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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Art: OOF

» Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937)


Artist / Origin: Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937)
Region: North America
Date: 1962, reworked 1963
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 71 ½ in. (181.6 cm.), W: 67 in. (170.1 cm.)
Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Credit: © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo courtesy of Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

After attending art school in Oklahoma, Ed Ruscha relocated to Los Angeles in 1956.

He soon became associated with a group of young Pop artists attached to the Ferus Gallery in L.A. Although New York was the more important American art center at the time, these artists considered southern California more livable; they embraced, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, all of the clichés of L.A. living—the openness and freedom of car culture, the easy cool of surf culture, and the sex appeal of Hollywood. The sense of carefree, even brazen living that Ruscha and his circle self-consciously fostered is echoed in the motifs they adopted in their art.

In Ruscha’s case, especially, advertising was also a source of inspiration. Ruscha had started his career as a commercial artist and knew well the power of graphic arts to communicate. In his whimsical and amusing word paintings, he exploits advertising techniques to engage the viewer, while at the same time complicating and subverting the traditional goals of commercial communication. The artist’s interest is not just in words as language, but in words as visual objects in and of themselves.

In this piece, Ruscha cleverly takes a nonsense word—“oof”—and makes it communicate on a number of different levels. He plays with both the onomatopoeic quality of the word as well as its visual impact. “Oof” is the kind of word we associate with characters in a comic strip, who might utter the guttural sound while engaging in some kind of physical exertion or in reaction to, say, a punch in the stomach. Despite its connotations of physicality, however, “oof” is executed by Ruscha in plain, simple, entirely dispassionate block letters. As a result of this lettering, the word comes across as a product logo that might appear on a billboard, demanding the viewers’ attention. The irony, of course, is that there is no tangible product behind the sign. Ruscha has taken a lowbrow idea from popular culture and formalized it in an iconic six-foot-tall oil painting that takes delight in exploring the meaning of words and the boundaries of art.

Expert Perspective:
Sylvia Wolf, Director of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle

“When Ed Ruscha was a boy he was fascinated with cartoons, he drew cartoons. Dick Tracy was one of his favorite comic books. And so typography and how, not just the words and what they mean, but how they look and how they are structured graphically, have long been very important for him.

A number of the conceptualists who were working in the sixties and seventies were asking questions about where does the idea begin. And is art the idea? If you think about Conceptualism as a form of art that privileges the idea more so than the form—more than the aesthetic form, I would say—that is a period that is very rich in visual arts that utilize words. We could go decade by decade and trace from Futurism, where the words did have meaning, to Dada, where the nonsensical nature of words was the meaning of the use of the words. I think the excerpt and the abstraction is a key part of this. If an artist takes a word, like Ruscha, and puts it away from any reference to a text or meaning, and paints it on a canvas, what does it mean?

If we think about how easily we utilize vocabulary for the written word to describe visual arts, we talk about a vocabulary in painting, we talk about form and shape and meaning and content and all kinds of things that we would normally associate with information-based systems—language-based systems. And I think one of the things that has become quite clear and even more characteristic of the twentieth century is this idea of pictures and words as being systems—language as a system, action as a way of making art, language as instruction. So the art is a compilation of all of these things. How can you not stand in front of that painting, how can you not say ‘oof?’ O-O-F. It’s the ‘huh?’ factor that Ed Ruscha is looking for. If people look at it and they can’t quite figure out what’s this about and what am I supposed to make of it, then he feels that he has succeeded.”

Additional Resources

Kotz, Liz. Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Marshall, Richard D. Ed Ruscha. London: Phaidon, 2005.

The Museum of Modern Art Web site.

Ruscha, Ed. Leave Any information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages. Edited by Alexandra Schwartz. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Varnedoe, Kirk, and Adam Gopnik. High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, exhibition catalogue. New York: Museum of Modern Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1990.

Whiting, Cécile. Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s. Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

The Whitney Museum of American Art Web site.

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