"My romance with liquids came about because I was looking for some sort of alternative entertainment for myself--an alternative from the rigid hard edge painting of words that had to respect some typographical design. These [liquid words] didn't have rules about how a letter had to be formed" --E. Ruscha
Ed Ruscha's Mint (Red) derives from his small but seminal series of Liquid Word paintings. Rendered with exquisite illusionistic detail, Ruscha's letters appear like syrupy drips, pooled together atop a yellow and black background. The artist painted two versions in 1968; the second, executed in icy green script, belonged to Emily Fisher Landau who donated it to her eponymous contemporary art center. The present work's ruby-red script is particularly evocative as it heightens the friction between the word's associative meaning--verdant and minty-fresh--and its rendering on canvas.
With its fiery sunset colors and larger-than-life text, Mint (Red) draws inspiration from the vast empty skies and oversized billboard lettering that Ruscha saw on his 1956 cross-country road trip to Los Angeles. The angled font of each letter recreates his view from the seat of a speeding car. Hovering in a twilight zone of the yellow and black sky, the familiar word becomes mysterious and otherworldly as an isolated form. According to Ruscha, "Words have these abstract shapes, they live in a world of no size. You can make them any size, and what's the real size? Nobody knows" (E. Ruscha, quoted in R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, New York, 2003, p. 106).
Ruscha's experience as a commercial illustrator fostered an interest in the aesthetics of text and its manifold typologies. With its exquisite draftsmanship, Mint (Red) illustrates the contrary nature of angular text and liquid formlessness: fluidity is after all another name for non-articulation, and Ruscha's slick graphics show the paradoxical process in which his red letters slowly fuse together, losing their individuated meaning. "Words have temperatures to me," notes Ruscha. "When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me. Sometimes I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart, and I won't be able to read or think of it. Usually I catch them before they get too hot" (E. Ruscha, quoted in H. Pindell, "Words with Ruscha," The Print Collector's Newsletter, Jan-Feb 1973, p. 126). Mint (Red), painted in an appropriate red, exemplifies one such "hot" word on the brink of boiling apart.
In the same way that Ruscha paradoxically renders language in liquefied script, he colors "Mint" in bright red to abstract its linguistic meaning. The short, elegant word may refer to a pale green hue, a fresh taste, or a pristine state. Mint (Red)'s sticky, viscous appearance even challenges its crisp sound when spoken. Ruscha's play with the textures and sounds of language was influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who he first met at Duchamp's 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. In true Dadaist spirit, Ruscha uses found words like linguistic ready-mades. Ruscha's text, liberated of its usual rigid typography, becomes a pictorial element that resembles the biomorphic shapes and anonymous horizons of Jean Arp, Salvatore Dalí and Yves Tanguy. While the Surrealists also incorporate painted text, they used words primarily as psychological tools rather than, as Ruscha treats them, abstract pictorial forms in their own right.
Just as Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke series satirizes the emotion-laden streaks of the 1950s, Ruscha's Mint (Red) neutralizes the unbridled pathos of Jackson Pollock's drips and splatters. With slick lettering, Ruscha recreates the actual look of dripping, eradicated of any trace of brushstroke. In fact, Ruscha's first Liquid Word painting came just after Pollock's 1967 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The artist remembers, "When I was in school, I painted just like an Abstract Expressionist--it was a uniform. Except you really didn't have to wear it, you just aped it. It was so seductive: the act of facing a blank canvas with a palette. I liked painting that way, but there seemed no reason to push it any further. But I began to see that the only thing to do would be a preconceived image. It was an enormous freedom to be premeditated about my art" (E. Ruscha, quoted in F. Fehlau, "Ed Ruscha," Flash Art, January-February 1988, p. 70).
Ruscha punctuates his molten and sticky word with small pearls of liquid red, allowing for lingering allusions to Abstract Expressionism while asserting a level of detail that rivals the later Photo-realist pictures. The artist's real mastery comes from his ability to create such suggestive visual drama with a lean economy of form and text. Along with other Liquid Word paintings, Mint (Red) laid the groundwork for his subsequent Stains series, in which Ruscha saturates his support with actual liquid.