Edward Ruscha

Mark Twain Quote


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Not on display

Edward Ruscha born 1937
Lithograph on paper
Support: 408 × 561 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
Presented by the artist to Tate for ARTIST ROOMS 2015


Mark Twain Quote 2012 is a lithograph by the American artist Ed Ruscha. In it, the words of a quote from the autobiography of the American author Mark Twain, ‘THE ANCIENTS STOLE ALL OUR GREATEST IDEAS’ appear diagonally on a background that transitions from blue to white; behind the quote, in larger, more transparent print, a German translation of the quote appears (‘DIE ANTIKE HAT ALL UNSERE GROSSEN IDEEN GESTOHLEN’). It is one of eighteen works on paper in Tate’s collection printed by Ruscha between 2011 and 2015 (Tate P20484P20501). Produced in a range of sizes and editions, they encompass techniques including lithography, mixography and etching. They are drawn from different bodies of work, revealing the artist’s aptitude as a printmaker, his ongoing exploration of signs and signage, his engagement with his hometown of Los Angeles and his humorous approach to a typically American vernacular language. Fifteen of the prints (dating from 2013 onwards) have, been produced specifically for Tate and are inscribed by hand with the words ‘Tate Proof’.

Ruscha studied graphic design at the Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in the late 1950s and went on to work as a layout artist at a Los Angeles advertising agency. The works in this group demonstrate his experience as a graphic artist, incorporating different typefaces and interactions between text and image. The artist has stated: ‘a lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words’ (quoted in Richards 2008, p.79). Through this conflation of image and text, the words become subjects in themselves. In That Was Then, This Is Now 2014 (Tate P20489), the work’s title is clearly stencilled against a stormy sky in bold white letters like an advertising slogan. Devised and named ‘Boy Scout Utility Modern’ by the artist himself, the typeface is based on the ‘Hollywood’ sign, which Ruscha could see from his studio on Western Avenue following his move to Los Angeles from rural Oklahoma. Conversely, in We the People 2012 (Tate P20486), the text is set out in an archaic, calligraphic typeface distorted towards the top right-hand corner, making it almost impossible to read. In others, like Angel 2014 (Tate P20488), the layout is adapted to reinforce or mimic the content of the text.

Such lithographs continue Ruscha’s witty appropriation of slogans and linguistic references from literature, history and popular culture. Ruscha gathers these references from disparate sources: Mark Twain Quote 2012 (Tate P20485) appropriates a quip from the autobiography of American author and humourist Mark Twain (1835–1910); That Was Then, This Is Now 2014 (Tate P20489) adopts the title of the 1971 coming-of-age young adult novel by American writer S.E. Hinton (born 1948); and We The People 2012 (Tate P20486) reproduces the first three words of the constitution of the United States of America. Angel 2014 (Tate P20488) was produced to benefit Project Angel Food, a charitable organisation that delivers home-cooked meals free of charge to those battling critical illness in Los Angeles. The work demonstrates the artist’s appropriation of signs and logos for public good and his close involvement with his local context. Likewise, Music 2014 (Tate P20496), which depicts a disrupted sheet of music with notes and a treble clef, commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of The Music Center, Los Angeles, by using marks and symbols from musical notation in motion to represent the institution’s history.

Further reading
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008.
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2009.

Hannah Johnston
August 2015
Arthur Goodwin
December 2018

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