"Absurdity for its own sake is rich. The selection of something absurd or the absurd handling of an absurd subject has attracted many artists and when its done right, it can be truly beautiful." (Ed Ruscha cited in Bernard Blistene: "A Conversation with Edward Ruscha" reproduced in Ed Ruscha exh. cat. Centre Cultural de la Fundacio Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona 1990, pp. 126-140)
Amphetamine and pencil, is a startling wordless painting by Ruscha from 1969. Representing the keenly observed images of a yellow pencil and the lone amphetamine of the title thrown into dramatic contrast with one another against a warm but blank horizon, these two banal and isolated objects generate an atmosphere of mystery and absurdity that rivals the encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella of the Surrealists whom Ruscha so much admired. Sometimes known as the "Cowboy Magritte" of modern art, Ruscha has always explored through his combination of words and images that enigmatic and strange place in our mental picture of the world where such recogniseable and apparently interpretable symbols such as words and images cease to bear meaning. Through seemingly absurd combinations of words and images Ruscha is able to create striking unintelligble pictures that have a powerful poetic resonance that is beyond meaning. In this way his work is unnerving in precisely the same way the Magritte's work is troubling and unnerving.
In the series of paintings to which Amphetamine and pencil belongs and which Ruscha made in 1969, Ruscha has temporarily abandoned words, but is able, even so, to conjure the same sense of mystery and absurdity as in his word paintings. The simple logic of Ruscha's visual language is what is so disconcerting. Using a conjunction of sharply rendered ordinary objects such as a pill and a pencil, or, as in other works of this series, an olive, a glass, or a bowling ball, Ruscha seems to visually appropriate the mental language that we all use to interpret objects as words and words as objects. The super-realism of these paintings throws the sense of object as mental concept into a harsh clarity that also heightens the patent absurdity of what we are seeing. In rendering the shadows of the pencil and the pill in this work, as if these conceptual objects were physically floating over the horizonless void of this Yves Tanguy-like landscape, this painting not only anticipates the virtual reality of cyberspace but also contemporary questions about what constitutes reality and what doesn't.