This drawing’s ten-word title is arranged over six precisely centred lines of either one or two words that read across and down the horizontal sheet of paper. These letters were not outlined by hand but were positioned on the white paper using acetate stencils in the sans serif typeface. Once these inverse stencils were in place, the red powdery pastel was rubbed into the paper by hand and with rags, so that the white paper shows through in places to create an impression of diffuse light behind the particles of red pastel. A fixative was then applied to maintain the crisp division between text and background, before the acetate stencils were peeled back to reveal the bare, white paper surface of the individual letters. In his reliance upon the technical aids of graphic design, Ruscha subverts the common understanding of drawing as a medium of creative skill and self-expression. The letters and words have no depth or internal contours, appearing like shallow incisions in the pastel field: a printed message in block capitals with unsettling connotations and unknown origins.
Ruscha worked as a layout artist at a Los Angeles advertising agency after graduating from the Chouinard Art Institute in 1960, later becoming the production designer for the influential Artforum magazine during 1965–9, under the pseudonym Eddie Russia. As the writer Mary Richards notes of works such as I PLEAD INSANITY…, ‘Legible and authoritative like painted signs, these statements look bold and factual even when the phrases are kooky’ (Richards 2008, p.71). This intentional mixing of visual authority with verbal jokiness is a key characteristic of Ruscha’s group of ‘catch-phrase’ drawings dating from the 1970s in ARTIST ROOMS (Tate AR00053–AR00059). These works build on Ruscha’s west coast pop art style of the early 1960s which established his reputation, replacing the slick visual representations of everyday objects and LA architecture (for example, Standard Study #3 1963, Tate AR00050) with a precise focus on the imaginative potential of language, while retaining the artist’s trademark playful irony. The critic Dave Hickey has observed of these textual snippets: ‘Like the drawings themselves, these words are at once objects and ideas.’ (Hickey 1998, p.33.) By maintaining this duality of material and concept, Ruscha’s words both engage with and escape linguistic signification, constantly toying with absurdity.
The meaning of this particular sentence is purposefully ambiguous. It could be a lost shard from an overheard conversation or a movie script, floating free of context yet with a nagging sense of familiarity. With its rhythmic pacing and neat phrasing it reads more like a song lyric than anything spoken, a fragment of popular culture hinting at an intriguing narrative or a tantalising one-liner that sparks the imagination. The sentence is personal and anonymous at the same time. The doubling of ‘insanity’ with ‘crazy’ is both amusing and slightly sinister. Beneath the jaunty pop flavour of the work is a disturbing undertone: the suggestion of madness, however jokingly, in relation to an unknown crime, suggested by the opening words ‘I plead’. The language is more appropriate for a crush or infatuation with an adult than sentiments directed towards a child, if the ‘little girl’ is indeed a child. ‘Crazy’ has the pop song connotation of being deeply in love, whereas ‘insanity’ suggests actual mental illness or distress. This uncertain tension between the colloquial and medical concepts of insanity is visible in another of Ruscha’s ‘catch-phrase’ drawings, MAD SCIENTIST 1975 (Tate AR00051).
The colour red’s association with both danger and passion reinforces the dichotomy of love and madness in this drawing. The use of the first person (‘I plead’, ‘I’m just crazy’) adds another layer of intrigue in that it is unclear whether the subject position ‘I’ is meant to refer to the artist, the reader of the sentence (and viewer of the work), or some other character, be they real or imagined. As the artist himself poses in a rhetorical question: ‘isn’t disorientation one of the best things about making art?’ (Ruscha and Schwartz 2002, p.303).
Dave Hickey, ‘I Gotta Use Words When I Talk to You. Ed Ruscha’s Drawings’ in Ed Ruscha: New Paintings and a Retrospective of the Works on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1998, pp.33–7, repr. p.39.
Edward Ruscha and Alexandra Schwartz (eds.), Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2002.
Mary Richards, Ed Ruscha, London 2008, repr. p.71.