Ed Ruscha Getty Exhibition - 1998

Archival Information

April 23, 1998

ED RUSCHA'S LIGHT an Exhibition of Works Related to the Artist's Recent Commission for the Getty Center May 12 - September 13, 1998

An exhibition of two dozen paintings and works on paper tracing the theme of light in the work of Los Angeles artist Edward Ruscha over the past 25 years opens May 12, 1998 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center. Ed Ruscha's Light, curated by John Walsh, director of the Museum, is one of a series of exhibitions prompted by recent Getty commissions.

In conjunction with the opening of the new Getty Center, the J. Paul Getty Trust commissioned Ruscha to produce a large painting for the lobby of the Harold M. Williams Auditorium. The monumental 23-foot-high painting, PICTURE WITHOUT WORDS, depicts light entering through a high window and falling in a beam to form a dazzling white patch on the floor below. This is not the first appearance of emanations of light in the artist's work. The exhibition, on view in the Museum's West Pavilion, includes pieces from as early as 1972 as well as preparatory studies for the Getty commission.

PICTURE WITHOUT WORDS, permanently installed in the Auditorium, can be seen by the public during regular Getty Center hours. The commission was overseen by Lisa Lyons, a consultant to the Getty and a respected curator of contemporary art, formerly of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and most recently of the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles. She worked with Harold Williams, former President and CEO of the Getty Trust, Stephen D. Rountree, Executive Vice President of the Trust, and Walsh to commission the painting and she has also advised on the exhibition Ed Ruscha's Light.

When he was asked by the Getty to propose a painting for the tall, narrow wall in the daylit lobby of its new Auditorium, Ruscha chose a motif he had been developing for several years: a rectangular window with cross-shaped window mullions casting pronounced light and shadows onto the floor. After studying the way light actually falls into the Auditorium lobby as the sun moves across the sky at different times of day and in different seasons, he produced a series of five pastel drawings with variations on the motif.

"To show us his idea, Ed brought us two large pastel drawings, that's all," recalls Walsh. "Each showed a beam of light - a bundle of dazzling colored rays - coming through a window and hitting the floor in a radiant patch of white. We loved them - they're in the show, with the other preparatory studies. But we wondered how he was going to translate those delicate effects into acrylic on a gigantic scale."

One of Ruscha's subsequent studies, also shown in the exhibition, was a test of the highly demanding technique he chose for the final painting. Using a spray gun and conventional brushes, he applied a mist of acrylic paint in a narrow range of closely related hues, in layers of varying density, to create the image of a radiant beam that still retained some of the fine, soft qualities of the pastels. Ultimately the artist placed the 23-foot-high canvas horizontally on the floor of his studio in Venice and painted the rays from side to side using a long straightedge and a rolling carriage to support his arm.

"Ruscha calls this his most sober work so far, and although it's ambiguous, it is remarkably free of irony," Walsh says. "By the time he got the Getty commission, he'd already done several paintings - with words - of a room into which light pours from a high window. PICTURE WITHOUT WORDS is a vastly larger and simpler treatment of this motif, which had been in his head, on and off, for 25 years."

To organize this exhibition, Walsh and Lyons had Ruscha's help in looking over most of his previous work. They were struck by the many different appearances of light in the artist's work over the years, and by its suggestive power - alluding to inspiration, faith, miracles, and enlightenment. As the exhibition's opening image Walsh chose Gospel (1972), one of the few pieces in the show that does not make explicit reference to light. Painted in large black capital letters on raw canvas, the word GOSPEL is pierced by real arrows that seem to be shooting diagonally upward - aspiration going up, revelation coming down - which seemed to Walsh to foreshadow Ruscha's use of light for similar suggestions later on.

The exhibition includes six of Ruscha's Miracle drawings from the mid-1970s, pastels in which light bursts forth from skies with dark clouds. (Visitors will also have a chance to see, in the Museum's Lecture Hall on a date to be announced, a rarely screened 28-minute film that Ruscha made in 1975, Miracle, in which a car mechanic undergoes a mysterious transformation.)