Looking for Mr Rushcha

By Anne Maria Nicholson

Looking for Mr Rusha

By Anne Maria Nicholson

My journey from ethical journalist to copyright pirate was astonishingly swift.  Before I could stop myself, I was bending the rules, photographing Ed Ruscha’s sexy yellow artwork “Desire” shining on a wall in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Blame it on the tantalising, come hither look the painting emanated across the gallery.  I spotted it right after I personally heard museum director Michael Govan expounding his own desire to remove copyright restrictions on the collection so that anyone could do what I just did.  This was part of a theme we were studying, contested spaces in relation to the arts.  Oh, and there was the small matter that Ed Ruscha had stood me up, twice.

Not that the artist would have known that.  But as a visitor to the city to take up a Getty Fellowship, part of a USC Annenberg journalism program, I arrived on a promise. Or perhaps it was always just a tease.

Leader of the program called the Engine30 ‘pop-up news project’, Sasha Anawalt, emailed the 15 chosen fellows with the exciting news that we would be visiting Ed Ruscha’s studio to meet the great man in person.

A micro-tsunami rippled seven and half thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean from California to New South Wales and to me in my Sydney office at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  I spend most of my working life interviewing artists, visual and performing.  But I have to confess, until that email, Ruscha had not entered my consciousness.  I did a straw poll of artists I know around town about the famed proponent of pop art and came up a blank.  Andy Warhol and Frank Stella, yes.  Roy Lichenstein and David Hockney, yes. But Ruscha, though a star in his native LA, hasn’t made it high on the artist popularity stakes in Australia.  Though I found out he was featured eight years ago in a small show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

“Whoop whoop!” replied one of the other Fellows enthusiastically in a reply email.  “I remember seeing him (Ruscha) briefly at a party but not being able to cut through the dense thicket of cosmetically enhanced mammaries which surrounded him,” she continued.


My imagination went into overdrive. We were encouraged to find out as much as possible about Ed so when we came into his studio our questions would be astute, not time-wasting and foolish. I found out on Wikpedia he’s 74 and you pronounce his name roo-shay. I visualised a suave seducer of the desert.

A fifteen-hour flight whisked me from Sydney to LA.  Arriving at dawn, I missed a night’s sleep but was fuelled by watching five movies in a row, a cinematic entrée to the universal centre of filmmaking.  With time on my hands, I found my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art in this city and absorbed the intriguing “Destroy the Painting” exhibition by shell-shocked artists emerging from World War Two.  In the bookshop later I found a small attractive hardback, “Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles”.  I pounced, handed over $29.95, and started poring over the pages.

I believed this book was written by the artist but discovered post-purchase, Alexandra Schwartz had evolved it from a thesis she wrote.  I am grateful for the author’s insightful descriptions, her own and others, that included ‘the stud’, ‘the ultimate LA artist’, ‘the essence of California cool’, ‘known for a suntanned life of palmy pleasure involving actresses and surfboards’.

Whoop, whoop, indeed!  The artworks in the book were instantly familiar.  Though whether I had previously seen those exact images, I’m not sure.  But I was reading up, and, excitement mounting, ready for the encounter.

The weather has a lot to answer for, ruining plans, and sometimes people’s lives.  As all the Fellows assembled in LA, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in New York.  It also wrecked our visit to Ed Ruscha’s studio.   He was due in New York for the opening of a new exhibition of his work.  Flooding postponed it to the day of our appointment.

But the tease continued.  Next day, an alternative encounter was dangled in front of us.  Ed Ruscha would meet us at LACMA and personally guide us around his exhibition called “Standard”, a hundred of his works made over six decades.   The mammary observation flashed into my mind and I surreptitiously adjusted my bra.

Shortly before we left to see the show, came the announcement. Ed Rucsha would NOT be there.  He passed on his apologies.  We boarded the bus to the museum and I didn’t bother adjusting my bra.

Michael Govan is warm, dapper in the way of an advertising executive, nudging one side or other of 50, and, according to the LA Times, earns around $1 million a year.  Since 2006, he has led the massive not-for-profit arts museum and aspires, after a massive expansion, to make it the focus for the city’s much-desired town square.    (See ‘Does LACMA have what it takes to be Los Angeles’ Town Square?’)  Standing with him alongside an extraordinary 2000-piece sculptural installation of white logs, Govan told us the artist of this piece, Walter de Maria, was formerly the drummer for Deborah Harry.  LACMA’s that sort of place.  Famous names fall like confetti.  Current exhibitions include a retrospective of the groundbreaking films of Stanley Kubrick and bold photos by Robert Mapplethorpe of black men doing things with very long penises.  Big names will proliferate with plans for a major new gallery focussing on the world of movies.

We pushed Govan on the topic of copyright.  He doesn’t like it and would, if he could, remove it so visitors could photograph anything they like.  But for now, images less than 70 years old, are often copyrighted by the artists or their estates.

Talk over, we moved towards Ed Ruscha’s exhibition, boarding a lift higher than an elephant’s eye. (I always wanted to use that simile somewhere and it has taken until now to find just the right sentence.)  We entered a large modern gallery bedecked with the quintessential LA images that have made Ruscha’s reputation. I couldn’t help myself and adjusted my bra on the way in. I looked around in case the Ed Ruscha of my imagination was lurking…tanned, stretched skin, wearing designer jeans.  Instead there was a video of him in the 70s looking like actor Elliott Gould in his “Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice’ role, long, tousled hair, high waisted belted jeans and cotton shirt.

Then came my turning point.  I saw it. The painting, “Desire”, invited me over.  My camera phone was out and I snapped it.  Another work glowed opposite, temptingly.  It was called “Sin”, a view of the sky with the letters of the word spread through the clouds.  Irresistible!  I snapped again.

These days, sin is such an old-fashioned word.  But it had great currency in my childhood and I believe also in Ruscha’s, reflecting a Catholic upbringing.  Sinning was something we were warned about.  It could lead to eternal damnation.  Is breaching copyright a sin?  Out of the big three, original, venal and mortal, surely stealing an image could only be in the easily forgivable venal category.  I snapped one more time and imagined how I could appropriate this image further. Why not?  My journalism is constantly appropriated.  It’s all over the internet and I stumble on it all the time.  Recently I found a story I reported in Vietnam on the impact of Agent Orange, a tough, gruelling assignment.  More than 380,000 people had viewed it.  Now if I could have one dollar, even fifty cents, for each of those hits!

They tell me in Los Angeles you can get anything done, anywhere, any time.  Like printing a t-shirt on a public holiday.  Veterans Day proved no obstacle.   A man called Ted assured me he could print a t-shirt in an hour for only $12 with any photo I wanted to email him. As I recalled the many stories I have reported on piracy of intellectual property, I downloaded my photos of ‘Desire’ and ‘Sin’ and sent then to Ted. He delivered the t-shirts to me back at the scene of the crime, LACMA.  I showed them to people passing the museum.  Their reaction was interesting.  They liked the idea, very much, and would have happily bought one.  But they weren’t for sale.  This was merely a journalistic experiment.

As for the artist, I never did meet Ed Ruscha.  Maybe next time.  Unlike sin, heaven will have to wait.


Sign at entry to ED Rusha’s exhibition at LACMA

Ruscha’s “Sin” artwork – photo taken by

Anne Maria Nicholson on wall of Museum.

T-shirt ‘Sin’ – made from the photo.

Photographed at LACMA


Ed Rusha’s “Desire” artwork photographed by

Anne Maria Nicholson on wall of LACMA.

Photographed unofficially at LACMA


T-shirt of ‘Desire’ made from the photo.

Book about LA artist Ed Ruscha


This video is a playful look at the issue of copyright.  Following a statement by LACMA director Michael Govan that he would like to see all copyright restrictions removed from the museum, Anne Maria Nicholson tested the proposition by photographing artworks, having them made into t-shirts and seeking reaction from passersby at the Museum.

Testing Copyright with t-shirts




Director of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Michael Govan, Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

wants to relax copyright restrictions on the collection.


The new director of the Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, favours relaxing copyright too but says the Museum is tied to strict contract rules imposed by artists and/or their estates.

YET…. I was able to photograph freely beautiful paintings in the Getty because they were done more than 70 years ago.

SUCH AS….the jewel in the Getty Crown, Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises

AND …Monet’s spectacular Haystacks.



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