Collected Letters

Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1: 1956–1976 edited by Lisa Turvey, Harry Cooper. Other Distribution. Hardcover, 452 pages. $200.

The cover of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1: 1956–1976

What is the wordness of a word? Is a word the sum of its letters—the way they look arrayed on a sign or page? Or is a word its sound when spoken, the feel of its syllables on the tongue and in the ear? Or is the essence found primarily in a word’s meaning, its service as a vehicle for communication? These are questions that typically occupy poets—whether composing epics to be recited around campfires, songs to be sung by troubadours, or intricate typographic displays for readers to puzzle over, poets have long been attuned to the shape and sound of language. Such focus, though, is hardly confined to writers. Over the past few decades, visual artists have become increasingly engaged with the materiality and meaning of words, and few painters have done so more insightfully than Edward Ruscha.

The publication of Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume 1, a hefty tome that covers the years 1956 through 1976, affords an opportunity to view the Los Angeles artist’s developing fascination with what language might look like. The book tracks his movement from an initial interest in signage (the early-’60s drafts for his iconic paintings of the 20th Century Fox logo, the Standard Oil gas-station sign, and “Annie” in the comic strip’s type) to later images that are highly idiosyncratic, downright poetic concoctions (“Thick Blocks of Musical Fudge” is the phrase in one 1976 pastel). With two, three, and sometimes four such reproductions (many with just a single word) on each page, this massive volume is crowded with text in a way most art books are not; in fact, a quick thumb through suggests something more like a child’s dictionary. A welter of emphatically rendered words—gauze, room, range, rut, walk, city, salt, soda, self, squirt, poach, mercy, fever, fix, flood, sin, sure, cement, age, blank, bull, jelly, pudding, ding, dew, pool, radio, vapor, dusty, trust—tumbles out from the pages, its audible music registering as readily as its visual allure. A catalogue raisonné is generally designed to value scholarship and completist accuracy more than aesthetic impact, and these reproductions—true to form—are merely adequate. But the book, in its totality from page to page, can actually be read as much more—as a long synesthetic poem, one that imagines a shape, color, and sound for words and speaks to our profoundest understanding of human expression.

That said, Ruscha’s work—his paintings, drawings, and photographs—wears its intellectual richness lightly, a bone-dry wit lurking behind nearly every image. This spirited playfulness is present in an early painting produced for a 1963 show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights reconfigures the 20th Century Fox logo by flattening out the text’s usual presentation as a piece of monumental sculpture and elongating the perspective lines that create the three-dimensional effect. The trademark version of the logo is a pyramid-like edifice—the letters formidable and enduring in what is meant to appear like stone. Ruscha de-monumentalizes the text by rendering it in two dimensions, even as he exaggerates the three-dimensional illusion, the pencil-thin perspective lines accentuating the sense of facade. Yet even as the artist slyly undermines the Hollywood icon, he also grants it dramatic stature on the canvas. But the parodic note seems far less important than Ruscha’s desire to pry into the space between words as commercial objects and words as objects of design, and to permit the viewer to appreciate, for instance, the difference between the 0 in 20th and the o in Fox.

It’s at this diminutive level of attention that many of the works on paper achieve a literary density, form and content intricately recapitulating each other. Deceptively simple (indeed, almost all of his word-images are), the drawing Blank (1963) is matter-of-fact to the point of being stark. If Pop art’s influence on Ruscha’s early work is evident in Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, here it’s the formative role of Op art that’s on display. The black-and-white contrast is as sharp and elemental as the sound of the word pronounced aloud; the imperative bark, as well as the words black, lank, lack, and bank, has a ghostly presence among the tightly packed letters; the optical technique (drop-out text, tight leading) encourages us to see these other words as if they were palimpsests, rising and receding in and out of blank. The serif communicates officious sameness, implying the word issues from some bureaucratic realm. Yet the elegant design of the text indicates this is a command delivered with finesse, one that, given the word’s obliterative meaning, may be intended to deflect suspicion on the part of the viewer and soften the existential import. All of these microgymnastics fall within and serve the work’s dominant paradox: the assertive, calculated presence of a word that denotes absence.

Ruscha anatomizes a word and its letters to get at its core sensation—its wordness; the goal is predicated on a decidedly physical intuition. In a 1973 interview, abstract artist Howardena Pindell asked him, “Why are you attracted to specific words like ‘Annie,’ ‘carp,’ ‘lisp,’ ‘sing?’” “Because I love the language,” Ruscha replied. “Words have temperatures to me.” He went on to add that words “reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me. . . . Sometimes I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart, and I won’t be able to read or think of it. Usually I catch them before they get too hot.” If there’s a whiff of the otherworldly in this account of his creative process, that disruptive mood shows itself in the work: Ruscha renovates commonplace words like toy, flaw, won’t, and honk first by disengaging them from familiar communicative contexts; then, by reworking and deploying them in fresh shapes and colors, he directs our attention to those material qualities (rather than the word’s potential task in a sentence). What Gertrude Stein aimed to achieve via repetition (“A rose is a rose . . .”) Ruscha pursues via singularity: When we look at Honk (1964), we don’t read the word, we see it, in the same way we see trees and streams in a John Constable landscape. And if we can almost hear the rushing brook in the English painter’s rustic scenes, we can just as well see the long n sound and its abrupt, clamorous collision with the k.

In seeking to free language from mere utility, Ruscha shares kinship not only with other artists who made language their subject (Marcel Broodthaers, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Mira Schendel, Jasper Johns) but with Concrete poets such as Edwin Morgan, Décio Pignatari, Aram Saroyan, and Mary Ellen Solt. One of the founders of that movement, the Brazilian Augusto de Campos, penned a manifesto in the mid-1950s that declared its ambitious goals: “the concrete poet sees the word in itself—a magnetic field of possibilities—like a dynamic object, a live cell, a complete organism, with psycho-physico-chemical proprieties, touch antennae circulation heart: live.” Campos’s rhetoric may be grandiose, but the underlying sentiment—that language possesses vitality that precedes its role as a transmitter of meaning—is the animating impulse behind much of Ruscha’s text-based imagery. His most famous painting, Oof (1962), with its incandescently yellow letters pulsing against a night-blue background, portrays a word describing the sound one might make when socked in the gut. It doesn’t get more inchoate, more “live,” than that.


The 1967 drawing Self vibrates in similar, though less visceral, ways. Produced with gunpowder, a material Ruscha happened on as an alternative to graphite or ink and employed regularly for word images in the mid-’60s, the drawing allows the word to unfurl ribbonlike and appear to float just above the surface of the paper. The curlicue script could be lifted from a greeting card, but it also has the flair of someone’s signature. In either case, there’s a metajoke: A greeting card you send to your own address, like a florid signature, signals an excessive self-regard that is, well, self-referential in the drawing. But pushing past the wry comedy, there is the convoluted shape of the word, the repetition and folding of the loops. The allusion to the Möbius strip and its confusion of interior and exterior is plainly Ruscha’s comment on the self, an insight that grows more complex given how the s and f are made to echo each other. Where does the self begin, and is its beginning in its end? A visual poem that invokes a topological conundrum as well as T. S. Eliot in pursuit of a metaphysical conceit about identity is no small labor for a single word.

While the images heretend to be smallish, there is great advantage in viewing all the various iterations of a particular idea. There are three versions of Self (all dating from the same year), and each one exhibits minute but telling differences. The texture of the “ribbon,” the spacing of the letters, the darkness of the background, and the style of the script subtly evolve from one version to the next. Again, the apparent simplicity of the idea and its execution is deceptive: These drawings have been worked and reworked. The tonal variations in how language resonates across Ruscha’s interpretations register most clearly when you study the seven drawings done in preparation for the 1963 painting Talk about Space. All dating from that year (in the immediate wake of America’s Mercury launches), the images begin with “Space Sketch” and “Space Grid.” The sketch presents the basic concept—space as a 3-D sci-fi movie title; the grid is done on tracing paper and evidences the artist’s meticulousness, as the leading for each letter is calibrated in precise measurements; the subsequent five pieces, all titled “Space Study,” reveal Ruscha tinkering with color, the placement or absence of a tiny airborne object, and the incline (rising or falling) of the word. The finished painting set space aloft above an empty expanse of what could be sky, its letters slightly canted and receding into the right-hand distance as the word accelerates into the blue yonder. The preparatory drawings demonstrate that there was nothing self-evident about the final concept, and that each trial offered a variation not only of design but of theme. In the second “Space Study,” the Cold War mania fueling the space race comes into clear view: Space now hangs below a daytime hue of orange and the object (space capsule or bomb?) drops from far above. Is the space in this version less outer and more terrestrial, more our own?

That Ruscha invests these visual poems with such intense care may not be as surprising as how much they reward close scrutiny. The 1971 gunpowder-and-pastel drawing Adults neatly conjures so many of that word’s associations that it could function as the term’s dictionary entry, at least for neurotics and the hyperconscious: The wavering letters evoke the uncertainty of aging; the word’s position in the middle of the frame, midway in the air, connotes middle age and its unresolved emotional state; the shadows speak of an evanescent past, as well as the darker implications of the word—sexuality and mortality; and finally, the pluralizing s, set the tiniest bit apart from the singular noun, reinforces our awareness of the incremental aloneness that comes with growing older. Yet for all its melancholy, the drawing is a visual delight—the gravity-less atmosphere is expertly rendered, and the rust-colored gloaming treacherously invites the eye. The crafts of poem and picture are seamlessly joined.

As they constitute a kind of dare on the part of the artist, the one-word drawings and paintings earn our fascination, but no less intriguing are the phrases and full sentences Ruscha began producing in the mid-’70s. Cryptic and thus more obviously poetic, these texts extend the Concretist enterprise of freeing the compacted energies to be found in words as well as in syntactical relations: “Chili Draft,” “Lame Theme,” “Fairly Small Torpedos,” “Thinking the Same,” “The Chapel Window,” “Smells Like Back of Old Hot Radio,” “Kidney Beans on Galvanized Steel,” “I Live Over in Valley View,” “‘Did Anyone Say Dreamboat’?” Most of these lines are set in sans-serif type on monochromatic backgrounds—as if Ruscha had decided that their verbal complexity warranted a proportional diminution of visual invention. They are appealingly clever, and their depths are sounded less in their interaction with how they are rendered than in the candidness of their presentation. Fairly Small Torpedoes (1974) lays out this puzzling fragment in small (of course) white drop-out type against a deep black background. As musical as it is vivid, the phrase evinces a grim undertow of feeling, yet still bubbles with an off-kilter charm—like a bathroom graffito on a doomed U-boat,a comparison bolstered by the misspelling of torpedoes. Ruscha’s mischievous sensibility is rarely at rest.

This is only the first of three planned volumes given over to Ruscha’s works on paper; there are six devoted to his paintings and two to his prints. Across this long and prolific career the theme and presence of language has been a constant. One of the earliest pieces in the catalogue, Study for Box Smashed Flat (1960), a plain pencil tracing of a flattened box of Sun Maid Raisins, features the brand name that puns on the trademark image of a woman harvesting grapes and the “sun made” nature of the grapes themselves. The chiming ai in both raisin and maid, the increasingly smaller typefaces of the name on the front, top, and side of the box, and the repetition of the pun all mark out an essentially linguistic domain. This volume testifies to Ruscha’s abiding fealty to a visual poetics that prizes the materiality of words and attempts to explore their anatomies, the wordness that gives them breath.

Albert Mobilio is an editor of Bookforum.