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b. 1972, Germany

Sterling Ruby Biography

Born in 1972 on an American Air Force base in Bitburg, Germany to a Dutch mother and American father, artist Sterling Ruby was always destined to have a unique worldview. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and New Freedom, Pennsylvania, while also spending time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The latter, known for its Amish population, proved influential in informing a craft aesthetic in his practice. From those beginnings, today he stands as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists.

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Ruby attended The Pennsylvania School of Art & Design from 1992 to 1996. However, it was after graduating in 2002 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that Ruby began to develop a dense, layered practice and form a unique visual repertoire. Having worked for the Video Data Bank at the institute, he came into contact with the writings of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida and studied the early videos of artists Paul McCarthy and Bruce Nauman. Another influence is Mike Kelley, whom Ruby worked for as a teaching assistant after completing the Master of Fine Arts program at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (where he moved in 2003). Today, Ruby works from a vast studio compound in Los Angeles, creating commissioned projects of mammoth proportions for international museums and gallery exhibitions with his studio team. His work is held in prestigious public collections such as the Tate Modern, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; MoMA, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; MoCA, North Miami; MCA Chicago; MoCA, Los Angeles; LACMA, Los Angeles; and SFMOMA, San Francisco. 

Ruby represents a generation of Los Angeles-based artists (along with figures like Wade Guyton, Nate Lowman and Jason Yates) who have set out to examine the legacy of Minimalism and its aftereffects via painting. Unpacking the legacies of predecessors such as Mark Rothko and Morris Louis, these artists have confronted the opposition between abstraction and formalism, asserting a refusal of these parameters. Painting however, is but one element in Ruby’s creative artillery.

Early, lesser-known presentations of his work at Foxy Production in New York signified the artist’s interest in spatial intervention. His 2007 solo show Superoverpass featured a commanding, singular, white, bridge-shaped sculpture that filled the main gallery space. Viewers were forced to negotiate around and under it, drawing attention to its unexpectedly defaced surface, which was scrawled with graffiti. In this way, Ruby assaulted the foundation and expectations surrounding Minimalist traditions. In 2009, his Foxy Production show The Masturbators included a multi-channel video installation focused on the male figure, using porn stars in provocative sexual acts to investigate the constructions of masculinity.

To categorise his diverse, ever-evolving practice to a specific medium, style or topic would be to misrepresent it. At its centre, his accumulative oeuvre to date has aimed to overwhelm and engage his audiences in a variety of means via objects, surfaces and colour. Traversing one media and technique to the next, he is an artist interested in extremes and thrives on the unpredictable. Today, he is most recognised for his eclectic output ranging from poured polyurethane sculptures and drawings made with nail polish, to richly glazed ceramics, large-scale spray-painted canvases, textiles, collages and videos. As the artist himself states, ‘I think of it [my practice] in terms of space, depth, punctuation of colour’. 

In addition to his investigation of materiality, Ruby’s practice demonstrates a desire for philosophical engagement. Aiming to analyse physical and mental boundaries and their abilities to divide, protect and isolate, Ruby’s output is characterised by an attention-grabbing, jarring reflection of reality. Through such polymorphous creativity and indistinction, a world of social stereotypes and visual tropes are enlivened, synthesising dual readings and meaning. Recurring references to national identity and power structures arise emerge in the ambiguity of his familiar yet unfamiliar forms. 

Perhaps Supermax, his 2008 exhibition at MoCA, Los Angeles best exemplified Ruby’s hybrid approaches for audiences. The title of the show referred to the special units of American maximum security prisons where prisoners in solitary confinement are on lockdown for up to 23 hours a day. At once irresistible and grotesque, decorative and critical, his sculptural intervention included enormous phallic polyurethane stalagmites exuding raw expressionistic force. These luscious oozing towers, oscillating between frozen and morph-like states, evinced notions of transience and transference. Juxtaposed against abstract aerosol paintings, collages, soft sculptures in the form of blood or teardrops, and geometric sculptures made of brass, this collective ensemble of media enlivened physical and psychological confinement. Supermax was an important departure from the artist’s earlier engagement with Minimalist art. Such interdisciplinary integration has since become the hallmark of his career.

His ongoing interest in repurposing found materials sustains Ruby’s anarchistic desire to undermine power systems. In his 2010 show 2TRAPS at Pace Gallery in New York, Ruby’s repurposed LA Police Department bus (once used to ferry inmates to and from Californian prisons) was outfitted with solitary confinement cages, speakers and exterior security doors. For a 2016 exhibition at Gagosian in Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, Ruby deployed parts of deaccessioned American submarines, giving further weight to the association of such remnants. These reanimated, violently deconstructed fragments—think hulking engine parts, steel pipes and support structures—simultaneously resembled balanced modernist sculptures. Here, the high and low were successfully blended.

Ruby’s recurring interest in the American flag and its constellation of stars also has potent connotations. Symbolising a ‘supernation’, the stars also represent the depths of the unknown, of outer space, astrology, and ancient mythology. In 2014, Ruby explored a nationalistic thread throughout his work in his Flags series, consisting of large-scale wall hangings resembling the American flag. In 2012, Ruby presented the exhibition Soft Work at the Geneva Contemporary Art Center, which later travelled to FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in Reims, France; Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome. The exhibition centred around soft sculpture made from colourful fabric. Various cushioned forms were sewn together and arranged akin to a children’s playroom. However, upon closer inspection, recognisable patterns including the American flag, menacing vampire-like fangs with blood droplets and intestinal-like sausages gave the forms a disconcerting, aggressive edge.

Objects of comfort were also transformed in Ruby’s investigation into the traditions of quilt-making with his bleach collage pieces created in 2011. Repurposing fabric scraps and denim into patchwork collages, these works recall the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Mike Kelley, as well as Ruby’s interest in disciplines such as craft and sewing, not considered part of the contemporary art practice.

As Ruby continues to develop his ambitious artistic output, so too, he consistently challenges the perception of his practice. Surprising audiences with each project, today the question to pose is not, ‘who is Sterling Ruby?’, but rather, what will he do next?

Rachael Vance | Ocula | 2017

Exhibition view: Sterling Ruby, THAT MY NAILS CAN REACH UNTO THINE EYES, Gagosian, Athens (13 May–31 July 2021). © Sterling Ruby. Courtesy Gagosian. Photo: Boris Kirpotin. 

Sterling Ruby Featured Artworks

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BC (4806) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyBC (4806), 2014Fabric, glue, paint and dyed canvas on panel
320 x 243.8 x 5.1 cm
Xavier Hufkens Contact Gallery
DRFTRS (6798) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyDRFTRS (6798), 2018Collage, paint and glue on cardboard
94 x 23.8 cm
Xavier Hufkens Contact Gallery
DRFTRS(5033) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyDRFTRS(5033), 2014Collage and paint on paper
36.2 x 28.6 cm
Taka Ishii Gallery Contact Gallery
CAUDEX by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyCAUDEX, 2017Ceramic
171.2 x 45.1 x 43.8 cm
Taka Ishii Gallery Contact Gallery
Stove 4 by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyStove 4, 2013Stainless steel coated with high temperature paint
183.5 x 35.6 x 37.5 cm
Taka Ishii Gallery Contact Gallery
Vampire 109 by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyVampire 109, 2013Fabric fibre fill
213.4 x 114.3 x 10.2 cm
Sprüth Magers Enquire
SKULL (6385) by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubySKULL (6385), 2018Resin, urethane, fibreglass, aluminium, and yarn
94 x 76.2 x 137.2 cm
Sprüth Magers Enquire
TWINS by Sterling Ruby contemporary artwork
Sterling RubyTWINS, 2018Resin, urethane, foam, fabric and yarn
Sprüth Magers Enquire

Sterling Ruby Current & Recent Exhibitions

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Contemporary art exhibition, Sterling Ruby, THAT MY NAILS CAN REACH UNTO THINE EYES at Gagosian, Athens
Open Now
13 May–31 July 2021 Sterling Ruby THAT MY NAILS CAN REACH UNTO THINE EYES GagosianAthens
Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, Hong Kong Exchange at Gagosian, Hong Kong
28 January–30 April 2021 Group Exhibition Hong Kong Exchange GagosianHong Kong
Contemporary art exhibition, Group Exhibition, Group Exhibition at Taka Ishii Gallery, Complex665, Tokyo
27 June–25 July 2020 Group Exhibition Taka Ishii GalleryComplex665, Tokyo

Sterling Ruby Represented By

Gagosian contemporary art gallery in 980 Madison Avenue, New York, USA Gagosian New York, Athens, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Le Bourget, Geneva, Basel, Rome, Hong Kong
Kukje Gallery contemporary art gallery in Seoul, South Korea Kukje Gallery Busan, Seoul
Sprüth Magers contemporary art gallery in Berlin, Germany Sprüth Magers Berlin, London, Los Angeles
Taka Ishii Gallery contemporary art gallery in Complex665, Tokyo, Japan Taka Ishii Gallery Tokyo, Hong Kong
Xavier Hufkens contemporary art gallery in St-Georges, Brussels, Belgium Xavier Hufkens Brussels

Sterling Ruby In Ocula Magazine

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Frieze Week Lowdown: London Shows to See Ocula Feature Frieze Week Lowdown: London Shows to See By Tessa Moldan, London

London's museums and galleries are gearing up for an October of art fairs.

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The West Bund Art & Design fair seals Shanghai art's gentrification Ocula Feature The West Bund Art & Design fair seals Shanghai art's gentrification By Sam Gaskin, Shanghai

As the strength of global galleries attending has increased, the proportion of participating galleries with a base in Shanghai has decreased.

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Taipei Biennial: Planet Earth Defence Command Ocula Feature Taipei Biennial: Planet Earth Defence Command By Sam Gaskin, Taipei

Like the Earth itself, the debate about what to call the current geological epoch is getting heated. For 11,700 years, since the end of the last ice age, we’ve been living in the Holocene, the temperate climate in which human civilization has thrived. But Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen argues that now mankind has become the most...

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Gwangju Biennale: Burning Down The House Ocula Feature Gwangju Biennale: Burning Down The House By Jeesun Park, Gwangju

Gwangju is only the sixth largest city in Korea but its history has become well-known to art audiences around the world through its provocative biennale, now a fixed event in the international art calendar. The Gwangju Biennale began twenty years ago specifically to commemorate the historic fight for democracy that took place in the city, known...

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Sterling Ruby In Related Press

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STERLING RUBY IN VIENNA Related Press STERLING RUBY IN VIENNA 15 November 2019, Gagosian Quarterly

Ruby gives shape and body to images that are otherwise virtual and in any case always mediated by electronic devices. The corporal and tactile theme permeates another series of works, crucial in the corpus of work by Ruby, the famous soft sculptures. Giant anthropomorphic figures of which Laying Figure (2013) is possibly the most emblematic...

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Sterling Ruby: Disjointed Monuments to Nothing Related Press Sterling Ruby: Disjointed Monuments to Nothing 30 October 2019, Gagosian Quarterly

If the laminate pedestals reveal scattered signs of vandalism (such as scratches, scuff marks, inscriptions, and traces of spray paint), the urethane blocks appear almost lyrically pictorial, innervated as they are with colour dyes that seem to have been dripped into the synthetic material and captured permanently mid-descent. If from a visual and...

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Sterling Ruby’s Mixed Media Related Press Sterling Ruby’s Mixed Media 2 September 2019, The New Yorker

Vernon, California, is a small city near Los Angeles with a population of a hundred and twelve. Every day, fifty thousand people commute to work there, in its eighteen hundred factories, warehouses, and small businesses. Light fixtures, Farmer John hot dogs, industrial chemicals, Tapatío hot sauce, and stuffed toys are made in Vernon. One of the...

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Sterling Ruby: Bloody Pots Related Press Sterling Ruby: Bloody Pots 1 November 2018, Gagosian Quarterly

The bloodiest of Sterling Ruby 's pots is not ceramic but a teacup of Styrofoam, urethane, wood, and spray paint. Monolithic, The Cup (2013) spilleth over with so much blood that one cannot believe the donor to this event will survive. And given the meanings that have been ascribed to this sculpture, that donor is mankind. Here, the character...

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Sterling Ruby In Video & Audio

Sterling Ruby in conversation with Anders Kold Related Video & Audio Sterling Ruby in conversation with Anders Kold 6 November 2018, Xavier Hufkens

Ruby's DRFTRS and WIDW series are two ever-evolving bodies of work that bear witness to the artist's intense relationship with materials and his interest in issues such as sociocultural evolution, popular culture, and violence.

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Sterling Ruby in conversation with Dirk Snauwaert Related Video & Audio Sterling Ruby in conversation with Dirk Snauwaert 7 September 2015, Xavier Hufkens

Sterling Ruby talks with Dirk Snauwaert, artistic director of WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, on the occasion of his exhibitions ECLPSE and SCALES at Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.

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