Ed Ruscha’s Ice is a striking example of the artist’s longstanding fascination with language, signage, and the city landscape. With a conceptually informed presentation of his subject matter, Ruscha’s paintings reflect the flatness of Los Angeles in addition to ubiquitous signage of billboards and gas stations. Angled as though receding in space, the word ICE resembles, in font and placement, the Hollywood sign. As though perched atop a red haze with a hint of gridded LA city lights in the background, the letters rise not from the Hollywood Hills, but a fantastic burning stream of red that fades as the letters emerge. Taking up a large part of the canvas, the letters plays a central role, not only in image, but in meaning. Experimenting with words from the start of his career, Ruscha’s interest was sprouted from the graphic appearance of language, only vaguely concerned with the implied meaning. Ice, however, invites a unique twist, one that places the meaning of the word in contrast with the impression of the painting. Flaming red with a haze blending into the dark background, Ice is far from the chill translucency of frozen water as it is far from the cool tones associated with the word itself. This disconnect between painted and written content reflects Ruscha’s adaptation and subversion of advertising present throughout his career.
Evoking his City Lights series from 1985-86, two strings of faint lights twinkle down from a converging point near the top of the canvas, yet again borrowing the Los Angeles landscape. Frequently cited as inspiration for his work, the city of LA has served not only as a backdrop for Ruscha’s work but also as the subject as well. Every Building on the Sunset Strip, the countless paintings and drawings of the Hollywood sign, Norm’s Diner, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the movie industry, and the city streets all providing inspiration for the artist. The neutrality of his typeface creates a timelessness in his work, the text becomes object, as though a sequence of a film projected onto the canvas. This dialectical relationship between words and landscape is crucial for Ruscha.
During a period when commercial imagery and popular culture became source material for artists, Ruscha emerged from art school at the start of the Pop art movement. With a preexisting interest in language, the words were positioned aesthetically, yet investigated for their synthetic and conceptual power as subjects. Evolving throughout his expansive career, Ruscha’s words went simply from OOF and SMASH to phrases such as ‘Hollywood is a verb’ and longer ones like ‘In California you chew the juice out of grapes and spit the skin away, a real luxury.’ Ice is among Ruscha’s body of work that features single word, linking it back to the simplicity of his early non-narrative paintings. Regardless of the absence of definitive meaning, Ice is representative of the transformative nature of words and the versatility in language, image, and the associative power of these elements. Donna De Salvo, chief curator at the Whitney Museum commented on Ruscha’s work stating, “I would never say Ed’s work is ‘about’ something. The genius of it is that he takes something incredibly familiar and gives it this level of ambiguity” (D. De Salvo, quoted in C. Tomkins, “Ed Ruscha’s L.A.” The New Yorker, July 1, 2013).
Ice is undeniably familiar, yet possesses the air of ambiguity, as suggested by De Salvo. With a tonality similar to his 1968 painting Hollywood, Ruschca’s Ice is relevant to his earliest as well as his most recent series of work, making it an exemplary reflection of the artist’s oeuvre and thematic interests overall. Early in his career, Ruscha stated that, “words have temperatures to me. 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). Here, Ruscha appears to have caught the word ICE just before it melted, rendering it with the heat he imagines his words to possess.