OOO [47/90] and Lisp [57/90] 1970
Ed Ruscha’s prints, drawings and paintings often depict words. The artist has regularly employed for his subject matter a series of typographical devices including puns (Talk about space 1963), clichés (Not a bad world, is it? 1984), alliteration (Screaming in Spanish 1974), calligrams (Lisp 1971, Drops 1971, both lithographs), trompe-l’oeil (the liquid and ribbon words) and palindromes (Porch crop 2001 and Tulsa slut 2002, both acrylic on canvas).
Ruscha produced the calligrams OOO and Lisp during a period of self-imposed exile from painting (12 December 1969 to 29 February 1972). They form part of an extended series of Liquid word paintings, prints and drawings, a series initiated in 1966 with the painting Annie, poured with maple syrup and that continued throughout the decade. Words such as Adios 1967, Steel 1967–9 and Desire 1969 were written as if with liquid – syrup, oil or juice – mixed in some cases with other materials such as red kidney beans or caviar – spilled, dribbled or sprayed over a flat monochromatic surface.
The Liquid word paintings continued Ruscha’s interest in painting three-dimensional words. (Earlier examples include Damage 1964, where the letters ‘A’ and ‘G’ are on fire, and Hurting the word radio #1 1964, where clamps twist letters, as if to inflict pain.) In OOO and Lisp,the words have been formed with droplets of liquid sitting on a flat surface. Each word is written in a way that suggests something of its meaning, or at least of the physical act of its enunciation: OOO is made of what appear to be bubbles of spittle, made as air is passed through contracted, wet lips, in the manner of a baby amusing itself blowing bubbles; Lisp is formed of a series of splattered droplets that suggest the effect of spittle sprayed in the act of lisping.
Lisp is one of many works produced by Ruscha that refer to speech disorders or blunders. Many of the artist’s pastel works from the late 1970s use as their subject clichés spoken with the nervous enunciation of a stutterer: G-gosh it’s a sm-small w-world 1979, Your p…p…pl…place or m…mine? 1979. Lisp is loosely based on a painting of 1968, now in the collection of the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan, Utah. In this work, the word ‘lisp’ is dribbled diagonally across a cobalt-blue space. Ruscha produced a second painting of the word in the same year. In this second Lisp, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the word is written with a scroll of white paper, trailing five beads of spittle that act as an ellipsis, over a brown and green surface. The word also provided the basis for a further two drawings in 1966 and 1967, the later version of which writes the word with a scroll of white paper, formed in the same manner as the National Gallery of Art’s painting from the following year.
Lisp and OOO are highly ambiguous images. Each references the speech of children – in OOO, the processes through which a child learns to control its mouth so as to speak; in Lisp, the (often infantilising) inability to pronounce the letters ‘s’ and ‘z’. But the works also refer to the relationship of sexuality and speech. The full, wet ‘o’ forms of OOO shine with a fetishised, erotic appeal, while Lisp both plays with the words ‘lips’ and ‘lisp’ and invokes the historical stereotype of lisping as a form of gay speech. The works are also disarmingly humorous. There is irony in the fact that the speaker of ‘lisp’ has great difficulty pronouncing the word – thus the spray of spittle.
There is also an ironical formalism in Ruscha’s word pictures, since the form of the word reflects the material conditions of the media. The sharp-edged and linear ribbon words are always drawn, while the viscosity of the liquid words corresponds to ink and paint: ‘I can’t do a painting of a ribbon word, because ribbons belong only with drawings. Liquids have not been used in my drawings for a long time – liquids are for prints and paintings only. These media are good for only certain techniques.’
Given the significant relation of the drip and Abstract Expressionism, the formalism of which had been so dominant during the period of Ruscha’s time at Chouinard, his refiguring of this mythic and heroic sign – the drip – as the spittle of babies, young children and infantalised adults is compelling.
 oil on canvas, private collection
 oil on canvas, private collection
 shellac on taffeta, private collection
 oil on canvas, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
 oil on canvas, private collection, Chicago
 oil on canvas, Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis
 oil on canvas, private collection, Seoul
 oil on canvas, Alford House, Anderson Fine Arts Center, Anderson, Indiana
 oil on canvas, The Menil Collection, Houston
 pastel on paper
 pastel on paper
 ‘I was interested in monosyllabic words that seemed to have a certain comedic value to them.’ Edward Ruscha, quoted in Patricia Failing, ‘Ed Ruscha, young artist: Dead serious about being nonsensical’, Art news 81.4, April 1982, pp. 74–81 (78)
 Howardena Pindell, ‘Words with Ruscha’, in Alexandra Schwartz (ed.), Leave any information at the signal: writings, interviews, bits, pages, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 55–63 (57).
Last updated October 2016