HONK depicts its title word in diagonally-inclined, capitalised serif typography. The letters are filled in with a bright yellow acrylic paint and sit in front of a rich, dark blue background, trailing an area of deep red that is perpendicular to the yellow lettering, giving a suggestion of depth within the picture plane. The diagonal slant on which the word ‘HONK’ is aligned roughly slices the picture in half, from the top left to bottom right corner. This is a compositional device also used by the artist in Standard Study # 3 1963 (Tate AR00050). Ruscha studied graphic design at the Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in the late 1950s, and later worked as a layout artist at a Los Angeles advertising agency. In the same year that this drawing was made, Ruscha was included in the exhibition New Painting of Common Objects at Pasadena Art Museum, generally regarded as the first museum exhibition of pop art, alongside artists such as Andy Warhol (1928–87) and Roy Lichtenstein (1923–97).
With its palette restricted to the three primary colours, HONK is reminiscent of sign painting and graphic design in its bold clarity and legibility. However, unlike many of Ruscha’s other drawings of sentences, phrases or single words, such as ARTISTS WHO DO BOOKS 1976 (Tate AR00056), here the text was not created with the use of stencils but was drawn freehand with acrylic paint and a brush, with no indication of prior measurement, templates or other technical aids. While the paint achieves an almost totally opaque coverage over the paper, brush marks are visible in the red and blue areas, and across the blue section some of the paper’s wove surface is visible, creating a slightly stippled, textured effect. These details remind the viewer that although the artist is working within a graphic idiom that is suggestive of advertising and film titles, the drawing remains a unique, hand-made object and not one of mass reproduction.
The diagonal composition and exclusive use of primary colours link this drawing to Ruscha’s series of works based on the Twentieth Century Fox studio logo, such as Trademark #5 1962 (Tate T07510). Both this work and HONK engage with the visual language of cinema, echoing the dramatic presentation of its iconography and movie titles to create works that combine pop art with Hollywood mythology.
The extreme edges of the area of red paint behind the ‘H’ and the ‘K’ of ‘HONK’ take the form of fiery curls and licks, suggesting a trail of cartoon flames that invest the word with an incendiary power to match the loudness of the colours and meaning of ‘honk’. The theatrical nature of this work is readily apparent in its punchy visual appearance and the onomatopoeic quality of the word itself. As the curator Ralph Rugoff has noted regarding a series of paintings ‘that depict burning architectural structures’ completed by the artist in the mid-1960s, ‘Ruscha seemed to use fire as a visual analogue for noise’ (Rugoff 2009, p.17).
The curator Kerry Brougher has quoted Ruscha regarding his use of words as subjects for his work: ‘“When you think about it, words are really horizontal objects. You’re almost making a landscape.” Ruscha’s words hover between the flat, traversal surfaces of the graphic artist and the longitudinal, deep-space world of landscape painting.’ (Brougher 2000, p.161.) HONK was completed only two years after Ruscha had graduated from art school. In an interview over twenty years later, the artist reflected upon this productive early period, commenting:
I’ve noticed when I look back on my work that most of my early 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 like that … I think that I could have been involved in painting an environment for what the word sounded like and looked like at the same time.
(Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.191.)
Kerry Brougher, ‘Words as Landscape’ in Ed Ruscha, exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., and Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 2000, pp.157–77.
Edward Ruscha and Alexandra Schwartz (eds.), Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2002.
Ralph Rugoff, ‘Heavenly Noises’, in Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2009, pp.11–27.