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LA Art Legend Ed Ruscha Is Cool With You Selfieing In Front Of His Paintings

Artist Ed Ruscha in his Culver City studio among his current projects.
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By Darby Maloney with Marialexa Kavanaugh

Ed Ruscha moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in the 1950s to go to art school. He rose to prominence as one of L.A.'s most respected creators, known for weaving elements of the city's landscape into his work. Ruscha's depictions of the Hollywood Sign and Norm's Diner are considered iconic.

Decades after his westward migration, two of Ruscha's paintings now hang in the Broad Museum's group show, A Journey That Wasn't. We got a tour of Ruscha's studio and spoke with him about both the journey of his career and his current projects.

The studio hides in an industrial, nondescript Culver City warehouse -- indistinguishable on the outside from its neighboring tech startups and insurance companies. But the inside's lined with hundreds of books, bordering art projects in different states of completion.

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"The way I approach things is usually like an involuntary reflex," Ruscha said, describing his creative process. "Something will come to me and I've got to make it official, so I end up making a widget out of it. Some kind of artwork. It usually involves words that someone has said or that I heard on the radio."

Thanks for listening, Ed! (We'll pretend he's specifically listening to us.)

Artist Ed Ruscha with the Frame host John Horn.

Ruscha's always been fascinated with words -- he's incorporated them into many of his most notable works. While his practice hasn't changed drastically over the decades, the language has.

Some of his current projects involve recycled drum skins with double-negative statements on them like "I won't never" and "nobody denied nothing."

"Somehow the concept of double negatives came into my life because I grew up with people that spoke this way -- 'I done did that.' 'I never done it.' Things like that," Ruscha said. "I grew up in Oklahoma. There's a particular angle to their dialect there that they have. I was very acutely aware of it and amused by it. It seems like you'd run from incorrect English, but I embraced it. I like seeing it and exposing it."

Most of his latest work has a wider scope than just L.A. The two paintings featured at the Broad, "Azteca/Azteca in Decline," were inspired by a voyage he took to Mexico City.

"I was going to this ruin, Tehotihuacan, and I'm driving along, and I stumbled across this painting on the side of a concrete block wall that was very closely depicted to what you see here in the picture," Ruscha said. "It reminded me of Aztec something-or-other -- you know, rising phoenix, eagles with snakes in their mouths, what have you. It reminded me of this majestic culture that I thought I would interpret. And it caught me kind of off-guard. My response is kind of a gringo's response to Mexico. I'm always thinking about the passage of time, so the second painting sort of has this thing falling apart, and collapsing."

"Azteca/Azecta in Decline" at the Broad Museum.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.

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Not every museumgoer may find the modern art easily decipherable -- his allusions to Mexican history are pretty subtle. Ruscha doesn't mind this. He explained how meaning has changed over the course of his long career, going from something implicit to something a bit more subjective.

"Marcel Duchamp made a very cogent statement about that," Ruscha said. "And that is that the viewer adds something to looking at a picture. So there's a lot of value in that. To be misinterpreted is not really the issue. The first presentation of an image in a painting or a picture is up for grabs. It's for what you want to see in it."

He thinks art is definitely in the eye of the beholder -- or, in the case of selfies, behind them. To Ruscha, it doesn't matter what people do when they are in the presence of his paintings in a museum, from deep analysis to taking a selfie.

"Children are there, people for any number of reasons go there to see what's happening," Ruscha said. "Or maybe to go there or [avoid] hot weather. It doesn't matter. But getting the turnstyle to work and having people come into the museum is a wonderful thing."

You can see "Azteca/Azteca in Decline" at the Broad Museum through February 2019.

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