Initially inspired by the synthesis of Pop and Conceptualism pioneered by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Ruscha began creating text paintings in the late 1950s. These early compositions brought together the regimented and rule-laden world of printed matter with the expressive freedom of painting. As the artist was beginning to establish his signature focus, scale and proportion became incredibly important as a basis for communication. With an early focus on single words, Ruscha’s ability to shift the formal qualities of his subject matter helped the artist create nuanced, deeply profound pockets of meaning out of monosyllabic utterances. Words in Ruscha’s paintings would become distorted as well as grow and shrink in endless permutations as the artist worked through the building blocks of communication.
Please Note represents a peak in this long series of explorations and developments, began when the artist was just a student at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, through to moments of critical acclaim, global exhibitions and unparalleled market success. Delineated in an attenuated serif, the present work is an ethereal floating phantom in a space that resembles purgatory more than any concrete environment. The idiom “please note” recalls requests scrawled in office memos and legal briefs, its formality and self-seriousness undermining whatever important argument or fact comes after it. Ruscha expresses the sense of incredulousness with which he approaches that element through the visual abstractions he incorporates into the canvas. An opaque field of white extends from the lower right corner, physically layering over the rest of the contiguous composition and dually suggesting notions of depth and flatness. Behind it, there is an expansive void, with the eponymous words “Please Note” half-obscured behind it. Ruscha has frozen time in his composition and makes subjective whether the phrase is undergoing a process of uncovering or if it is sinking and nearly lost.
Using a phrase that reflexively debases itself and fundamentally subverts its meaning, the present work gets to the crux of Ed Ruscha’s oeuvre. As Ruscha explains, “[v]ital 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 around and cry for attention. The artist sees the possibilities in things that are overlooked. Seeing the electric vibrancy in something that is so dead. The forgotten things are a source for food” (the artist quoted in: Kerry Brougher, “Words as Landscape,” in: Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ed Ruscha, 2000, p. 161). Taking a phrase, and more broadly a sentiment that begs to be overlooked, Ruscha crafts a composition that is absorptive and formally sophisticated, culminating in a tableau that is impossible to ignore.
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