first as a sign painter and later as a typesetter and pressman for an art book publisher. But at Chouinard, he became drawn to the fine arts. Of the switch, Ruscha explains, "I saw a reproduction in some obscure magazine of Jasper Johns' Target with Four Faces  and [one of] Robert Rauschenberg's combine[s]....I knew from then on that I was going to be a fine artist."
The exhibition traces Ruscha's career from his early pop images of gas stations and Hollywood logos through his gunpowder "ribbon" drawings, luminous pastels, experiments with "stains" (coffee, vegetable juices, rose petals), and quirky phrases culled from the American vernacular. It concludes with works that incorporate shadowy silhouettes, oddly orientated maps of Los Angeles, and frames from films. Words are clearly Ruscha's prevailing medium for translating his vision. He gives them physical voice in a variety of scripts and styles—from gothic to longhand, from ribbonlike lettering to characters that seem poured rather than printed. Despite the formal precision of Ruscha's drawings, they nonetheless remain equivocal, evoking the "smoke and mirrors" of the magician's game.
This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.
Overview: 89 drawings and 6 studio notebooks constituted this first museum retrospective of drawings by contemporary Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha. Dated from 1959 to 2002, the drawings trace Ruscha’s career from early pop images of American commercial logos and gas stations to later images depicting words and phrases as subject matter. The title of the exhibition, a quote from the artist, refers to some of his drawing tools (cotton puffs and Q-tips®) and his illusionary effects (smoke and mirrors). The presentation was a condensed version of an exhibition seen earlier in New York and Los Angeles.
A special opening-day lecture by the artist was presented, "Ed Ruscha on Ed Ruscha," and 2 of the artist's short 16mm films were shown in conjunction with the exhibition.
Organization: The exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Margit Rowell was the guest curator. Judith Brodie, curator of modern prints and drawings, National Gallery of Art, coordinated the exhibition in Washington.
Sponsor: The project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services by an Act of Congress. The exhibition in Washington was made possible by The Broad Art Foundation.
Catalog: Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, by Margit Rowell, with an essay by Cornelia Butler. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 2004.
Other Venues: Whitney Museum of Art, New York, June 24–September 26, 2004
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, October 17, 2004–January 17, 2005