Ed Ruscha’s ever-renewing interest in books and language finds powerful embodiment in Damn Mad Open Book, where the stylized blank double pages of an open book, painted weightlessly on raw linen, are juxtaposed with the palindrome words ‘damn mad’ in stark black paint. The ironic and provocative use of text is a concept that runs throughout Ruscha’s career. The artist has long been fascinated by the power of words as abstract entities, as shapes and as language. As poetically explained by the artist, 'Words have temperatures to me. When they have reached a certain point and become hot words 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' (E. Ruscha, 'Repainting, redrawing and rephotographing Los Angeles', in Art Newspaper, 19 December 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Repainting,+redrawing+and+rephotographing+Los+Angeles/28277 [accessed 7 January 2015]). Ruscha expresses the role of words as signifiers in language and thought, a quality which is at the core of Damn Mad Open Book, part of the series of Open Books Ruscha created between 2002 and 2005. In his signature style, here, Ruscha isolates the text from the image: presented in a new context, the words see their effect heightened, which leads to a tension between signifier and signified. In this way, the book loses both its functional and physical properties: its blank sheets reject communication and signification, its weight and volume vanish in the flat and textured surface of the linen. However, the text, ironically displaced to the outside of the book, still provides the image with all its mysterious meaning.
The wordplay ‘damn mad’ creates a multi-sensorial short circuit which reveals the very special nature of language. Once the viewer has read it, the particular sound produced reveals the palindromic trick, the fact that the words read the same backwards or forwards. The splayed white pages become in this sense a mirror in which the audience’s own incapability of seeing is reflected. The acts of reading and interpreting become the subject of the work, in a witty play between the artist and his public. Having trained as a sign painter, Ruscha was well aware of the ambiguity of language and the importance of its design. The influence of the brilliant and provocative surrealist René Magritte is clearly detectable in Damn Mad Open Book’s stylized rendering and graphics and in the similar of words. Magritte illuminated paradoxes between text and stress on the evocative and playful nature image causing the viewer to question the relationship presented. Visual and verbal means of communication coexist to create this sense of dislocation. Many of the artists Ruscha admired, such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Marcel Duchamp, laced their art with a strong sense of wit and world play, the hallmark of Ruscha’s own oeuvre as seen in the brilliant example of Damn Mad Open Book.