HOPE is a large work on white museum board made using black and blue acrylic paints sprayed over stencils that spell out the title word. The lettering is in a bold, capitalised serif font that appears horizontally stretched along the central axis, creating squat letter shapes that together span the width of the paper. After positioning the individual letter stencils on the paper, thus masking its blank surface, acrylic paint was applied using a spray gun, covering the paper in a mist of blue and black. The stencils were then removed, revealing the shape of the letters as bare paper, which were then covered by a second spray of paint. This built up an irregular coating, the pristine surface of the letters overlaid with paint, their crisp outlines disappearing, particularly with the final letter, ‘E’, which is almost engulfed completely by an area of dense black paint. By working with a spray gun and graphic stencils, the drawing has no immediate relationship to the artist’s hand. As the curator Cornelia Butler has noted, Ruscha’s approach disrupts the fine art understanding of drawing as expressive mark-making, by employing the ‘cool masquerade of graphic design’ to challenge the received notion of drawing as an articulation of the artist’s thought processes and technical skill (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.28).
The visual appearance of the drawing is in stark contrast to the meaning and associations of its four-letter title. Saturating the white support to an almost wholly opaque coverage at the bottom right corner of the image, the black and blue spray paint has a menacing feel. The splatter effect of the paint particles radiated across the paper surface is reminiscent of blood splatter from a gunshot wound – a visual motif from popular culture that is not made explicit, but rather seems designed to disrupt any literal interpretation of the title word. Additionally, the spray paint style could be read as a wry comment on abstract expressionist painting and its ‘all-over technique’, a mythologised, quasi-spiritual approach to painting embodied by the artist Jackson Pollock (1912–56), which is visually similar to the effect Ruscha achieves through the commercial spray gun.
The religious connotations of the word ‘hope’ link this work to the artist’s earlier Miracle series, including Miracle #64 1975 (Tate AR00052), an atmospheric pastel drawing of a beam of light penetrating a darkened space, which makes reference to Ruscha’s Catholic background and the ritual and mysticism of the Church. In HOPE, the spray paint threatens to obliterate parts of the carefully stencilled letters, suggesting a challenge to any notion of ‘hope’, religious or otherwise.
The word ‘hope’ has appeared in other works by Ruscha. Four paintings – three from 1972–3 and one from 1992 – share this title, each depicting the word itself as the sole subject matter, using varying fonts, designs and colour schemes. The curator Sylvia Wolf raised an important point regarding the artist’s deployment of words in and as the visual field, writing: ‘Ruscha has said that “a lot of the juice in my work has to do with abstraction.” Taking words out of context is a form of abstraction, as is isolating elements from their usual surroundings.’ (Wolf 2004, p.165.) The notion that words can be abstract entities, freed from a prescribed place within a textual or cultural context, reminds the viewer that the meaning of the drawing can never be fully comprehended.
The large scale and horizontal format of HOPE relate it to a longstanding pictorial interest of the artist: the advertising billboard. The format of the billboard entered Ruscha’s art in 1962 with the painting Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), which mimics the scale and visual boldness of advertising signage. As the curator Margit Rowell has noted: ‘The billboard, by design, emphasizes words. It suggests that we read and comprehend text more automatically and quickly than we see images. When present, images are secondary, a footnote or a backdrop.’ (Rowell and Butler 2004, p.20.) This is confirmed by the insistence of the word ‘hope’ in this drawing: resisting the maelstrom of paint particles, it remains a persistent, ambiguous presence.
Margit Rowell and Cornelia Butler, Cotton Puffs, Q-tips, Smoke and Mirrors: the Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2004.
Sylvia Wolf, Ed Ruscha and Photography, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2004.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008.