Oklahoma Contemporary
© Ed Ruscha. Photo: Trayson Conner
Wide view of a contemporary art gallery with work on the walls and on tables throughout the space

New Light

Feb. 15, 2021

From Pop to Prairie

Contemporary art icon Ed Ruscha comes home with historic Oklahoma Contemporary exhibition opening Feb. 18
A blue and orange art print features the letters "OK"
OK (State I) by Ed Ruscha. © Ed Ruscha. Photo: Trayson Conner

When Ed Ruscha: OKLA opens this Thursday at Oklahoma Contemporary, it will make history in more ways than one. For your new arts center, the landmark exhibition featuring 74 of the artist's works across media (ranging from paintings and a large-scale installation to drawings, prints, books, photos and film) represents a major milestone as one of its highest-caliber shows ever — a new benchmark for inspiring creativity through world-class contemporary art experiences. For Ruscha, the trailblazing provocateur who made his name in the latter half of the 20th century as one of the leading figures in contemporary art, it's a homecoming more than half a century in the making.

“Ed Ruscha: OKLA is the first exhibition to examine Ruscha’s work within the context of his formative years in Oklahoma,” exhibition co-curator Alexandra Schwartz said. “While historically his work has always been closely associated with Los Angeles, his artistic sensibility was shaped by his midwestern upbringing. This exhibition traces the roots of his art in Oklahoma and the American heartland.”

The general public will get its first chance to experience this historic exhibition for themselves when the show opens Feb. 18, and those who've been working hard behind the scenes can't wait for visitors to experience it. "There's something for everybody," Oklahoma Contemporary Artistic Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis said. "It's funny. It's irreverent. It's deep. It has everything that any exhibition lover would want to see. Plus there's literally a room full of chocolate!"

Before you get your first taste of Ed Ruscha: OKLA, we're bringing you a special look at this blockbuster exhibition with in-gallery photos and insight from Schwartz, Davis and the artist himself. So grab your free, limited access timed tickets and learn more about what makes this exhibition a major moment for Oklahoma and the contemporary art world writ large.

A person walks through a contemporary art exhibit, looking at paintings on a wall
Ed Ruscha: OKLA, on view at Oklahoma Contemporary. © Ed Ruscha. Photo: Trayson Conner

Long time coming, good time going

Ed Ruscha: OKLA is setting the tone for 2021 at Oklahoma Contemporary, but the show has been in the making for years. The artist served as honorary co-chair of the arts center's Capital Campaign, which helped to fund our stunning new home, and around that same time, he and his studio team began working with Exhibitions staff on this landmark exhibition.

"It's an honor to be working with an artist of his caliber, but also from somebody who's from Oklahoma," Davis said.

More than fulfilling this longtime dream and broadening our understanding of Ruscha's relationship to his home state, Davis and the rest of the team behind Ed Ruscha: OKLA hope this major exhibition can add a new and essential layer to the story of one of contemporary art's most towering figures. "We really believe this exhibition presents an opportunity to make a contribution to the scholarship on Ed's body of work," Davis said. "We all associate him with Los Angeles and 'California Cool,' and for good reason. But that belies the true origins of Ed Ruscha. He is not from Los Angeles — he's from someplace else. And that someplace is here in Oklahoma City."

Two drum skins featuring colloquial phrases hang on an art gallery wall
No Harm (2019) and I Didn't Do Nothing About It (2018) by Ed Ruscha. © Ed Ruscha. Photo: Trayson Conner.

Throughout the 70+ works populating Ed Ruscha: OKLA, you'll find plenty of references to the culture, vernacular, geography and industries of the artist's home state. "All these things have been woven throughout his artistic output from the very beginning of his career in the early 1960s up through the work he's creating now," Davis said. "But until this point, no exhibition has fully explored the influence Oklahoma has continued to have on Ed Ruscha's artistic body of work."

Among those works with a distinctive nod to Ruscha's Oklahoma upbringing are text-driven pieces like Figure It On Out (2007) and I Didn't Do Nothing About It (2018) — one of two works featured from the artist's Drum Skins series — which elevate Okie sensibilities to high art. "I associate a certain dialect with Oklahoma that I find completely charming," Ruscha said. "It might be something like, 'He up and went downtown,' or 'I can't find my keys nowhere.' Girls used to say, 'I'm gonna walk up the heel in my high hills.' That kind of stuff originates in this part of the country, and it triggers good thoughts to me."

Ed Ruscha is not from Los Angeles — he's from someplace else. And that someplace is here in Oklahoma City.

— Jeremiah Matthew Davis, Oklahoma Contemporary artistic director
Hollywood (1999) by Ed Ruscha. © Ed Ruscha. Photo: Trayson Conner.

"Go West, young man"

The stretch of iconic Route 66 spilling out between Oklahoma City and the West Coast was especially meaningful for Ruscha, whose first road trip from the crimson Southern Plains to the bright lights of Los Angeles would set him on his path to become one of the most groundbreaking visual artists of the 20th century.

The roadside gas stations of the American West captured the artist's imagination with the symmetry of their gentle, sloping lines — not unlike the stark horizons of his childhood home on the prairie. "It's an unbelievable, romantic place to me," Ruscha said of the Oklahoma landscape. "Every time I return, I want to drive out to the panhandle because it's so austere and beautiful. It sort of revives my entire feeling about the state of Oklahoma."

Ruscha OK
Ed Ruscha: OKLA opens Feb. 18 at Oklahoma Contemporary. © Ed Ruscha. Photo: Trayson Conner.

Ruscha has remained connected to Oklahoma City and its surrounding environs throughout his 60+ year career, during which time his hometown and state have undergone extraordinary changes. "When I came to California, I felt like I was entering an accelerated culture," he said. "But whenever I go back to Oklahoma, I see lots of acceleration there too ... it's not the kind of place I left, which was kind of almost like a Dust Bowl black-and-white movie."

Engaging with that grand sweep of history is part of what makes Ed Ruscha: OKLA such an electrifying experience. Visitors to this historic homecoming will no doubt find themselves joyfully jostled by the journey — not just of an artist, but of a place and its people.

Editor's note: Oklahoma Contemporary members currently enjoy exclusive access to Ed Ruscha: OKLA, which opens to the general public Feb. 18. Familiarize yourself with the arts center's COVID-19 safety guidelines and grab your free, limited access timed tickets to experience this historic exhibition today.

Ed Ruscha. OK (State I), 1997. Lithograph on Rives BFK paper. 26 7/8 x 36 in. Ed. 22/25. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of The Jane & Marc Nathanson Family Foundation. © Ed Ruscha.

No Harm, 2019. Acrylic on vellum 30 in. diameter. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian. © Ed Ruscha. 

I Didn't Do Nothing About It, 2018. Acrylic on vellum mounted on stretched canvas. 18 1/8 in. diameter. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian © Ed Ruscha.

Hollywood, 1999. Acrylic on linen. 48 x 84 in. Collection of the artist. © Ed Ruscha.

All photos by Trayson Conner.

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Ed Ruscha Ed Ruscha: OKLA pop art exhibition Jeremiah Matthew Davis Exhibitions

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