Biography of Ed Ruscha, American Pop Artist

ed ruscha
Dan Tuffs / Getty Images

Ed Ruscha (born December 16, 1937) is a prominent American artist who played a crucial role in the development of pop art. He has created works in a wide range of media and is best known for his word paintings. They range from bold single-word images to phrases that at first seem nonsensical but later acquire more meaning for the viewer as cultural connections emerge.

Fast Facts: Ed Ruscha

  • Full Name: Edward Joseph Ruscha IV
  • Known For: Pop artist who created word paintings and documented Southern California culture
  • Born: December 16, 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska
  • Parents: Ed, Sr. and Dorothy Ruscha
  • Education: Chouinard Art Institute
  • Art Movement: Pop art
  • Mediums: Oil painting, organic media, photography, and film
  • Selected Works: "Twenty Six Gasoline Stations" (1962), "Norm's, La Cienega, on Fire" (1964), "Dance?" (1973)
  • Spouse: Danna Knego
  • Children: Edward "Eddie," Jr. and Sonny Bjornson
  • Notable Quote: "All my artistic response comes from American things, and I guess I've always had a weakness for heroic imagery."

Early Life and Training

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ed Ruscha spent most of his years growing up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His mother introduced him to the appreciation of music, literature, and art. As a child, Ruscha enjoyed cartooning.

When Ed Ruscha applied to art school, his strict Roman Catholic father was disappointed. However, he changed his mind when California's Chouinard Art Institute accepted his son. The instituted graduated many artists that ultimately worked for Walt Disney.

Ed Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956. At Chouinard, he studied with famed installation artist Robert Irwin. He also helped produce a journal titled "Orb" with fellow students. The young artist loved the atmosphere and lifestyle of southern California, which soon became one of the primary influences on his art.

ed ruscha
Tony Evans / Getty Images

Ruscha's father passed away while his son was attending school in California. In 1961, the artist's mother, Dorothy, decided to take the family on a trip to Europe for the summer. Despite exposure to the world's great art in museums all over the continent, Ed Ruscha was more intrigued by everyday life. In contrast with the traditional subject matter, he painted the signs he saw around Paris.

After returning from Europe, Ruscha took a job with the Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency as a layout designer. He later performed the same work for Artforum magazine using the pseudonym "Eddie Russia."

Pop Art

Early on in his career, Ed Ruscha rejected the popular abstract expressionist movement. Instead, he found inspiration in everyday places and objects. Other influences included the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Edward Hopper. The latter's painting "Gas" may have helped generate Ruscha's interest in gasoline stations as subject matter for his art.

Ruscha took part in the 1962 exhibition titled "New Painting of Common Objects" at the Pasadena Art Museum. The curator was Walter Hopps. Later, art historians identified it as the first museum show in the U.S. focused on what would later be called pop art. In addition to Ruscha, the exhibition included the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jim Dine.

ed ruscha norms la cienega on fire
"Norm's, La Cienega, On Fire" (1964). WikiArt / Public Domain

A year later, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles hosted Ruscha's first one-person show, and it was a critical success. Through Walter Hopps, Ruscha met iconic Dada artist Marcel Duchamp in 1963. The young artist soon found himself a leader in pop art, which saw Dada as an essential precursor.

Ruscha's identification as a pop artist comes through his fascination with the landscapes and objects of Los Angeles and Southern California in general. His early 1960s paintings include studies of the 20th Century Fox film logo, Wonder bread, and gas stations. Ruscha added commentary and meaning to his work by distinctive placement of the objects on the canvas and adding elements such as flames engulfing the legendary Los Angeles diner Norm's.

Word Paintings

Ed Ruscha's use of words in paintings dates back to his training as a commercial artist. He claims that his 1961 painting "Boss" is his first mature work. It shows the word "boss" in bold, black letters. Ruscha noted that the word has meaning in at least three ways: an employer, a slang term for something cool, and a brand of work apparel. The multiple meanings help give the image resonance, and it immediately interacts with the experiences of the viewer.

A series of single-word paintings followed. They included "Honk," "Smash," and "Electric." All of them feature a strong word, and Ruscha paints them in ways that maximize the visual impact.

ed ruscha electric
"Electric" (1963). Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0

By the mid-1960s, Ed Ruscha created word paintings that looked like the words were drizzled onto the canvas as a liquid. The words included "Adios" and "Desire." The 1966 picture, "Annie, Poured from Maple Syrup," borrows the logo from the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip. The use of what looks like maple syrup helps emphasize the warmth and sweetness of the subject matter.

Later, in the 1970s, Ruscha began experimenting with "catch-phrase" drawings. He layered seemingly nonsensical phrases like "Smells Like Back of Old Radio" and "Hollywood Tantrum" over a pastel background. Ruscha avoided direct messaging or obvious statements throughout his career. The reason for the specific phrases in these pieces of word art was murky on purpose.

Use of Unusual Materials

During the 1970s, Ed Ruscha experimented with many different everyday items as media for his works. He used tomato sauce, axle grease, raw egg, chocolate syrup, and many other items. Silks sometimes replaced canvas as backing material because the fabric absorbed stains better. Unfortunately, many of the materials dried to a range of muted colors that washed out the original design.

"Dance?," from 1973, is an example of the unusual media approach by Ruscha. He chose to use materials found in an everyday diner: coffee, egg whites, mustard, ketchup, chili sauce, and cheddar cheese. By using the word "dance," he immersed the work even further into popular culture.

ed ruscha dance
"Dance?" (1973). Tate Museum

For a 1972 cover of the magazine ARTnews, Ruscha spelled out the title in squashed food and took a photograph. The 1971 piece "Fruit Metrecal Hollywood" addressed the film capital's obsession with body image by including the diet drink Metrecal as part of the media in the work.

Photography and Film

Ed Ruscha incorporated photography into his work throughout his career. The first example was the series of pictures he took while traveling in Europe in 1961. He also used his own photographs to create books, perhaps most notably 1962's "Twenty Six Gasoline Stations." It's a 48-page book that documents a road trip from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles through images of the gas stations along the way. There is nothing highly composed about the photos. They are merely snapshots of the artist's experience.

ed ruscha twenty six gasoline stations
"Twenty Six Gasoline Stations" cover (1962). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ruscha created short films in the 1970s. They featured celebrities including Tommy Smothers in 1971's "Premium" and Michelle Phillips in 1975's "Miracle." Ed Ruscha also became the subject of documentaries and appeared as an interview subject in documentaries about other artists. In the 2018 short film "Paradox Bullets," he appears as a hiker lost in the desert who only has the voice of legendary film director Werner Herzog to guide him.


Today, Ed Ruscha is seen as one of the most prominent artists documenting the world of Los Angeles and Southern California. His work as a pop artist influenced neo-pop artists like Jeff Koons. His word paintings had an impact on a wide range of artists who incorporated words and language into their art. Ruscha was also a pioneer in the creation of artist books. In 1968, performance artist Bruce Nauman created a book titled "Burning Small Fires," consisting of photographs of Nauman burning a copy of Ed Ruscha's 1964 book "Various Small Fires and Milk." In 2013, Time magazine listed Ruscha as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

ed ruscha actual size
"Actual Size" (1962). Santi Visalli / Getty Images


  • Marshall, Richard D. Ed Ruscha. Phaidon Press, 2003.
  • Ruscha, Ed. They Called Her Styrene, Etc. Phaidon Press, 2000.
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Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Ed Ruscha, American Pop Artist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Lamb, Bill. (2020, August 29). Biography of Ed Ruscha, American Pop Artist. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Biography of Ed Ruscha, American Pop Artist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).