Ed Ruscha's Water was produced during a short period in the artist's career from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s when he began to explore the use of non-traditional materials in his artistic practice. Using such diverse substances as egg-yolk, chocolate, ketchup and vegetable extracts the artist began to explore both the aesthetic properties of these everyday materials whilst at the same time challenging our assumptions about what constitutes 'high-art.' Water uses gunpowder, which is by far his most popular medium at that time, and the most innovative. He would use gunpowder in a series of iconic drawings made at this time, most of which are the same size and horizontal orientation.
In Water, Ruscha uses gunpowder to produce the smoky effect which pervades the entire surface of the work which he then combines with the crisp ribbon-like letters that spell out the work's title. This juxtaposition - of hard edged figuration with an highly atmospheric of smoky grey and blue hues - not only helps to clearly articulate his chosen word, but also has the effect of highlighting Ruscha's clever marrying of the formal qualities of the word with the liquescent qualities of the substance itself. One of the characteristics of Water, that mark it as one of the artist's very best works, is its subtle use of color that emanates from the background.
Beginning in 1969, partly in response to the 'celebration of the everyday' manifested in the Pop Art movement of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Ruscha began exploring the use of alternative materials in his artwork. He discovered a small container of gunpowder in his studio and began to incorporate this unusual medium into his work. 'Whatever excursion there was into this alternative materials world probably came about because I was not totally satisfied with graphite [or] oil paint,' he recalled, 'So I happened to have by accident this little canister of gunpowder. I thought 'well that's a powder like charcoal, like graphite and why can't that be used?' And I experimented with it and I found that it offered things that other things didn't' (E. Ruscha, speaking at Ed Ruscha: Making Sense of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 2004, http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/189, (accessed July 2013). Ruscha's use of gunpowder marks an innovative use for a substance with a long and noble history. Developed in China in the 9th century, gunpowder has the ability to be used in both destructive and celebratory ways. Since Ruscha introduced it into his artistic practice other artists have built on his lead and taken this innovation further. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, whose spectacular use of gunpowder in a work commissioned by the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai in 2001, propelled him to international attention. Like Ruscha, Cai Guo-Qiang incorporates the schizophrenic properties of the material, 'I saw gunpowder used in both good ways and bad, in destruction and reconstruction' he recalls, 'Gunpowder was invented in China as a by-product of alchemy' (C. Gou-Qiang quoted in 'Octavio Zaya in conversation with Cai Guo-Qiang,' in D. Friis-Hansen, O. Zaya & S. Takeshi (eds), Cai Guo-Qiang, London, 2002, p. 14). It is this sense of transformation that permeates Ruscha's enigmatic work, as by using only his unparalleled skill, Ruscha transforms simple and universal elements into an object of extraordinary beauty.
'Words...become abstract objects...I've never been able to look at my work as though the words I use can be used for anything more than what I've done with them' Ed Ruscha, 1980. (E. Ruscha quoted by R. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London, 2003, p. 111).