Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records.
What you see: Double Standard, a 1969 screenprint by Ed Ruscha. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) set a record for a print by the artist in October 2014 when it sold for $206,250 against an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.
Who is Ed Ruscha? Edward Joseph Ruscha IV is an Oklahoma-born artist who embraced California and became part of the Pop Art movement. He works in several media–printmaking is just one of them. He might be most famous for his paintings that showcase single words or phrases. He is 79.
Where does Double Standard fit in the pantheon of Ed Ruscha images? “The Standard series is one of his most iconic. Double Standard is a little tongue-in-cheek, as is a lot of his work,” says Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA. “He infuses humor and irony into a lot of his work, along with pop art sensibilities.”
Is this a depiction of a real Standard gas station, or is it an invention of Ruscha? “I don’t think this is an actual representation. I think it’s a combination of things,” he says. “In 1961, Dennis Hopper took a picture of a station with two Standard signs, like this [print has]. Ruscha would certainly have been aware of that. It’s very similar to Ruscha’s imagery. I can only assume Ed used that as part of his process as well as the stations he saw on his Kerouac-like travels from Oklahoma to get to Los Angeles.”
The print is signed by Ed Ruscha and also Mason Williams. Who is Williams, and what was his contribution to Double Standard? Williams is a musician, writer, and comedian who worked on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Saturday Night Live. He’s a friend of Ruscha’s, who goes back to his Oklahoma days. “A lot of the humor and wry snarky sensibility had to do with Mason,” he says. “Mason’s ability to satirize a subject is fairly important to this. It was more conceptual. It was more about bringing to Ed’s attention that Standard was too serious, and Double Standard took some air out of it.”
What sort of condition is this Double Standard print in? “It’s in pristine condition, which is why it sold for so much,” he says. “I met an original owner who said they paid $180 for it. When you pay $180 for a print, you don’t go to dramatic lengths to frame it and preserve it and prevent archival issues in the future. The fact that these were not that expensive when new led a lot to be ultimately mishandled in ways that we can identify. It’s clear that this example was treated as a work of art from the beginning. The rarity of a survivor in this condition drove a lot of the interest.”
Double Standard was printed in an edition of 40. How often does it come up at auction? “Mine was the last one, in 2014. About 18 months before that, another sold for $182,500. Before that, one sold in 2008,” he says.
Why did this Double Standard do so well? Was it purely its exceptional condition? “The condition drove a lot of the aggression, but there are a lot of external factors that you can never really quantify,” Loughrey says. “Dennis Hopper came to one of my auctions and bought a piece on his birthday. He paid four or five times what was expected. I said, ‘I can’t believe you paid so much for it.’ Hopper said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s my birthday, and I want it.”
What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer. It was very exciting,” he says. “The room was aware and burst into applause. They knew the record for his [print] work could be broken. The gasps and sighs of relief are expected and fun in the moment. The [winning] bidder was in the room. You could see determination from the bidder–‘This opportunity is not going to get away from me.’
How long did the auction of the lot last? “When you start at $50,000 and end at $206,000, it does take a while,” he says. “I don’t remember how long it took. I remember the person on the phone [the eventual underbidder] took time. I saw the anxiety on the face of the person in the room–‘Sell it already!’ It did take a while, but it was probably less than five minutes. That is an extremely long time on an auction block. I usually sell a lot every 45 seconds. Five minutes is an eternity when you’re up there.”
How long do you think this record will last? “If someone came along with another [Double Standard print] that’s as good, or a Standard print that’s as good–a Standard print with a bright red sky–it’s ready to fall. I have people who are interested [in both]. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes over $250,000,” he says, adding, “Consider the perspective of the seller. He agreed to let me sell it for as little as $50,000. If the universe didn’t align, it could have sold as low as $50,000. He was a bit nervous, but he took a leap of faith. He knew the venue [LAMA] attracted Ed Ruscha people more than any other venue. This is an artist we focus on and specialize in.”
Do you think another print will come to market soon? “Believe me, I’m on it,” he says. “I’m conversing with original owners who’ve had it [a Double Standard print] since 1970. I’ve tried to cajole them, but they’re not interested in selling.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
Ed Ruscha maintains an online catalogue raisonné.