by Anna Shave
When words occur in visual art, do they lose a sense of their textual quality, and become objects in themselves? This question is interesting to consider in terms of the American artist Ed Ruscha, born in 1937 and associated with the Pop Art movement. Ruscha is widely recognized for his paintings that depict words and phrases, usually in his signature white “Boy Scout utility modern” font, against backgrounds ranging from standalone block colours, to mixed colours evoking natural scenes, to stripped-back landscapes.
In many of Ruscha’s works from the late 1950s and 1960s, single words are the main focus, chosen not necessarily because of what they can mean, but for their visual qualities. In the Artspace article Words, Thoughts, and Phrases: Ed Ruscha’s Literary Pop Paintings, it is noted that Ruscha’s interests lie in the “horizontality” of words, and thus this visual element of text feeds into his “investigation into landscape”. Moreover, he claims that the words in his paintings are “almost not words—they are objects that become words”. OOF (1962) can definitely be viewed in this light: the gallery label from the MoMA explains how the word is “suspended somewhere between image and language”, suggesting a possibility for words to become more than their textual form when incorporated in visual art.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ruscha started to use combinations of words in his pieces, making pithy yet elusive phrases the subject and thus adding another dimension of meaning to his juxtapositions of capitalised words against simple backgrounds. For example, in PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS (1976), the phrases “some pretty eyes” and “some electric bills” are at odds with one another, the former evoking beauty and possible human connection and the latter detailing an unwanted, inescapable chore. While Ruscha did not view his earlier employments of single words “as literature, because [they] didn’t complete thoughts”, his later pieces incorporating full phrases have an almost poetic ring to them.
Alongside his textual paintings, Ruscha produced a series of photographic books that share a similar sense of elusiveness; his painting ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS (1976) can thus be viewed (or read) as a self-reflexive, autobiographical piece. In Artists Who Make Books, Claire Lehmann outlines how Ruscha made sixteen books between 1963 and 1978, comprised of explanatory titles and filled with photographs taken by the artist. Apart from the odd caption, the insides of the books are mostly devoid of text; they therefore redefine how “books” are traditionally conceived in literature. Nevertheless, despite the lack of text within the books, words remain integral. Lehmann notes how Ruscha’s first book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) was purely inspired by “the words in the title…the phrase came to him, and, intrigued by it, he decided to make a book to give the idea physical form”.
While Ruscha’s association with Pop Art is unmistakable, his link with the post-war literary Beat Generation is less well-known. Not only did Ruscha create his own limited edition artist book based around On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac, the movement’s leading figure, an exhibition at the Hammer Museum titled Ed Ruscha: On the Road (2011) showcased a series of paintings directly quoting from Kerouac’s novel in Ruscha’s classic visual style. Douglas Fogle, the exhibition’s chief curator, detailed how “in many ways Ruscha’s entire career has offered an artistic corollary to Kerouac’s portrait of the American landscape, giving concrete visual form to the poetry of our vernacular roadside”. These artworks thus possess a literary quality that goes beyond the vicinity of Ruscha’s chosen words and created phrases.
The Phaidon article titled What’s Ed Ruscha saying with his “word” works? opens by asking whether Ruscha is a writer or a painter; while upon first thought the answer to this question may seem obvious, it nevertheless highlights the undoubtable essentiality of words in Ruscha’s visual pieces. Ruscha is fundamentally an artist who delves into the world of the literary, whose pieces call for analysis and interpretation – but first and foremost, he is interested in the purely visual effects of words, and how they can exist as objects on striking visual planes.