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Words speak volumes in Ruscha exhibit

Nearly 4 decades of pop artist’s work on display

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That's all — The.

Artist Ed Ruscha has always liked to paint words. "The" is the word he chose for a painting he did last year, boldly outlined in white against what looks like an enlarged photo of a snow-covered peak. Actually it's an acrylic painting, 5 feet wide and 4 inches taller.

A private collector in London has lent the picture, labeled "The Mountain," to the Hirshhorn Museum for an exhibit spanning 38 years of Ruscha's work: more than 80 paintings, drawings and books of photos. It opens Thursday for 2 1/2 months before going to four other major museums in the United States and Britain.

Many of Ruscha's works consist of single words or a group of words, painted in various styles. The first picture in the elegant 210-page catalog that goes with the show dates from 1961. It depicts the word "Boss" in black capitals on a dark brown background.

Later he did many others, including "City," "Very Angry People" and "Vanishing Cream." Critics see many things in them not immediately apparent to the ordinary viewer: "Very Angry People" is done in cherry stain, which may indicate blood. The viewer has to look hard to make out the words "Vanishing Cream" against the yellow background.

His books include "Thirtyfour Parking Lots" and "Various Small Fires and Milk." Ruscha (pronounced Roo-SHAY), 62, is based in Los Angeles and considered among the important pop artists on the West Coast. He offered no theories on what his work means.

"I don't pretend to understand myself," he said.

Born in Omaha and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha drove to Los Angeles at the age of 19, much impressed by the road signs on the empty land along the way.

"Ed Ruscha" will be at the Hirshhorn through Sept. 17. Admission is free.