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Mistakes Made in Youth

The Work That Got Away

Ed Ruscha, from Royal Road Test (1967) © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian

BY Lynn Zelevansky
curator & former director of Carnegie Museum of Art

In Passions

For me, there are two works that got away. When I was very young and doing a lot of art writing in the 1980s, I would often end up at Printed Matter in New York where I would write about artists’ books using their stock—they let me use it like a research library. I remember looking frequently at Ed Ruscha’s first-edition artist books—which in those days cost maybe $9 or $12—and thinking they were wonderful.

Ed has had lots of great moments throughout his career and the 1960s were one of them. He was working in many different media at one time and using photography in a really interesting way. Those books have a wonderful, ironic quirkiness to them—they’re simply great works of art by an extremely important artist. But it never occurred to me to buy one (my husband was a book artist so we were generally in the habit of trading books). I really love Ed’s work and the books especially, so I look back on that as an opportunity sadly missed.

Hélio Oiticica, Metaesquema 286 (1958) © César and Claudio Oiticica. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co.

The other instance happened several years later. When I first started to travel to Brazil, I would see works from Hélio Oiticica’s “Metaesquema” series. They cost around $9,000, which seemed like a great deal of money at the time—and it was for me—so I never bought one of those exquisitely refined little paintings. But I often wish I had: I have a strong connection to that work, which of course would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars now. So, I likely never will own one.

The Metaesquemas are early works, and Oiticica made quite a few of them. They are small and exquisite geometric abstractions that tell you the origins of his most radical work. He never really gives up that geometry—later on, he would work in ways that disguised it, but the geometry is always there.

We just staged an exhibition dedicated to his work in at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh: when you walked through the largest installation, Eden (1969), you experienced the work as though walking through sand and leaves, but when you looked down on it from the balcony, you saw Mondrian.

The Metaesquemas are far more traditional than his work ended up being, but they’re so revealing and dynamic—you’re talking about an exquisitely talented artist, so you get that refinement in his work.

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