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LACMA receives Ruscha prints

A donor's gift buys 156 works, bringing the museum close to its goal of owning a complete set by the L.A. artist.

January 13, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Thanks to a donor who loves the work of Edward Ruscha, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has compiled a nearly complete set of the quintessential L.A. artist's prints.

LACMA trustee Jane Nathanson and her husband, Marc, provided funds for the museum to purchase 156 works from Ruscha -- examples of all the prints in his personal collection not already owned by the museum. The gift greatly expands the museum's 87-piece holding but leaves about two dozen works to be located and acquired elsewhere.

"Ed Ruscha is the philosopher poet of the American experience and one of the greatest printmakers of the 20th century," said Kevin Salatino, curator of prints and drawings at LACMA. "We are thrilled to pieces with this acquisition. My aim is to find the rest of the prints."

In keeping with its policy, the museum did not disclose the amount paid for the prints. Ruscha made the deal "very attractive," Salatino said. The purchase price was "astonishingly reasonable, but still a significant amount of money," he said. Ruscha's paintings have brought as much as $3.5 million at auction. His classic prints, published as multiples, command up to $40,000 apiece.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Ruscha prints -- An article in Friday's Calendar section said a Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition of recently acquired Edward Ruscha prints would open Feb. 9. The museum has changed the opening to Feb. 24.

Ruscha said he is particularly pleased to have his prints so well represented at LACMA because the museum presented a major exhibition of his graphic work a few years ago and the new acquisition cements a long-standing relationship.

"I'm very happy," he said, "considering it's the first institution that owned a work of mine, way early on. They got that 'Actual Size' painting, the one with the Spam can, in the early '60s." Exemplifying his dry-witted penchant for ordinary objects and airborne words, the 1962 painting portrays a can of the much-maligned processed meat streaking through space under a giant label.

The gift was "a natural fit," said Jane Nathanson, a collector of contemporary art who joined LACMA's board two years ago. "My husband and I think Ed Ruscha is one of California's best artists. LACMA, which represents Los Angeles too, should have a complete suite of his work. When the opportunity arose for us to buy it, we thought that it belonged at LACMA, where everyone could enjoy it."

About 60 of the prints will go on view Feb. 9 at LACMA in an exhibition celebrating the museum's 40th anniversary.

The gift encompasses 45 years of Ruscha's work, including his first print, "Dorothy Ruscha."

The 1960 woodcut, created as an edition of seven, is an impression of the artist's mother. His second print, also in the donation, is "3327 Division," a 1962 lithograph.

Named for the address of Ruscha's first studio, it overlays an image of a girl with a head-on view of his 1939 Ford, which he still owns.

Among better-known images are the classic 1969 lithograph "Mocha Standard," depicting a Standard gas station in chocolate tones, and compositions of floating words and phrases, such as "The End."

Born in Omaha in 1937 and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha has lived in Los Angeles since 1956.

He has become known for blending Pop, Surrealist and Conceptual modes of expression with a cool but affectionate sensibility.

Perennially popular, he has gained increasing respect in the last decade. Last year, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art presented a large show of his drawings.

LACMA's effort to compile a complete collection of Ruscha's prints began in 1999-2000, when it hosted an exhibition of his prints, books and photographs organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

About the same time, it was rumored that the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, a branch of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco housed at the Legion of Honor, was preparing to purchase his print archive. Pat Squires of Hamilton Press in Venice, which publishes many of Ruscha's prints, contacted LACMA to see if the museum could find a way to keep the archive in Los Angeles, but to no avail.

The Achenbach bought the trove of 1,100 graphic images, including many trial proofs and variations of single images, with funds provided by San Francisco philanthropist Phyllis Wattis.

"That didn't sit well in Los Angeles," said Salatino, who joined LACMA's staff in October 2000 and eventually led the quest for Ruscha's prints. "The archive is still in California, but San Francisco is not Ed's town." LACMA had a few paintings and drawings by Ruscha, a larger group of his photographs and most of his books, he said, "but it was thought that the very least we should do was to add all of the prints we didn't have in one large acquisition."

Achieving that goal took so long that Ruscha nearly gave up hope.

Part of the problem, Salatino said, was staff turnover in LACMA's prints and drawings department.

Sharon Goodman, curatorial assistant to his predecessor, Victor Carlson, presented the idea to Salatino soon after his arrival. Carter Foster subsequently joined the staff and took up the challenge but ended his brief tenure before funding was secured.

Fortunately for the museum, Squires persuaded Ruscha to set aside prints, year after year, in the hope that they would ultimately go to the museum.

The project finally picked up steam last spring, when Salatino approached Nancy Thomas, a deputy director at LACMA. She suggested that he make a proposal to the board of trustees.

"I made a presentation to the collections committee, a select group primarily concerned with acquisitions," Salatino said. "After I sat down, Jane Nathanson said, 'Oh, I can make that happen.' I was so stunned, I asked her to repeat what she had said. She did, and over the next few months, she and Marc Nathanson did make it happen."

"I'm grateful to them," Ruscha said. "I'd rather my work go to museums than almost anywhere. It's a nice resting place. But if LACMA wants to be concise and thorough about my work, they are going to have to follow me because I am still working."

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