Words have power because of what they mean, of course, but also because of how they look. Painters have used words for visual effect since George Braque stenciled the word BAL or BACH (we can’t be sure which came first) onto the surface of two cubist oil paintings in the autumn of 1911, forevermore framing the argument for what constitutes high versus low, or refined art versus commercial fare.
Braque could scarcely have imagined the work of Ed Ruscha, who was both a graphic designer and a painter, and didn’t bother himself much with labels. For Ruscha, words and the picture plane are nothing without each other. To love the turn of a phrase, to love the painted surface, and to love both the subversive and visual power of language is to find it impossible to turn away from a work like NOW, one of my all-time favorite Ruscha compositions. I tried looking away when I first saw it in person years ago. Couldn’t do it then; can’t do it now.