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    Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
Record price for a painting:
at Sotheby's New York
Nov. 17, 1999
Record for a work on paper (ribbon letter):
at Sotheby's New York
Nov. 9, 1989
Record price for a silhouette painting:
17th Century
at Christie's New York
Nov. 20, 1998
Record for a work on paper:
at Christie's L.A.
June 7, 2000
Record for a work on paper (silhouette):
at Sotheby's New York
Nov. 9, 1989
Standard Station
sold for $379,750
at Sotheby's New York
Oct. 31, 1998
Look for his ribbon paintings, made with gunpowder.

Recently, I viewed the Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Accompanying me was a local couple, relatively new to collecting, but eager to plunge in deeper. We started out by looking at the obvious masterpieces: a Jackson Pollock drip painting, a Willem de Kooning woman and a Frank Stella black painting.

The rest of the show was an encyclopedia of the best of the 1960s through the 1980s. My companions were enthusiastic about seeing such fine examples by many familiar names. Finally, we entered a room that displayed the Anderson's graphic works.

The wife spotted a modest drawing that had a single word on it, Juice, carefully illustrated in ribbon-like letters. "I like that a lot. Let me know if you come across one for sale," she said. It struck me as remarkable that, out of all the great works in the Anderson collection, a drawing by Ed Ruscha was one of the things that stood out most.

Ed Ruscha produced his famed ribbon letter drawings between 1966 and 1973. Most of them were done with gunpowder, a highly original and exotic substance for making art. A select few were energized by the random inclusion of a small drawing of a housefly, a broken pencil, or even a few droplets of glistening water. Since hitting their peak in 1989, these drawings have been making a financial comeback.

Back then, a drawing that said Flood brought a record $82,500. Today, a good example with large letters and an evocative word, such as Sin, now sells for a minimum of $35,000 and a maximum of $55,000. There are fewer of these drawings around than people think. Look for ribbon letter drawings to regularly sell for $50,000-$75,000 during the next two years.

Although Ruscha is only 63, he's had a highly productive career. He's a true innovator known as much for creating the genre of "artists' books" as he is for his early 1960s paintings of Standard gasoline stations. Most notably, while he wasn't the first contemporary artist to use language in his work (that honor probably belongs to Larry Rivers), he was the first to make words his primary subject matter.

While it's become almost impossible to find a choice painting from the 1960s, an area that's wide open for collecting is his post-1985 silhouette pictures. Up until that year, Ruscha's art focused primarily on words or actual phrases -- "He Prefers the Company of Women" (supposedly owned by Woody Allen) is a personal favorite.

Beginning in 1986, in a gutsy move reminiscent of Philip Guston's dramatic break from abstraction, Ruscha began working with recognizable imagery. Using an airbrush, he painted scenes of pure Americana: covered wagons, clipper ships, Joshua trees, buffaloes and so on. When they were first shown, at the Fuller Goldeen Gallery in San Francisco, most of the critics were perplexed.

With the perspective of history, it now seems obvious that these pictures were indeed a breakthrough. Yet the silhouettes haven't done that well at auction -- the record remains only $156,500. On the other hand, the silhouettes on paper have recently sold as high as $107,000. That was the price realized by a drawing of a brown clipper ship, superimposed with the words, "Brave Men Run in My Family," at Christie's Los Angeles in June 1999. Fortunately for collectors, most of these drawings, which average 60 by 40 inches, usually bring between $35,000-$55,000 at auction.

Around 1998, Ruscha began a new series that can be best described as minimal street maps of Los Angeles. Ruscha has often been referred to as the unofficial artist of L.A. and these paintings do nothing to contradict that assessment. If you can imagine a canvas finely speckled with gray-black paint, covered with a grid of roads, with local street names painted beside them, then you'd have a pretty clear picture of what these minimal paintings look like. At this point, the street maps are too new to have appeared at auction. Small canvases start at $40,000 on the primary market.

Although the Art Market Guide 2000 is primarily concerned with unique works, it is worth pointing out that Ruscha has produced a strong body of prints that number over 300, at last count. Many of these prints are true bargains.

For example, during the 1960s, Ruscha produced color lithographs, with words composed of surreal liquid-like letters, that can be bought for $3,500-$7,500. Typical examples from this series include, "Eye," "Rodeo," "Mint, and "Vanish."

Perhaps Ruscha's most important prints are the famed Standard Stations. These color silkscreens offer a highly stylized and streamlined view of an American quasi-icon. Ruscha produced these prints in four-color combinations. The least expensive, titled the Cheese Mold Standard, is layered with pale shades of blue and green, with a martini olive thrown in almost as an afterthought. It can be bought for under $10,000. The most expensive work of the four, Double Standard, in tones of raw sienna and blue, will set you back $40,000-$50,000.

A last thought is that Ed Ruscha's current traveling retrospective, which was put together by the Hirshhorn Museum, has been drawing highly enthusiastic reviews. As it continues to travel, it should dawn on many more newcomers, like the couple who toured SFMOMA, that this is an affordable artist worth collecting.

Recommended reading:
Ed Ruscha by Neal Benezra and Kerry Brougher (the book accompanying the current Hirshhorn retrospective)
The Works of Edward Ruscha, with essays by Dave Hickey and Peter Plagens (the catalogue of a survey show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at