Ed Ruscha’s US$52.5m ‘Hurting the Word Radio #2’ Set New Auction Record

An important early example of Ed Ruscha’s ‘text’ painting led Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 13 November after it was sold for US$52.48m, setting a new auction record for the American artist.

Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 was sold for a new auction record for the artist

Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s Global President, put the hammer down at the record-setting price

The painting was sold to the telephone bidder of Marc Porter

Created by Ed Ruscha in 1964, Hurting the Word Radio #2 measures 150 x 140.3cm. Across a vast expanse of vibrant sky blue, the word “RADIO” is laid out in a beguiling juxtaposition of static and surreal sunshine yellow painted letters, whereas trompe l’oeil c-clamps squeeze the “R” and tug on the “O. It is an iconic example of Ed Ruscha’s c-clamp paintings.

Hurting the Word Radio #2 was first exhibited at Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery in 1964, a venue that had swiftly established itself as a hotbed of Pop art. It was then acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, Joan and Jack Quinn, in the early 1970s. The painting has been kept in the same collection since then.

The auctioneer started the bidding at US$22m and knocked down at US$46m, selling the work for US$52.48m after premium to the telephone client of Marc Porter, Chairman, Americas. It broke the last record set by the artist’s Smash which was sold for US$30.4m at Christie’s New York in 2014. The record was held for five years until it was broken by Hurting the Word Radio #2.

Ed Ruscha

Smash held the previous auction record for Ruscha

Based in Los Angeles, Ruscha pretty much invented an entire genre: paintings consisting solely of text. Sometimes these came in the form of single words; at other times they were phrases. Ruscha first began to include text in his paintings in the late 1950s. He began to use graphics to explore painting’s duality as both object and illusion, using words in his paintings as ‘visual constructs’.

At the start of his artistic career, Ed Ruscha called himself an “abstract artist ... who deals with subject matter.” Abandoning academic connotations that came to be associated with Abstract Expressionism, he looked instead to tropes of advertising and brought words—as form, symbol, and material—to the forefront of painting.

In 1956, Ruscha moved from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, where he attended the Chouinard Art Institute. During his time in art school, he had been painting in the manner of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Struck by Johns’s use of readymade images as supports for abstraction, Ruscha began to consider how he could employ graphics in order to expose painting’s dual-identity as both object and illusion.

Ruscha’s first word-painting, E.Ruscha (1959)

Ruscha’s Jet Baby (2011)

In 1959, Ruscha created his first word-painting, E.Ruscha. He intentionally miscalculated the space it would take to write his first initial and surname on the canvas, inserting the last two letters, HA, above and indicating the “error” with an arrow.

Hurting the Word Radio #2 is an important early example of the artist’s revolutionary Text paintings—a body of work that would establish Ruscha as one of the most innovative and influential painters of the 1960s.

Realising the second highest price of the sale was Sur la Terrasse, David Hockney’s life-size scale painting of the great love of his life, which was sold for US$29.5m.

David Hockney’s Sur la Terrasse

David Hockney (right) and Peter Schlesinger

In 1966, Hockney met the eighteen-year-old Schlesinger, who was a student in one of Hockney’s advanced art classes at UCLA. Schlesinger was the great love of Hockney’s life as well as a favourite model for the next five year.

The most famous Hockney’s painting of Schlesinger is probably the artist’s record-breaking painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which was sold for US$90.3m at Christie’s New York last November. The painting set the then record for the most valuable work of art by a living artist ever sold at auction. The record was later replaced by Jeff Koons’s Rabbit that was sold for US$91.07m this May.

Sur la Terrasse was based on a series of photographs taken on the balcony of the couple’s room at the Hôtel de la Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco, where they had spent two weeks in Feb. 1971. Depicted in the painting is Schlesinger with his back facing the artist, as he looks into the wilds that lie beyond their hotel terrace in Marrakesh.

Eileen and I.M. Pei

Franz Kline’s Untitled was sold for US$3.375m

Barnett Newman’s Untitled 4, 1950 was sold for US$10.49m

Four paintings from the collection of Eileen and I.M. Pei were offered in this sale, including works by abstract expressionist artists Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Kline’s Untitled from 1955 was sold for US$3.375m and de Kooning’s Brown and White was sold for US$1.935m. Untitled 4 (1950), oil on canvas by Barnett Newman was sold for US$10.49m whereas Untitled 5 (1950) was bought-in.

Top three lots and other highlights from the I.M. Pei collection

Ed Ruscha. Hurting the Word Radio #2
Lot no: 6B
Size: 59 x 55 ¼ in. (150 x 140.3 cm.)
Painted in 1964.

  • Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, early 1970s

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Price realised: US$52,485,000

David Hockney. Sur la Terrasse
Lot no: 9B
Size: 274.5 x 213.5cm
Painted in 1971

  • André Emmerich Gallery, New York
  • Lewis M. Kaplan, London, circa 1973
  • Private collection, Lugano, circa 1975
  • Private collection, Europe, circa 1976
  • By descent from the above to the present owner

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 45,000,000
Price realised: US$29,501,250

Gerhard Richter. Vogelfluglinie
Lot no: 12B
Size: 178.5 x 178.5cm
Painted in 1967

  • Collection Hans Reichelt, Cologne, acquired directly from the artist
  • Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London / Galerie Schönewald & Beuse, Krefeld
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000

Estimate: US$18,000,000 - 25,000,000
Price realised: US$20,478,000

Barnett Newman. Untitled 4, 1950
Lot no: 28B
Size: 188 x 15.2cm
Painted in 1950

  • Estate of the artist
  • Collection Annalee Newman, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the late owners, 1976

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 9,000,000
Price realised: US$10,490,000

Franz Kline. Untitled
Lot no: 29B
Size: 106.6 x 83.8cm
Painted in 1955

  • Dr. Jack Greenbaum, New York
  • Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1958
  • Acquired from the above by the late owners, circa 1958

Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Price realised: US$3,375,000

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Brown and White
Lot no: 31B
Size: 63.5 x 94cm
Painted in 1947

  • Dr. Jack Greenbaum, New York
  • Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1958
  • Acquired from the above by the late owners, circa 1958

Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 1,500,000
Price realised: US$1,935,000

Barnett Newman. Untitled 5, 1950
Lot no: 30B
Size: 195.6 x 8.9cm
Painted in 1950

  • Estate of the artist
  • Collection Annalee Newman, New York
  • Gifted from the above to the late owners, 1975

Estimate: US$4,000,000 - 6,000,000

Auction summary
Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Sale date: 13 November 2019
Lot offered: 55
Sold: 48
Unsold: 7
Sold by lots: 87%
Sale total: US$325,259,750