Ed Ruscha’s Books

In 1963 American pop artist Ed Ruscha began integrating collections into his practice with his first publication, Twentysix Gasoline Stations.  A deadpan look at the roadside of Route 66, this artist’s book simply contains its namesake, photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations, each captioned with its location and brand.  Inspired by road trips home from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, Ruscha states that he began photographing his gas refills along the way in an effort to “bring in the news to the city” of the mostly unknown patch of southwest America.  Although there is a consistent style and strategy in the photographs of Stations, Ruscha’s main interest in creating this work had less to do with the content and the photography than with the book itself as a physical, sculptural object of information.

Over the next decade, Ruscha would produce fifteen more photo-based books, continually returning to a strategy of collecting sets of similarly photographed images for content.  From Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965) to Nine Swimming Pools (1968), a fascination with the vernacular landscape is evident throughout Ruscha’s work.  But Ruscha’s motivations did not lie in creating a formal analysis or comparison between the contents of the collections.  Rather, he used the sets of images to explore the viewer’s experience of accumulated information in book form.   Ruscha did not necessarily view his books as fine art pieces, preferring to refer to them as “time capsules.”

In Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) Ruscha expanded on his interest in the book as sculptural object.  Photographing every building on the two-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard, Ruscha then glued and folded the collection of images together in order, creating an accordion-fold, twenty-seven foot strip of paper.  The book presents a recreation of both sides of the street, the south side along the top and the north side on the bottom.  By making the form of the book relate so directly to the content, Ruscha tapped into new potentials for information to passed from book and viewer.

Throughout his books, Ruscha’s titles dictate the content and quantity of the images collected.  Ruscha often first chose the title word combinations that appealed to him most; both in their graphic and auditory states, then went about collecting the images to fulfill the book’s namesake.  The actual photography of the content was not of particular interest to Ruscha, who often employed others to take the photographs for him, as in Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967), and Records (1971) where Ruscha gives us a look into his own music collection.

Though Ruscha has continued to use motifs of the ordinary American landscape, with a specific focus on Los Angeles, throughout all of his work, he maintains that, “you don’t necessarily learn anything from my books…  I want absolutely neutral material.  My pictures are not that interesting, nor the subject matter.  They are simply a collection of ‘facts’; my book is more like a collection of ready-mades.”

Michael Sirianni

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