ARTIST ROOMS Ed Ruscha: Words and Phrases

Edward Ruscha
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© Ed Ruscha

‘I’m dead serious about being nonsensical.‘

Words and phrases are at the centre of Ed Ruscha’s work and first appear in his paintings as early as 1959. The use of words and text in twentieth century art can first be traced back to cubist painters such as Braque and Picasso who integrated letters and words, painted and found, into still lifes as they questioned the representation on the two-dimensional surface. Playful linguistic manipulations were central to the dadaists who left an important legacy with their radical, often humorous use of wordplay. Ruscha cites the dadaists as early influences and his use of words in an ambiguous and playful way could be seen as a manifestation of that influence.

Ruscha uses a range of linguistic devices in his text pieces such as onomatopoeia, puns, alliteration and contrasting meanings. Many of his early works such as Honk 1962 depict single words in a strong typographic format. A more brooding atmosphere emerges in the later series, The End, which illustrates the words overlaid with imagery recalling fading film credits. Other works such as PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL 2003 reference advertising while setting the text against a mountainous landscape. Ruscha’s group of ‘catch-phrase’ drawings dating from the 1970s, including PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS 1976, mix visual formality with playful language. In this series of pastel drawings Ruscha set his pithy phrases against fields of colour. The sentences and phrases evoke American vernacular and slang, draw attention to a particular experience or recall the excesses of Hollywood culture.

In the drawing PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS 1976, the juxtaposition of the phrases ‘PRETTY EYES ’ and ‘ELECTRIC BILLS’ is at odds; the first conjures romantic and evocative images while the second makes reference to a mundane chore. The artist has explained his own view of this drawing, stating: ‘Pretty Eyes, Electric Bills is my way of separating two subjects that are on the far end of the world from each other. This somehow gets to be the reason that I want to make a work of art of this discord.’


In groups identify what words or phrases you like and whether they are specific to your vernacular. Discuss why you like them: is it the shape of the individual letters, the way they sound or the meaning of the words.


Create a collage using different single words or phrases in different fonts, sizes and styles. Can you create playful linguistic manipulations with these words? Does the font and style change the meaning and impact of the words?

Artist Link

Much of Lawrence Weiner’s work takes the form of language. He makes ‘statements’, which then have the potential to be inscribed as a written text on a gallery wall, spoken as dialogue in a video, printed in a book or poster, sung, or even tattooed onto the skin.