Rarely uttered aloud, the work "oof" belongs to the world of comic strips, not the great literature and art, and particularly not to painting. We expect the emphatic word to appear wrapped in a speech bubble with an exclamation point at the end, but Ruscha has dedicated a large-scale painting to it as if it were worthy of veneration. Of his work from this period Ruscha has said, "I was interested in monosyllabic word sounds that seemed to have a certain comedic value to them." In capital letters, "oof" floats against an empty blue backdrop, suspended somewhere between image and language and between iconicity and absurdity.
Gallery label from 2008
The word "oof" belongs to the world of comic strips. Ruscha, instead, renders it in oil and acrylic on canvas, giving this silly onomatopoeic grunt an incommensurable monumentality: “I was interested in monosyllabic word sounds that seemed to have a certain comedic value to them,” he said. Floating against an empty blue backdrop, OOF is suspended between image, language, icon, and absurdity.
Gallery label from On to Pop, September 29, 2010-April 25, 2011
"The single word, its guttural monosyllabic pronunciation, that's what I was passionate about," Ruscha has said of his early work. "Loud words, like slam, smash, honk." The comic-book quality of these words reflects the Pop artists' fascination with popular culture. (This interest is even more explicit in Ruscha's images of vernacular Los Angeles architecture.) Lettered in typography rather than handwriting, the words are definite and impersonal in shape; unlike the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s, Ruscha had no interest in letting a painting emerge through an introspective process: "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."
Words like oof, smash, and honk all evoke sounds, and loud and sharp ones. They also, as Ruscha says, have "a certain comedic value," and their comedy is underlined by the paradox of their appearance in the silent medium of paint, and with neither an image nor a sentence to help them evoke the sounds they denote. Oof is particularly paradoxical, as a word describing a wordless grunt. In Ruscha's hands, its double O's also pun on recent paintings—the Targets and Circles of Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland. Works like this one wryly point up the arbitrariness of our agreements on the meanings of our visual and verbal languages.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 250