Actual Size: Explained

Actual Size: Explained

Ed Ruscha has spent his life toying with everyday words and objects – from roadside gas stations and billboards to the Hollywood sign. Featuring the SPAM logo and tin, Actual Size is one of his most iconic artworks. Here’s how a strange, satirical painting captured the essence of America.

5 min read

artists gathered on the steps of LACMA in 1968 – Ed Ruscha is at the back in front of his painting, Actual Size

Household names – why do Pop artists like packaging so much?

In the 1960s Pop artists were obsessed with household packaging. For Andy Warhol it was Campbell’s Soup, for Ed Ruscha it was SPAM. Andy explained the connection simply – Pop art is about popularity. What’s more popular than the things people use every day?

This explanation only scratches the surface. Pop art was born during the golden age of advertising (think Don Draper in Mad Men) when manufacturers set out to distinguish themselves from their competition by creating brands that sold a lifestyle, rather than a single product. Andy and Ed had both worked in advertising. As artists, they appropriated its aesthetics to critique the very idea of popularity in an increasingly consumerist society.

Pay Nothing Until April, Ed Ruscha, 2003

As well as products themselves, Ed was interested in the language brands used to sell them.

Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962

Andy printed his silkscreen soup cans the same year Ed painted Actual Size.

If Andy’s tins and boxes are stacked like New York City high-rises, Ed’s work responds to a very different environment. His love for the American West shines through in the wide open spaces of his paintings. Road signs, gas stations and billboards are his muses.

By painting them, he explores the subtleties of language and how the meanings of words and phrases are changed by medium and context – from comic book onomatopoeia (Oof, Smash, Honk) and poetic fragments (Turbo Tears) to the famous trademark, SPAM.

Oof, Ed Ruscha, 1962

Smash (detail), Ed Ruscha, 1964

Back of Hollywood, Ed Ruscha, 1977

Ruscha is attuned to the words and language around him. It's as if he continuously notates what he hears and sees, then brings it back to the studio.

Rebecca Morse, Curator at LACMA

Honk, Ed Ruscha, 1962

Turbo Tears, Ed Ruscha, 2020

Standard Station Amarillo Texas, Ed Ruscha, 1963


Actual Size (1962) is a large painting divided horizontally in two. The word ‘SPAM’ fills the top half of the canvas with yellow text on a deep blue background. A small tin of SPAM flies across the lower half, propelled by flames as if it were a rocket. Stolen from small text disclaimers in advertising, the painting's title signals that the tin is, in fact, actual size.

Ruscha is interested in type, typefaces and in words as objects. He says they're ultimately scalable. They can be big. They can be small. They can be sculptural. But then when he renders objects like SPAM, he does so at one-to-one size – hence the title.

Rebecca Morse, Curator at LACMA

Actual Size, 1962

Actual Size was acquired by LACMA in 1963 and will be on display in the first room of Ed's major cross-media retrospective ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN.

New Painting of Common Objects, 1962

Actual Size was included in the first survey by a of American Pop art by a US museum alongside artworks by Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, Phillip Hefferton, Robert Dowd, Joe Goode and Wayne Thiebaud. Ed also designed the poster.

Reception for artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1968

Five years after LACMA acquired Actual Size, Ed poses in front of his painting on the museum steps with an ensemble of the artists working in Los Angeles. The story goes that he spent the day serving hotdogs.

What is SPAM?

SPAM is a canned meat product made from reconstituted pork. It was invented in the American midwest in 1937 during the Great Depression as a cheap alternative to fresh meat. The size of the logo compared with the size of the tin suggests that Ed cared less about the contents, and more about what SPAM symbolised.

By the middle of the 20th century SPAM had become the ultimate symbol of American culture. Today it is most popular in Japan and across the Pacific Islands – not in spite of its Americanness, but because of it. SPAM first arrived in the region with American GIs, who set up military bases following Japan’s defeat in World War 2. It was easy to transport over long distances without risk of spoiling. SPAM became popular with locals – at first out of necessity, but eventually as a delicacy. Take for example Japanese-Hawaiian Musubi – SPAM and rice wrapped in a crispy seaweed. Like many American products, SPAM became a global presence as the nation’s superpower status solidified. 

SPAM through the years

"SPAM in a Can" – what do the Cold War and Space Race have to do with Pop art?

Another superpower was on the rise. As the Cold War intensified, the US launched a marketing campaign of its own. In contrast to the image of the USSR as soulless and uniform, individuality and creativity were championed as uniquely American values. Pop artists were paying attention.

As the meaning of America changed, so did SPAM. It was no longer a practical yet uninspiring choice, but a vessel for culinary experimentation. Cookbooks from the 1970s presented a thousand different ways to cook it. SPAM became a beacon of innovation – the kind of innovation that could take a country to the moon!

Ed honed in on SPAM as the essence of America.

SPAM (Cut in Two), Ed Ruscha, 1961

The Space Race birthed a new meaning for SPAM. In 1961 NASA started sending humans into space as part of Project Mercury. These early spacecraft were remotely piloted and had just about enough room for one astronaut. Popularised by journalists, the phrase "SPAM in a can" likened them to cheap meat in a metal container. That’s why in Actual Size a tin of SPAM becomes a rocket flying through space. The viewer is left to imagine the contents for themself – reconstituted pork, or spacebound American?

From SPAM® to spam – what does it mean today?

Ed Ruscha’s practice is about how the idea of America has been constructed, preserved and changed through time. This is embodied in his now-iconic appropriation of SPAM. In the years since he painted it, layers and layers of meaning have been added to his painting.

Today, the word spam is more commonly associated with unsolicited emails or bots clogging up comment sections. These new meanings raise new questions around popularity and omnipresence, and how signifiers (words, symbols) relate to their signifieds (real-life objects).

There is an absurd humour to taking words out of their ordinary context and turning them into art objects. Ed’s work endures because it looks at the world from unexpected points of view and, in doing so, uncovers prescient truths about it – like America in a tin.

A print for LACMA

In this new landscape, things are rarely what they once were.

Transformed into a limited edition print, Actual Size is no longer actual size. Printmakers at Make-Ready in London have scaled the painting down in order to fit an art historical giant on walls around the world. The new incarnation is finished will a layer of silkscreen details in vibrant yellow – befitting Ed's lifelong interest in printmaking.

Actual Size is launched to coincide with Ed's retrospective at LACMA. Proceeds will support the museum's future.

Go deeper

When asked about his time in Europe, Ed responded he’d “rather be in LA." Luckily for him his first major retrospective in two decades is heading west from MoMA to LACMA. ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN will be open from 7 April to 6 October, 2024.

Want to learn more about Ed Ruscha? Check out his episode of Artist’s Artist – a series that introduces game-changing artists in sixty seconds or less.

Try your hand at cooking with SPAM with The Ultimate SPAM Cookbook and browse the full range on!



Subscribe to the Avant Arte newsletter for the art world in your inbox.

By continuing, you’re agreeing to our terms & conditions and privacy policy.