Ed Ruscha’s iconic photography series “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1963) captured the signage and architecture of 26 gas stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Ruscha developed a new mythology about the American West as he emphasized the roadside signs that populated it. Though the pictures are, ostensibly, of buildings, nearly all of them contain words: “Conoco,” “Texaco,” “Stop/Save,” “Say Fina,” “Cafe,” “Mobil Service,” “Navajo Rugs,” “Beer & Liquors.” In fact, such phrases become inextricable from the landscape itself.
The series laid the groundwork for Ruscha’s career: Over the past five decades, he’s continued to link language and the environment. A painting from 1989 juxtaposes the phrase “Safe and Effective Medication” with a picture of dark clouds. In more recent work, the titular expressions “Pay Nothing Until April” (2003), “Wall Rockets” (2000), and “History Kids” (2009) overlie painted, craggy mountains. Viewers consider the association—or lack thereof—between the different elements as they wonder what any of those obscure phrases actually mean. Typography itself becomes as integral to a work’s mood as color or composition—Ruscha’s angular, thin, white lettering in all-caps is simultaneously delicate and declarative, mechanical and strange. It’s Ruscha’s own font, which he calls Boy Scout Utility Modern.