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Edward Ruscha. Self. 1967 368

Pastel and gunpowder on paper, 14 1/2 × 22 1/2" (36.8 × 57.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky. © 2023 Edward Ruscha. Photo: Peter Butler

 Curator, Ana Torok: In the 1960s, Ed is experimenting with new ways of rendering words on paper. He had some gunpowder pellets in his studio and he realized that after soaking and evaporating them, they produced this fine powder that he could use as a drawing material, allowing him to make these flawless surfaces.

Conservator, Laura Neufeld: You have what appears to be a ribbon that forms these cursive letters that spell out the word "self" in the smoky tones of the gunpowder.

I’m Laura Neufeld. I’m Associate Paper Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art.

He was typically using paper or strips of tape that he would cut with an X-acto knife to have those sinuous curves. And then he’s applying the gunpowder over that masking with cotton balls, rags. And then when he’s done, peeling it off.

If you look very closely, you might notice little slits in the paper from where he was cutting and manipulating the stencil. As a conservator, I love to see those tiny clues about how it was made, because these works particularly can feel so magical in their appearance, as though the ribbon is moving and rippling and has just for a moment formed this word before it changes and becomes something else.