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Gagosian presents Ed Ruscha: Tom Sawyer Paintings

October 19–December 22, 2022

Ten fresh paintings and a brand-new Ed Ruscha hologram are on display at Gagosian. Tom Sawyer Paintings, the artist’s first solo show of paintings at the gallery in Paris, will debut concurrently with a presentation of recent work by James Turrell in the gallery’s upper level, as well as exhibitions of recent paintings by Jenny Saville (rue de Castiglione) and a Richard Serra sculpture at Gagosian’s other Paris locations (Le Bourget). In parallel, from October 20 to 23, Gagosian will take part in the first Paris+ par Art Basel event at the Grand Palais Éphémère.

Ruscha draws influence from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a beloved American novel by Mark Twain, in his most recent works (1876). Ruscha here opts for naturalistic depictions of plain timber slats as opposed to the gnomic inscriptions for which he is well known. These well-known surfaces, with their characteristic grain, make reference to a scene in Twain’s book where Sawyer, discouraged by the prospect of having to spend a Saturday painting a fence, tricks his companions into doing it for him.

Wood appears throughout Ruscha’s oeuvre as image, subject, support, and container, as well as in miscellaneous projects such as the Artforum “Surrealism” cover of 1966, which shows letters carved from balsa wood. “When I do a plank of wood,” Ruscha comments on the paintings Plank (1979) and Plank in Decline (2007), “I’m painting a horizontal landscape, or I might be painting a picture of wood that I see when I go to the desert. The idea of deterioration and age and all that.” Art historian Briony Fer has suggested that the planks in these works also function as “a kind of blank, an obdurate piece of matter that obscures the view. It is a gap in the picture and a block on its fictional transparency.”

The Twain references in the new series are reminiscent of those in Ruscha’s Sayings (from Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson) (1996), a series of lithographs in which he translates the dialogue of a character from the book onto wood-grain backgrounds, and Mark Twain Quote (2012), a print in which he repeats the author’s phrase “the ancients stole all our great ideas” in English and German (the latter to correspond with an eponymous exhibition of old master paintings and objects from the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, that Ruscha curated there in 2012).The project also fits with the artist’s lifelong fascination with Americana, which is well-known for taking the form of his paintings of gas stations, the Sunset Strip, and the Hollywood sign. Ruscha, whose book Royal Road Test (1967) depicts the artist throwing an antique typewriter from a racing Buick, finds it noteworthy that Tom Sawyer was one of the first books to be written using a typewriter.
The subtle rubber stamp that is reproduced in a few works is the only text that the Tom Sawyer Paintings series may contain, but even so, the series alludes to the possibility of and of verbal expression. The wooden slats may even be thought of as suggestive of type due to their regular horizontal, vertical, and diagonal configurations. These solid graphic compositions, in which the planks are shown touching or overlapping one another (occasionally revealing broken or missing sections) and echoing the hidden structural forms of the canvases’ stretcher bars, have a heraldic quality that evokes artwork by other artists like Frank Stella and Jasper Johns as well as Ruscha’s own numerous images of the Stars and Stripes.
Along with the seven Tom Sawyer paintings, the exhibit also includes Metro Petro Neuro Psycho and Tilted Metro Petro (both 2022), two paintings on raw linen that play on the words of their titles, and a new hologram that also includes the Metro Petro text. Guardrail (2021), an extended horizontal canvas depicting the named traffic barrier, is also included.