Sunday, October 8, 2017

Lita Barrie | "Kent Twitchell’s Magnanimous Monumental Portrait of Ed Ruscha: An Iconic Landmark of L.A.’s Historic Downtown Art District"

"Ed Ruscha Monument," 2017 / 303 S. Hewitt St., The American Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles Arts District

“Some people are just too big to fit into a canvas and hang on a gallery wall.
- Kent Twitchell

Twitchell’s monumental portraits have raised the bar in L.A. mural culture since the 1970s because he uses classical painting techniques that are rarely seen beyond museum walls. But outside the protection of a museum these public artworks were vulnerable to vandalism and sadly many of his giant portraits have been destroyed. Armed with new conservation materials (B-72 a thermoplastic resin used as an adhesive) that provide a sacrificial coating which protects artwork from vandalism and preserves it for posterity, Twitchell has created a new 30-foot portrait of Ed Ruscha’s torso. The portrait was painted in his studio on polytab - unlike his earlier portraits painted directly on the wall - after many photographic sessions with Ruscha to find a dramatic pose for the site and many drawings exploring shadows and tonal values that he translated into nuanced color constituents.

The inspiration for Twitchell’s larger-than-life portraits is his childhood experience of drive-in movie theaters in the 1940s and ‘50s which transported his imagination “in the days when big guys did the right thing and not the expedient thing.” He recreates this uplifting experience of looking up at cinematic heroes by using the city as a canvas for monumentalizing L.A. creatives who embody these ethical ideals. Over the past four decades Twitchell has painted monumental portraits of legendary L.A. artists with dramatic character faces: Ed Ruscha, Lita Albuquerque, Gary Lloyd, and Jim Morphesis. He also painted movie stars Steve McQueen and Clayton Moore, the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, Michael Jackson, and the Freeway Lady.

"Gary Lloyd Monument," 1982 / 5th and Town St., Los Angeles. Illegally painted out in 1992.

In a metropolis famous for signs and street art, Twitchell’s monumental portraits create quiet spaces for reflection on the deeper values of traditional art - amidst incessant visual noise. Twitchell’s portraits recall Aristotle’s philosophy “the aim of Art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance” because he conveys the inner strength of artists, from an artist’s point of view. Twitchell monumentalizes artists who inspire him because “they take their god-given gifts and push them to the hilt.”

His portraits remind me of an artistic counterpart to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rarely is generosity seen in the art-world on the level of musicians’ tributes during their heartfelt inductions into the Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, artist friendships were a defining characteristic of “The Cool School” in the 1960s, before there was an L.A. art-scene. This artistic comradery allowed artists like Ruscha and his legendary buddies (Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Moses) to develop their defiant attitude of “not giving a shit” which gave them artistic license to break the rules in cutting-edge artwork.

Ruscha’s pop art, epitomizes this ethos of non-conformity - before careerism turned viral in today’s tacky art-fair dominated art-world. Twitchell celebrates human capacity and honors what is honorable. Ruscha insists, “Kent is a larger-than-life artist, an ace painter, who thinks big, and his paintings are big.” With characteristic irony, Ruscha adds, “It is unusual to have a large image on a wall that is not selling anything - except maybe my fingers.”

Ruscha transports popular signs from L.A. car culture into museums and Twitchell transports classical portraiture techniques from museum culture into car culture. Twitchell memorializes Ruscha’s larger-than-life persona as a towering presence in the L.A. transportation culture that inspired his pop art. Ruscha is the quintessential L.A. artist on the global map and Twitchell’s monumental portrait mirrors his geographic aesthetic as we view an artist-hero from our car window - like the cinematic heroes Twitchell admired in drive-in movies.

This giant Ruscha portrait hovering 40 feet over the rooftops on Traction Ave. - on the side wall of the historic American Hotel, owned by Marc Verge, in the heart of the DTLA art district - signifies L.A.’s art history. The Hollywood sign that used to symbolize provincial L.A. is a commercial real estate sign (originally, “Hollywood Land” ) with no aesthetic interest except its geographic location as a focal point from many directions. Today, Chris Burden’s sui generis “Urban Light” at LACMA has become the iconic symbol of sophisticated L.A. art culture. But Twitchell’s monumental Ruscha portrait is destined to become a historic symbol of L.A.’s 21st-century transformation into an art mecca.

Twitchell’s traditional painting techniques recall classical European frescos because he uses repoussoir (French “to push back”) to create a dramatic depth of field. When I first saw this portrait driving down Traction Ave. I spontaneously began humming Beethoven’s First Four Notes from his Fifth Symphony. Just as Beethoven uses the simplest notes as his first motif to generate symphonies, Twitchell uses repoussoir to draw our attention to Ruscha’s hands and eyes - the signifiers of a visual artist.

The great American art historian Bernard Berenson began the critical dialogue on the positive effects of “space composition” in the experience of art, arguing, “Art comes into existence only when we get a sense of space not as a void, as something negative, but on the contrary, as something very positive and definite, able to confirm our consciousness of being, to heighten our sense of vitality.”

Twitchell is a master of space composition who creates spatial depth by using repoussoir to oscillate our attention between the elegant hands in the foreground and the piercing blue eyes in the background. Unlike the shallow flat frontal focus of most murals or Hollywood movie bulletin boards, which are painted in solid colors without the variation that creates dimension, Twitchell uses a complex palette of hundreds of constituent values, meticulously mixed by hand, to create subtle variations of tones and hues. This makes his portraits hyper-realistic because in real life a face has hundreds of subtle color tones.

Ruscha’s gray fox hairline is dignified above the roof, and his maroon shirt matches the hotel awnings. Twitchell is influenced by the SoCal Light and Space movement and minimalism, particularly Lita Albuquerque’s groundbreaking outdoor V-shaped artwork “Washington Monument,” which led him to work with the natural light of his sites to create different lines of shadows over his portraits during the course of the day.

"Ed Ruscha Monument," 2017 / 303 S. Hewitt St., The American Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles Arts District

Twitchell was in the Air Force and he recalls his missions flying to London where he was inspired by the different perspectives of looking down from the air and then up from the street at beautiful historic buildings reaching toward the sky. An American in London is enthralled by history and Twitchell longed for the majesty of Old-World urbanism. Twitchell also reminisces that he was part of the hippie, flower-child generation who wanted to beautify everything from cars to clothing with painted flowers. This desire to both historicize and beautify L.A. is the modus operandi for his monumental portraits.

Twitchell’s artistic purpose is diametrically opposed to graffiti vandalism which desecrates artworks and historic landmarks, destroying beauty in turf wars. Many of Twitchell’s early monumental portraits were destroyed by vandalism, careless property owners, and corporate entities. Although some of his monumental portraits were transported, Twitchell’s trials and tribulations as an active member of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles led to a two-year legal battle over his 1987 “Ed Ruscha Monument,” which was destroyed in 2006 when it was whitewashed by the owner without the artist’s consent. This public battle is as larger-than-life as his portraits because it led to a highly publicized protracted lawsuit involving twelve entities, including the Federal government, who shared the $1.1 million sum Twitchell was paid - over half of which went to legal fees and taxes.

"Ed Ruscha Monument," 1987 / Hill St., Los Angeles. Illegally painted out in 2006.

Twitchell insists that the lawsuit was an issue of “politeness” because it is a “lack of politeness and respect to destroy an artist’s work.” He cites Kenneth Clark’s thesis in Civilisation which differentiates people who create from those who destroy. For the same reason, Twitchell criticizes mural vandalism as “gangsta culture,” emphasizing the millions wasted repairing “impolite” vandalism. He has also been influential as a mentor to a younger generation of art school-trained muralists currently making their mark in L.A. Twitchell’s magnanimous monumental portraits are a major contribution to L.A. because they allow the general public to ponder and muse on the enticing beauty of classical art values seen outside museum walls.

LITA BARRIE is a Los Angeles-based, award-winning, international art critic and essayist. Born in New Zealand, she gained two post-graduate degrees in philosophy at Victoria University and continued post-graduate studies in journalism at Canterbury University. Her art criticism is published in art magazines, newspapers, university essay collections, and art gallery and museum artist monographs in New Zealand, Australia, and California. Her feminist intervention in the canon of women’s art is discussed in the Encyclopedia of New Zealand and an archive of her art criticism is held in the New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa. Website:



  1. Twitchell is a national treasure.

    1. I appreciate your kind words, Peter. I've admired your amazing oil paintings for years. Kent Twitchell

  2. Awesome article! Thank you Ms. Barrie. Congratulations to Master Painter, Kent Twitchell!

  3. Very nice article. If you'd like to see the short video on varnishing the Ed Ruscha Monument, click here:

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It was great working with you again, Scott. I am very fortunate to have you by my side with these giant public projects.
      Kent Twitchell

  4. Regarding the saving and protection of Kent's freeway murals (and others) see this page:

  5. I drove by there just today. It's a great piece and terrific article on Kent's work.

  6. It sure is when you see it driving

  7. It made my heart sing, Da Da Da Dum....from Beethoven. Then I sang the first notes from Stairway to Heaven.......