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Christie’s to Auction Ed Ruscha Surrealist Inspired Painting

An important Surrealist-inspired painting by Ed Ruscha is among the many highlights to be offered in Christie’s sale of Post War and Contemporary Art at Rockefeller Center on November 8. Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish, painted in 1965, is estimated to fetch $3 to $4 million.

Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish is a key work in a series of paintings Ruscha executed in the mid-1960s, in which his imagery calls to mind film noir or the often uncanny visions of another California artist, David Lynch. While Ruscha’s best-known compositions often evoke the vast skies, distant horizon lines and looming roadside billboards of the American West, the subject of this painting is a trophy fish, depicted at the top edge of a vast monochromatic background in much the same way as a word – such as SPAM – may be placed in Ruscha’s other paintings at the top of a similar expanse of color.

As in Magritte’s Treachery of Images series, this anonymous creature is elevated to a realm of iconic importance. Presented without context or environment, and illuminated by an undefined light source, the fish takes on almost heroic stature, arresting in its beauty and agility and capable of embodying the ultimate struggle between life and death.

The other key image in the series, the pencil, is variously broken, splintered, melted and transformed so that it ceases to seem like a functional instrument and instead becomes a symbol of the artist himself. Near the lower edge of the present painting, Ruscha transforms the pencil into a worm, used as a lure to lead the animal to its death.

The pencil-worm appears in another painting from the series, Bird Drinks Fish Dry, Fish Escapes, in which a delicate songbird has caught the worm in its beak. For the bird, the pencil-worm can be seen as nutrient, key to the creature’s survival. In Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish, a more sinister meaning is possible. What does it mean that at the top of the canvas, Ruscha’s fish had been “caught” by a traditional tool of the artist?

Image: Ed Ruscha, Strange Catch for a Fresh Water Fish, oil on canvas, 59 x 55 in. (149.9 x 139.7 cm.) Painted in 1965. Est: $3,000,000-4,000,000. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2011.

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