Text Message: Typography in the Work of Ed Ruscha

Artist Ed Ruscha’s hard-edged brand of California Pop is as singular as it is evocative of contemporary Americana. But along with the highway iconography and gauzy California light that characterize much of his work, there’s another element at the core of the artist’s oeuvre: text.

Ruscha’s first brush with art-world acclaim came in 1960s with a series of paintings of single words rendered in polished logo-like typography. Set against plain colored backgrounds, the text stood out like enigmatic messages—the words themselves easy to read, but their meanings entirely ambiguous. That intersection between text and image has been a recurring theme of Ruscha’s artistic output ever since.

By superimposing quotations and other deadpan sayings over landscapes, starkly lit backdrops, or flat fields of color, like title cards from film, Ruscha elevated words to the status of subject. Since 1980, he has delved deeper into this uneasy relationship with the introduction of the (now-iconic) self-designed font he calls Boy Scout Utility Modern. Inspired by the truncated edges of the Hollywood sign, the typeface is transformed as letters take the place of characters on a stage, hovering in middle distance with a three-dimensionality all their own. The result? Images that land somewhere between clarity and mystery, symbol and signifier, art and poetry.

In the lithograph Mark Twain Quote from 2012, Ruscha takes his ongoing relationship with text and image to an even more meta dimension. Here, he “borrows” from an artistic predecessor, while casting doubt on the very idea of the ownership of ideas with his dubious citation. Regardless, as the viewer reads English—or German, as in the case of the shadow cast by the letters—the image holds fast as a visual statement. Layers of meaning are wrapped up in a sleek visual package as language dissolves into form.   

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