Ed Ruscha Books & Co
At Gagosian Gallery New York (980 Madison Avenue), March 2013
By Sarah Kate Jorgensen
Ed Ruscha’s first publication, Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (1963), is a simple 48-page book of black and white photographs. Measuring 7” x 5” and bearing a simple red typeface title on the cover, the book barely hints at its radical topic: the ready-made art of the gas station. Similar to Robert Frank’s seminal street photography classic, The Americans, the photographs in Twenty Six Gasoline Stations are placed on the right hand pages of the book. Singular lines on the left pages of the book bear simple notes on the location of each gas station. Some of the images look fresh and modern—paeans to mid century modernism and the whimsy of travel and car culture. Others, such as the station in Amarillo, Texas, look run down and desolate. Resembling movie sets, the pictures have a horizontal sweep.
Included in the Gagosian Gallery’s exhibition, Ed Ruscha Books & Co, is a letter from the Library of Congress to Ed Ruscha in 1963 rejecting his submitted copy of Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. As demonstrated by this exhibition, this rejection was extremely short sighted; the importance of this book cannot be overestimated. Works by artists from all over the world who were influenced by Ed Ruscha’s photography books were on display in this Gagosian show. The exhibition coincided with the publication of MIT Press’ Various Small Books: Referencing Small Books by Ed Ruscha (2013), which documents ninety-one of the books inspired by Ruscha’s work.
The books by artists in the exhibition document such things as the change in landscape and culture, and take up many themes of Ruscha’s work. Many, such as Martin Moll’s crisp Twenty Six Gasoline Stations Revisited (2009), Jan Freuchen’s Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (2012), Frank Eye’s Twenty Four Former Filling Stations (2007), and Jeff Brows’ Twenty Six Abandoned Gasoline Stations (1997) speak to the decline of the independent gas station and the decline of towns along old interstate roads in the face of larger expressways. They are no longer icons of mid century prosperity. One could also say that, with the move away from gasoline powered vehicles, those gas stations will one day be relics.
Some of the art based on Ruscha’s work is cheeky; a book of Ruscha’s entitled Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965) gets revisited by Mark McCevoy as Real Estate Porn (2012) and Some Loser’s Apartment (2012). Ruscha’s book is also referenced in Anne Valeriegase’s Some Belsunce Apartments (2006).
Other artists echo his humor: Theo Wujick’s etchings from 2012 called You Snooze You Lose depict beachgoers sleeping next to their books. Ruscha’s 1972 Colored People, a series of photographs of different cacti, is a theme revisited by artists throughout the exhibition.
Some of the exhibited artists pick up on Ruscha’s journalistic slant. In Stan Douglas’s Every Building in West Hastings (1999), Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966) is transformed into an urban history in an impoverished Vancouver neighborhood. Other works in the exhibition give a nod to Ruscha’s clever mining of visuals and sociology. Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967), Ruscha’s collaboration with commercial photographer Art Alanis, depicts Los Angeles parking lots from an aerial perspective. Although Ruscha remarked “their abstract design quality meant nothing to me,” the impact of the diagonal lines is strong. Ruscha was instead more interested in the oil droppings on the ground, which marked patterns of behavior in their indication of parking spaces that were most desirable. Such patterns and markings are revisited in Hermann Zschiegner’s Thirty Four Parking Lots on Google Earth (2006), which features satellite images taken from Google maps. One artist not shown in this exhibition, but for whom Ed Ruscha’s aesthetic was clearly a driving influence is California artist Robert Olsen. His noir images of gas stations in Los Angeles have a restrained elegance, similar to Ruscha’s.
The graceful images in Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations are meant to look banal and objective in a way that betrayed the artist’s affinity for his subject. Ruscha furthered this idea of cool detachment in Some Los Angeles Apartments. In Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, he pulled back even further from his subject by handing the camera to someone else. This approach contrasts with the directly personal approach taken by many contemporary artists (Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus) in documentary and critical art photography. While Ruscha’s goal may have been to remove any hint of the personal in his pictures, his “no style- style” became a style in its own right and profoundly affected conceptual art photography. As evidenced by this exhibit, Ruscha’s approaches of humor, graphic composition, detachment and elegance have become widely referenced means of making art.
Artists besides Ed Ruscha in this exhibition:
ABC Artists’ Books Cooperative, Noriko Ambe, Edgar Arceneaux, Eric Baskauskas, Luke Batten / Jonathan Sadler (New Catalogue), Erik Benjamins, Victoria Bianchetti, Doro Boehme, Jeff Brouws, Denise Scott Brown, Wendy Burton, Stephen Bush, Corinne Carlson, Dan Colen, Julie Cook, Jennifer Dalton, Bill Daniel, Claudia de la Torre, Joshua Deaner, Jen DeNike, Eric Doeringer, Stan Douglas, Harlan Erskine, Frank Eye, Kota Ezawa, Robbert Flick, Jan Freuchen, Jochen Friedrich, Thomas Galler, Anne-Valérie Gasc, Steve Giasson, Simon Goode, Oliver Griffin, Daniel S. Guy, Dejan Habicht, Marcella Hackbardt, Sebastian Hackenschmidt, Karen Henderson, Mishka Henner, Kai-Olaf Hesse, Taro Hirano, Marla Hlady, Dominik Hruza, Steven Izenour, Sveinn Fannar Jóhannsson, Taly and Russ Johnson, Charles Johnstone, Rinata Kajumova, Henning Kappenberg, Jean Keller, Shohachi Kimura, Julia Kjelgaard, Joachim Koester, Sowon Kwon, Tanja Lažetic, Gabriel Lester, Jonathan Lewis, Jochen Manz, Michael Maranda, Scott McCarney, Mark McEvoy, Jerry McMillan, Daniel Mellis, Martin Möll, Dan Monick, Jonathan Monk, Simon Morris, Audun Mortensen, Brian Murphy, Toby Mussman, Maurizio Nannucci, Bruce Nauman, John O’Brian, Stefan Oláh, Performance Re-Enactment Society, Michalis Pichler, Tadej Pogačar, Susan Porteous, James Prez, Clara Prioux, Robert Pufleb, Joseph Putrock, Jon Rafman, Achim Riechers, David John Russ, Mark Ruwedel, Tom Sachs, Joachim Schmid, Andreas Schmidt, Jean-Frédéric Schnyder, David Schoerner, Yann Sérandour, Travis Shaffer, Gordon Simpson, Paul Soulellis, Tom Sowden, Kim Stringfellow, Derek Stroup, Derek Sullivan, Yoshikazu Suzuki, Chris Svensson, Eric Tabuchi, Elisabeth Tonnard, John Tremblay, Marc Valesella, Wil Van Iersel, Louisa Van Leer, Robert Venturi, Reinhard Voigt, Alex Von Bergen, Emily Wasserman, John Waters, Henry Wessel, Keith Wilson, Charles Woodard, Theo Wujcik, Mark Wyse, Hermann Zschiegne