Whose Needs is an important work on paper from Ruscha's first body of industrial landscapes. In the 1980s, Ruscha began to place silhouettes within the background of his compositions, images taken from photographs in magazines and manipulated in size and scale. The silhouettes represent familiar motifs from the American vernacular and included: a southern belle, a schooner, a coyote, a bison and industrial buildings. The large, bland building in Whose Needs remains anonymous yet familiar in its banality, the lack of context or narrative serving to accentuate the mysterious words that dominate the landscape. Whose Needs is moody and ominous, reminiscent of Charles Sheeler's factory-scapes. Yet its blurred smokestacks and white, nearly illegible words invoke an amnesiac sense of memory. The word 'who' starkly juts out over the image of the smokestacks. The blank white lettering fuses with the sky, exacerbating the hazy sense of memory and the persistent question of identity. Ultimately, Whose Needs is an enigmatic image that negates any certainty of self.
"There is clearly a greater 'distance' between [Ruscha] and this historical subject matter, which is not of the 'here and now.' Yet despite this distinction, the effects are consistent with those of much of his earlier work: a subtle fusion of popular nostalgia and personal emotion" (M. Rowell, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2004, p. 23).