The artist has provided a copy of the signed letter correcting the date of the work to 1964.
"Vital art is made out of things that the general population has overlooked. The things that are forgotten and thrown away are the things that eventually come back around and cry for attention. The artist sees possibilities in things that are overlooked. Seeing the electric vibrancy in something that's so dead. The forgotten things are a source of food" (Ruscha, quoted in Ed Ruscha, exh. cat., Oxford, 2001, p. 161).
Following the example of Jasper Johns' transforming of ordinary, banal and mundane objects, such as targets, alphabets or flags, into both the subject matter and the medium of his paintings, in the early 1960s Ed Ruscha fastened upon familiar words as viable and potent images around which to base his art. Ruscha's decision to heroify the word and transform it into the subject-matter of his work marked the beginning of a way of working and indeed a tradition that has lasted now for nearly fifty years. Comprising solely of a flat electric blue background and the single word "VOLTAGE" emblazoned in yellow across it in bold advertising type, Voltage is an important early example from the first series of monosyllabic word paintings that Ruscha made in the early 1960s.
In this series of works, which effectively began with his 1961 painting of the single word "Boss" painted in black against a textured brown background, Ruscha began on his lifelong journey exploring the strange new painterly landscape and architecture that opened up for him through the introduction of the word and its typography into the field of painting. Influenced by Johns and also by Kurt Schwitters, whose ability to transform fragments of seemingly banal everyday words and things into a mysterious and powerfully poetic pictorial world had clearly impressed him, Ruscha too sought transform the elements of his everyday reality into the language of his art. Two road trips, one around Europe in 1961 and another across America had awoken in Ruscha a "Pop" sensitivity to contemporary America being a landscape of signs. This aspect of the American landscape was further compounded on his arrival in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles with its unique blend of blue skies, desert landscapes, billboards, logos and advertising hoardings all dominated by the vast iconic image of the Hollywood sign nestled in the nearby hills. Here, in Los Angeles, in the company of new friends he met there such as the then budding young photographer and actor Dennis Hopper, Ruscha began to make a practice of observing and documenting fragments of the Los Angeles landscape as it passed by through the window of his car life as he drove around the city. Single words, and images, signs, logos and sayings would flash past, some becoming temporarily lodged in the memory and it was from these usually banal, commonplace and often overlooked, images, words and symbols, spontaneously registered by Ruscha and sometimes jotted down in a notebook, that he began to make paintings.
"It's an artist's job," Ruscha has said, "to (embellish a trivial subject) despite the fact that you have to use tricks and devices in order to put that idea across. I like to give attention to the lonely paintbrush or make a tribute to something that is humble, or something that does not require explanation. There are things that I am constantly looking at that I feel should be elevated to greater status. That's why taking things out of context is a useful tool to an artist. It's just the concept of taking something that's not subject matter, and making it subject matter" (Ruscha, quoted in Edward Ruscha : Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings Volume One 1958-1970, New York, 2003, p. 151).
Operating along these lines - something he has described as a "waste retrieval" method, retrieving and renewing "things that have been forgotten or wasted," Ruscha focused on subjects whose ordinariness and familiarity seemed to have rendered them invisible amidst the mainstream culture of daily life. Isolating individual words and then rendering them as the heroic subjects of his art, Ruscha's subjects took on new and surprising connotations. Magically transformed into still-lifes or more appropriately perhaps, on account of the essentially horizontal nature of words, epic landscapes, his words seemed to gain a new and surprising iconic power. The proportion and balance between the typographic form of the word and the size and color of the picture was all important in this respect and again, Ruscha seems to have relied largely on instinct in this respect in the creation of these first single-word pictures. "In the beginning all these things would overlap. I'd be doing things with photography and then also doing paintings at the same time, with words, and so it was like following blind faith, and I let that guide me, and I found myself doing monosyllabic words - OOF and Smash and Noise...They were more architectural or architectonic, straight lines and they had a conventional typographic referencemy instinct, as it began to work, would make me chose one (kind of typography) over the other. It was not intentional for a word to have an attitude itself. I didn't have to follow a course, I had no rules for this (and) for that reason I didn't really concentrate so much on preparatory drawings. I envisioned a painting and then painted it, it was quick. There was much less room between my mind and the painting" ("Conversation between Walter Hopps and Edward Ruscha," Alexandra Schwarz (ed.), Leave Any Information at the Signal, Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages, Ed Ruscha, Cambridge, 2002, p. 320).
Along with the onomatopoeic language of the comic book, Honk, Smash and Oof, for example, Ruscha's intuition seems to have led him towards the choice of quite dynamic and exciting, if also commonplace and ordinary words: Electric, Flash, Noise, Won't, Damage and of course, Voltage. The word "voltage" which is most normally seen in sign form on one warning of "high voltage" is here rendered almost as if in cinemascope as a grandiose title set against a sky-like electric blue background, its bold masculine typography bizarrely asserting its importance, strange familiarity and also its banality. Seeming to operate within René Magritte's enchanted domain, Ruscha here bestows on this relatively commonplace word a West Coast grandeur that seems to speak of the land in which it was made as well as graphically exposing the extraordinary nature of what words are.