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With a substantial donation, legendary artist and Oklahoman Ed Ruscha and his wife Danna give from their personal art collection to the state he once called home.
By Leighona Bernstein
Published January/February 2017
No Man’s Land is a statement on home, but it also alludes to what lies in the unknown. Much of Ruscha’s work suggests travel by car—an accessible way to conquer the unfamiliar—and it shows in a silhouetted sign post collection and the brightly colored speedometers of 35, Clown Speedo, and Tumbling Snowman Speedo, all of which were part of his recent donation.
“Ed began hitchhiking early on in his life,” White says. “A lot of that was because in Oklahoma, you don’t really have much of a choice. We are very much a car culture.”
Even before graduating from the Chouinard Art Institute—now known as the California Institute of the Arts—and some time in Europe, Ruscha became aware of cultural touchstones, like street signs and gas stations, that always seemed unworthy of notice.
“Seeing gas stations out on the open road was something else,” Ruscha says. “The loneliness of each one of them, the isolation. When you see them in a city, they are smothered by other businesses. They’re part of a dense fabric. Out there, they were these islands on a flat plain. They took on a different personality.”
These observations led Ruscha to publish one of his best-known collections, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, in 1963. To celebrate the museum’s acquisition of No Man’s Land, a group of University of Oklahoma students embarked on a study trip they called “Road to Ruscha” based on that collection.
In 2013, 20 University of Oklahoma students road-tripped to Los Angeles, where they met with Ed Ruscha, standing, fourth from left, in his studio.
“They traced the route from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, following Ed’s trajectory through the gasoline stations,” says White. “They wound up meeting with Ed in L.A.”
And while the works in Twentysix Gasoline Stations speak of an America that was, one of the works in the artist’s donation, Column with Speed Lines, has a prominent place in the nation’s recent history.
“President Obama has given prints of this piece as a gift to two other heads of state,” White says. “It is a print that actually has a lot of resonance, and I think the fact that Obama is interested in contemporary art is notable.”
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Get There: The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. 555 Elm Avenue in Norman, (405) 325-3272 or ou.edu/fjjma.