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Cotton Puffs, Q- tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha

February 13 - May 30, 2005


One of America's most important and influential contemporary artists and the U.S. representative to the 2005 Venice Biennale, artist Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) has cast a critical eye on American popular culture for over four decades. Cotton Puffs, Q- tips®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha is the first museum retrospective of the artist's drawings. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from February 13 through May 30, 2005, the exhibition features works from the past four decades, highlighting Ruscha's genius for the wry and deadpan juxtaposition of words and objects.

"Ruscha is a recognized master who has inspired many of today's young artists," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to our funders for their support of this exhibition, a particularly timely occurrence in light of Ruscha's selection as the featured U.S. artist at the Venice Biennale." (right: Ed Ruscha, The End #23, 2002, acrylic and ink on paper, 24 x 30 inches (61 x 76.2 cm). On loan from The American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, President. Photograph by Paul Ruscha © Ed Ruscha)


The Exhibition

The title of the exhibition derives from a conversation between exhibition curator Margit Rowell and the artist, in which Ruscha stated, "You know, it's just cotton puffs, Q-tips ®, smoke and mirrors." "Cotton puffs" and "Q-tips ®" are items Ruscha regularly utilizes in the making of his drawings; "smoke and mirrors" refers to the illusory quality of the works.

Ranging in date from 1959 to 2002, the drawings in the exhibition are made with conventional materials such as graphite and pastel but also unorthodox ones, including gunpowder, vegetable juices, and tobacco stain.

As much a photorealist as a pop artist, a conceptualist as a minimalist, Ruscha defies easy categorization. He has recorded the shifting emblems of American life in the form of classic Hollywood logos and stylized gas stations. Examples include Trademark #5 (1962), an image of the Twentieth Century Fox trademark complete with klieg lights and dramatically streamlined diagonals, as well as Standard Study #2 (1962), a brightly colored study of a classic 1950s gas station in Amarillo, Texas.

Ruscha also embraces language as the very subject of his work, probing both its power and relativism as a means of communication. In a variety of scripts and styles -- from gothic to longhand, from ribbonlike lettering to words that seem poured rather than printed -- Ruscha gives words a physical voice. "They're almost not words," he remarks. "They are objects that become words." Examples in the exhibition include Pool (1968), a so-called "liquid" drawing, Dirty Baby (1977), and The End #23 (2002), a seemingly scratched image of that now virtually obsolete cinematic tag line.


About the Artist

Born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, Edward Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to complete his education at the Chouinard Art Institute. In 1963, he began showing his work at the progressive Ferus Gallery in L.A. In 1968 Ruscha had his first international show in Cologne, Germany at Galerie Rudolf Zwirner. A few years later, Ruscha began showing his working with the legendary Leo Castelli in New York, and subsequently with the Gagosian Gallery in New York and Beverly Hills.

Ed Ruscha has consistently mingled his context of Los Angeles with the motifs of language and landscape to communicate a particular urban experience. Encompassing photography, drawing, painting, and film, Ruscha's work elevates the viewer out of the banality of urban life in order to recognize the barrage of mass media-fed images and information that assault us daily. His early career as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence Ruscha's aesthetic and thematic approach.

In 1998, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles organized a retrospective of Ruscha's works on paper. The following year, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills showed new paintings by Ruscha as well as "Metro Plots" in New York, a series of work in which Ruscha transformed city planning maps into sublime landscapes. A major retrospective of Ruscha's career opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in June 2000 and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, The Miami Art Museum, and the Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth, TX. In 2001 Ruscha was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters as a member of the Department of Art. Ruscha was recently chosen by a committee of American museum curators to represent the United States at the 2005 Venice Biennale. His work will be featured in the U.S. pavilion at the prestigious art festival during June 2005.

Ruscha's most recent major solo exhibitions have been at the Gagosian Galleries: the "Palindrome Paintings" series was unveiled at the Chelsea space in May 2002 while the most comprehensive display of the artist's photographs was shown at the Beverly Hills location in March 2003.

The exhibition is curated by independent curator Margit Rowell, formerly at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. National Gallery curator of modern prints and drawings Judith Brodie is coordinating the Washington presentation.

The exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where it was on view from June 24 through September 26, 2004, before traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles from October 17, 2004, through January 17, 2005. Pared down to ninety-four works, the National Gallery of Art's presentation is a more condensed version of the original exhibition.



The exhibition catalogue Cotton Puffs, Q-tips ®, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha showcases the artist's singular vision and his wide range of highly personal media and techniques. The catalogue includes essays by Margit Rowell and Cornelia Butler, curator, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Published by the Whitney Museum of American Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. and Steidl, the catalogue is available through th Museum.



On Sunday, February 13, at 2:00 p.m., the artist will present the opening day lecture, "Ed Ruscha on Ed Ruscha," followed by a book signing. The lecture takes place in the East Building Auditorium.


Exhibition Support

This project is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services by an Act of Congress. Q-tips ®is a registered trademark of Chesebrough-Pond's Inc. The exhibition in Washington is made possible by The Broad Art Foundation.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Art/World: Ed Ruscha is a 20 minute look at some of this modern artist's finest work, from the early '60s to the present day. Also included in this 1992 video is a look at the Los Angeles Metro Public art projects. Produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Ed Ruscha is the taping of a June 29, 2000 lecture by the artist at the Hirshhorn Museum. The Hirshhorn Museum Library's web page contains a video clip from the lecture.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format

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