This work will be included in the forthcoming Ed Ruscha catalogue raisonné and is currently registered under archive number P1968.16.
"Words have temperatures to me," notes Ed Ruscha. "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." (cited in H. Pindell, "Words with Ruscha," The Print Collector's Newsletter, vol. III, no. 6 (January-February 1973), p.126.
Mint (Red) is a wonderfully evocative picture from the famous series of "liquid word" paintings that Ruscha made between 1967 and 1969. In this small but seminal series, Ruscha's words seem to have been written in a syrupy liquid, as if they were the products of an idle finger doodling on a tabletop or the bar of a roadside diner. Liquid words such as "Rancho" and "Adios" have an exotic cowboy sensibility, while "Oily", "Jelly" and "Ripe" convey more obviously the sticky flow of their lettering. Ruscha painted two versions of Mint in 1968, the present work made to look like a juicy, ruby red spill, the second an icy green.
Ed Ruscha was born in Oklahoma City, but in 1956 he took to the road in Jack Kerouac fashion, and drove his 1950 Ford down the legendary Route 66 westwards to Los Angeles. The romance of this journey would have a profound influence on Ruscha's art. The unreality of the endless flat and featureless landscape, the vast empty skies, punctuated by the passing advertising billboards and gas station signs, came to form the basis of his deceptively simple word paintings. As Ruscha recalls, much of his inspiration came from the somewhat removed way of looking at the world as though through the window of a moving car. "I saw a big fertile field in street iconography here in L.A.., things from the road, the highway, automobiles, popular culture. I began to see things while I was travelling. I would have these flashes of inspiration from things I would see, like signs, buildings." (cited in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 2002, p. 159.)
The drive-by cognizance of Ruscha's words, isolated against near monochromatic voids of sky and horizon, gives even the most familiar letters and phrases a certain mystical strangeness and ambiguity. The large lettering of Mint hovers in a twilight zone of yellow and brown sky, as if illuminated by headlights. The scale and isolation of the chosen word gives importance to what would otherwise seem common-place and forces the viewer to question the nature of its meaning. The splatter of the letters across the canvas suggests movement as seen from a passing car, while that sense of a fleeting, unattainable moment (or memory) is further heightened by the dissipating liquidity of Mint.
But what is the meaning of Mint? Is Ruscha referring here to the herb, the candy or to a taste; to an aromatic, a cool freshness or to a pristine state? Could he be referring to the minting of a metal? Ruscha's choice of a sticky red to describe the word seems contradictory to its normal association, and the gooey nature of the liquid does not imply the usual fragrant crispness of the herb. Influenced by the beguiling Surrealist work of René Magritte, Ruscha happily plays with these paradoxes in order force us to question our own memories and preconceptions. Liquidity is after all another name for non-articulation. "I've always had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things which cannot be explained. Explanations seem to me to sort of finish things off." (B. Blistene, "A Conversation with Ed Ruscha", reproduced in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Centre Cultural de la Fundacio Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona, 1990, pp. 36-8.)
Critics have read the "liquid word" paintings as a critique by Ruscha on the lofty pretensions of Abstract Expressionism and the exalted status afforded to Jackson Pollock in particular. Just as Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke paintings pay ironic homage to the loaded brush of Willem de Kooning, so pictures like Mint are seen as part of Ruscha's dialogue with Pollock's drip paintings. "When I was in school, I painted just like an Abstract Expressionist - it was a uniform. Except you really didn't have to wear it, you just aped it. It was so seductive: the act of facing a blank canvas with a palette. I liked painting that way, but there seemed no reason to push it any further. But I began to see that the only thing to do would be a preconceived image. It was an enormous freedom to be premeditated about my art." (cited in F. Fehlau, "Ed Ruscha," Flash Art, January-February 1988, p. 70.)
Ed Ruscha in front of Eye photograph by Berry Berenson
Ed Ruscha, Desire, 1969, Christie's, New York, 13 November 2002, lot 29