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Last year, iconic artist Ed Ruscha learned that he could come home again.
Now, some of his work is returning to his hometown and home state.
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art has acquired for its permanent collection two Ruscha lithographs, including one given as a gift from the artist himself.
"It's very exciting ... and it wasn't expected. He just was incredibly generous, and we're thankful that he has a vision, I think, for his art in Oklahoma City," said Michael Anderson, the museum's president and CEO. "All of us here in Oklahoma City want to share his art more, and he also wants his art to be seen in Oklahoma City."
The 2020 lithographs — titled “Boom Town” and “Turbo Tears" — will make their public debut at the museum in a new Pop Art gallery opening Jan. 30.
“Oklahoma City’s Ed Ruscha is one of the most influential visual artists in American history,” said OKC Mayor David Holt in a statement. “He’s ours and we need to own that — literally. ... Ultimately, we want Oklahoma City to be a place where Ed’s work is uniquely celebrated. I’m thrilled that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is taking on that charge with these new acquisitions."
Art icon was raised in OKC
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha grew up in Oklahoma City, where his family, friends and childhood jobs inspired his artistic future. Shortly after graduating from Northwest Classen High School in 1956, he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, now known as the California Institute of the Arts.
Ruscha quickly became an innovator in L.A.'s 1960s art scene. He gained fame with his unique, conceptual depictions of words, film studio logos, gas stations and more, earning the nicknames "the King of California Cool" and "the unofficial artist laureate of Los Angeles."
Although he was designated an Oklahoma Cultural Treasure in 2015, Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center hosted in 2021 what's believed to be the first solo exhibit of Ruscha's work in his home state and hometown. Titled "Ed Ruscha: OKLA," the exhibit brought together more than 70 works — including paintings, drawings, prints, books, photographs, a short film and a large-scale installation — spanning his six-decade career.
"I never thought it would happen, but finally it did. ... So, I guess you can go home again," Ruscha told The Oklahoman in a 2021 interview. "It's just a good feeling. It's like a 360-degree, roundabout, come-back-home-type thing."
At an artist talk hosted by Oklahoma Contemporary last summer, Holt presented Ruscha with the key to the city and read a proclamation declaring it "Ed Ruscha Day" in OKC.
"We certainly credit Oklahoma Contemporary, for their exhibition and really developing that relationship with Ruscha and his studio, and also the mayor, who has been such an advocate," Anderson said. "It really was this kind of constellation of factors and opportunities ... that led to us acquiring these works."
New acquisitions are word paintings
Oklahoma Contemporary Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis said he is thrilled that the museum is adding two Ruscha works to its collection. As an arts center and not a museum, Oklahoma Contemporary isn't a collecting institution.
"The Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s acquisition of 'Boom Town' and 'Turbo Tears' strengthens its permanent contemporary art collection and ensures our community can experience Ed Ruscha’s artwork on an ongoing basis," Davis said in an email.
"These two prints not only reference Oklahoma culture, the examples from the 'swiped words' series demonstrate how Ed continues both to innovate as an artist and take inspiration from his home state."
Although he has created many series during his storied career, Ruscha, 84, is especially famed for incorporating words into his work.
"When I was in living in Oklahoma, I had several small jobs doing lettering for like hamburger stands and things like that. ... I thought, 'Well, maybe I want to be sign painter.' And then I fell into this art school that introduced me to painting and sculpture and typography and design and all those subjects. And it just evolved from there," Ruscha told The Oklahoman.
"I guess whatever your life experiences are, they're bound to affect what you do as an artist — and I'm no exception. ... I feel like I have to honor that — and it also becomes an excuse to make art."
Beginning in the 1960s, Ruscha started creating word paintings featuring a single word or phrase, often presented against a simple monochromatic backdrop. In the museum's new works, the words “Boom Town” and “Turbo Tears” are blurred, giving a feeling of motion.
"Ruscha launches the 'Boom Town' type upwards, 'Turbo Tears' is more horizontal, but they both have this kind of sense of dynamism and movement. One's optimistic, the other one's kind of cynical and funny, so they're very much complementary pieces," Anderson said.
'Boom Town' is a gift from the artist
Like many of Ruscha's works, “Turbo Tears" uses an attention-grabbing font reminiscent of advertising slogans. The print was created to mark the 21st anniversary of the Tate Modern in London, and the museum purchased it with funds from its Gene Barth Acquisitions Endowment as well as from the Oklahoma Art League, one of the state's oldest arts organizations.
"We decided to make that purchase having no idea that we were going to add two. ... I was traveling in New York, and I happened to see the 'Boom Town' print at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of their 150th anniversary celebration. With 'Boom Town,' of course, I thought of Sam Anderson's book about Oklahoma City, so I reached out to Ruscha's studio ... and I just expressed the museum's interest in that work," Anderson said.
"I said something to the effect of 'If there's an opportunity for us to borrow this, to install it, to exhibit it down the line, that would be great.' And they came back and offered us a gift of that print, really without us even asking for it. So, it was just an incredibly generous gesture by Ed Ruscha."
The text in “Boom Town” is written in Boy Scout Utility Modern, a font Ruscha invented.
New works included in Pop Art exhibit
The new acquisitions will initially be shown in a second-floor exhibit titled "Pop Art and Text" that also will showcase works from the museum's collection by the late, legendary artists Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana.
"When you acquire works that have this level of interest for our community, we needed to find a way to put those out ... and we have a nice history doing Pop Art exhibitions," Anderson said. "They're accessible exhibitions that really do appeal to a large segment of our audience."
Before making the new additions, the OKC Museum of Art only had one Ruscha piece in its collection, one of his 1969 "Mocha Standard" screenprints depicting a gas station in coffee colors.
"The three pieces that we have are all works on paper ... and there is a philosophy within the field of museums that you need to rest works on paper for at least the duration that you show those ... to preserve and to care for them," Anderson said.
"We hope we can get to the point where there's always a Ruscha on view, but we're not quite there yet."
'Pop Art and Text'
Featuring: Works by Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana.
When: Jan. 30-July 24.
Where: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.
Information and tickets: https://www.okcmoa.com.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Museum of Art debuting new works by hometown icon Ed Ruscha in Pop Art exhibit