Ruscha was born into a Roman Catholic family in Omaha, Nebraska, with a younger sister, Shelby, and a younger brother, Paul. Edward Ruscha, Sr. was an auditor for Hartford Insurance Company. Ruscha’s mother was supportive of her son’s early signs of artistic skill and interests. Young Ruscha was attracted to cartooning and would sustain this interest throughout his adolescent years. Though born in Nebraska, Ruscha lived some 15 years in Oklahoma City before moving to Los Angeles in 1956 where he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now known as the California Institute of the Arts) under Robert Irwin and Emerson Woelffer from 1956 through 1960. While at Chouinard, Ruscha edited and produced the journal “Orb” (1959–60) together with Joe Goode, Emerson Woelffer, Stephan von Huene, Jerry McMillan, and others. Ruscha spent much of the summer of 1961 traveling through Europe. After graduation, Ruscha took a job as a layout artist for the Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency in Los Angeles. He was married to Danna Knego from 1967 to 1972. They remarried in 1987.
By the early 1960s he was well known for his paintings, collages, and photographs, and for his association with the Ferus Gallery group, which also included artists Robert Irwin, John Altoon, John McCracken, Larry Bell, Ken Price, and Edward Kienholz. He worked as layout designer for Artforum magazine under the pseudonym “Eddie Russia” from 1965 to 1969 and taught at UCLA as a visiting professor for printing and drawing in 1969.
Although Ruscha denies this in interviews, the vernacular of Los Angeles and Southern California landscapes contributes to the themes and styles central to much of Ruscha’s paintings, drawings, and books. Examples of this include the book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), a book of continuous photographs of a two and one half mile stretch of the 24 mile boulevard. Also, paintings like Standard Station, Large Trademark, and Hollywood exemplify Ruscha’s kinship with the Southern California visual language. Two of these paintings, Standard and Large Trademark were emulated out of car parts in 2008 by Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz as a commentary on Los Angeles and its car culture.
His work is also strongly influenced by the Hollywood film industry: the mountain in his Mountain Series is a play on the Paramount Pictures logo; Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962) depicts the 20th Century Fox logo, while the dimensions of this work are reminiscent of a movie screen; in his painting The End (1991) these two words, which comprised the final shot in all black-and-white films, are surrounded by scratches and streaks reminiscent of damaged celluloid.
In 1962 Ruscha’s work was included, along with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Dowd, Phillip Hefferton, Joe Goode, Jim Dine, and Wayne Thiebaud, in the historically important and ground-breaking “New Painting of Common Objects,” curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum. This exhibition is historically considered one of the first “Pop Art” exhibitions in America.
Ruscha had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In 1966, Ruscha was included in “Los Angeles Now” at the Robert Fraser Gallery in London, his first European exhibition. In 1968, he had his first European solo show in Cologne, Germany, at Galerie Rudolf Zwirner. Ruscha joined the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1970 and had his first solo exhibition there in 1973.
In 1970 Ruscha represented the United States at the Venice Biennale as part of a survey of American printmaking with an on-site workshop. He constructed Chocolate Room, a visual and sensory experience where the visitor saw 360 pieces of paper permeated with chocolate and hung like shingles on the gallery walls. The pavilion in Venice smelled like a chocolate factory. For the Venice Biennale in 1976, Ruscha creates an installation entitled Vanishing Cream, consisting of letters written in Vaseline petroleum jelly on a black wall. Ruscha was the United States representative at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, showing the site- and occasion-specific a painting cycle Course of Empire.
He has been the subject of numerous museum retrospectives, beginning in 1983 with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1989, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2000, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in 2001. In 2004, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney mounted a selection of the artist’s photographs, paintings, books and drawings that traveled to the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome and to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
In 1998, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles organized a retrospective solely devoted to Ruscha’s works on paper. In 2004, The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited a second Ruscha drawing retrospective, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and then to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.