- Edward Ruscha, American, 1937-
- Born: Omaha, NE
- Work Locations: Los Angeles, CA
- United States
About the Artist
Edward Ruscha (roo-shay) was born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City. In 1956, at the age of 18, he took a road trip with a friend to Los Angeles, California, where he planned to begin his studies in commercial art. The journey proved to be incredibly influential. A few years later, using black-and-white photographs of gas stations he had encountered along Route 66, Ruscha created a new medium, the artist’s book. These artist’s books, along with his paintings of popular icons and single words, launched his professional career. Although Ruscha abandoned his study of commercial art to concentrate on painting, certain techniques acquired during his training, such as layering and lettering, continued to influence his work.
What Inspired It
Ruscha has incorporated land formations and popular icons that dot the American landscape into much of his work. Often, Ruscha pushes the landscape to the background to make way for words, which are also prominent in his work. “Paintings of words can be clearer to see when there is an anonymous backdrop…And so there’s a landscape that’s a background, but I don’t see it. It’s almost not there. It’s just something to put words on,” says Ruscha.
Ruscha loves the “evocative power of words.” In choosing to paint words, he lets the words evoke images on their own—instead of painting an image of a liquefied chemical oozing across the canvas, he paints the words MOLTEN POLYESTER themselves. Ruscha does not feel that it is important for the viewer to interpret his work in any particular way: “I know that viewers of my work looking at an English word are going to try to translate it into a meaning. But often I’d like them to lose the meaning and just look at the word as an abstract jumble. Yet I’m not giving the viewer any guidance as to how to respond. I think the artist should stand by in silence.” He says, “I love language. Words have temperatures. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, they appeal to me.”
The top half of the painting shows a snow-covered craggy mountain. The mountain is inverted in the bottom half of the painting, and the contrast between the snow and rock is much more subtle than in the image on top. The inverted image extends beyond the body of the canvas and is shrouded in a vibrant, artificial blue.
Ruscha painted these words in such a way as to demand our attention—they are centered across the canvas and measure 7 ½ inches in height. The word POLYESTER, in particular, stands out against the vibrant blue on the bottom of the canvas.
Each letter that comprises the words MOLTEN and POLYESTER is made from a line, just like the line that delineates the mountain from the sky, and the line that divides the bottom of the canvas from the top. When viewed as simply shapes on the canvas, the squiggly lines that make up the words MOLTEN and POLYESTER don't have any meaning. As Ruscha says, "well isn't it curious that those little squiggles-the way they come about, and they way they form and follow one another and precede one another-go to make up that funny word? If you isolate a word for just a moment and repeat it ten, fifteen times, you can easily drive the meaning from the sound of the word. I do that a lot with the printed word."
When lines are arranged in shapes and put together to form a word, they automatically take on meaning for us. When a viewer brings to the canvas his or her personal understanding of the words MOLTEN and POLYESTER, or the phrase MOLTEN POLYESTER, and combines those with a landscape of a mountain, any number of interpretations can come about. Consider the relationship between the word MOLTEN and the frozen landscape scene on top of which it sits; or the juxtaposition of the wilderness of the landscape and the idea of industry evoked by the word POLYESTER. The viewer is free to interpret the artwork in a variety of ways. According to Ruscha, “My work doesn’t come with a set of instructions. There are no rules for looking at my paintings. They come, as I have said, from my intuition…”
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Ruscha says, “I love language. Words have temperatures. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, they appeal to me.” Have students find “hot” words in magazines and cut them out. Once they have chosen a few words, have them create a background for each word that contradicts its meaning. To complete the piece, paste the word on top of the background.
- “If you isolate a word for just a moment and repeat it ten, fifteen times, you can easily drive the meaning from the sound of the word. I do that a lot with the printed word,” says Ruscha. Have your students choose a word and write it over and over on a sheet of paper, until it seems to lose meaning and becomes simply a collection of shapes. Have them use the shapes of the letters in other ways to create a composition.
- Pick a word from another language (choose a language that your students will not be familiar with) and have the students write it down, listen to the sound, etc. Then have them create a composition using the word based on what the shapes of the letters look like, or what they think the word means. After the students are finished, tell them what the word means and see if any of their compositions relate to the actual meaning of the word.