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The 1960s introduced Ed Ruscha to the art scene with his witty and unorthodox presentations of language, landscape, and abstraction. Often isolating familiar objects or featuring lone words, his paintings were first viewed in the context of the emerging idioms of pop art and conceptualism. Yet Ruscha’s works resist simple classifications—his impact is less about subject matter than execution. His compositions are both legible and perplexing. If recognizable imagery offers a certain clarity, the artist’s omissions, translations, and alterations complicate our response—we nod with recognition even as we scratch our head. Ruscha often depicts words with specific cultural or commercial references, and borrows their associated typeface as well: the cursive script of Buick car advertisements, the yellow font of Spam canned meat, and the kissing letters of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Other canvases from the early 1960s feature single words, often large, sometimes comedic. Ruscha notes that these works “had less of a fascination with the English language than they did with just trying to imitate monosyllabic words like ‘smash,’ ‘oof.’ They all were power words . . . they seemed to be words with less subject matter than, say, if I had painted the word ‘patience,’ or words that were of a lighter nature.” Between 1966 and 1969, Ruscha painted close-up views of illusionistic liquids: syrup, water, turpentine. In the compact canvas Lisp he shapes the title word into a blistering puddle on an aqua-hued field. The trompe l’oeil letters form legible but imprecise marks, and a rogue droplet underscores the work’s painterly construction. The image is, says Ruscha, “an environment for what the word sounded like and looked like at the same time.” Wet and sibilant, Lisp evokes the word’s wobbling imprecision as it highlights the unstable nature of language.
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