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Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations

For an idea that came to undermine the set relationship between art and its audience in 1963, Ed Ruscha’s lightbulb moment was alarmingly simple. “I had this notion to make a book and I had been photographing gasoline stations across America,” he said. Ruscha’s resulting title visually recorded 26 of the stations he had passed on Route 66 on his journeys between his home in Los Angeles and his parents’ home in Oklahoma throughout the early 1960s. The print run initially ran to 400 copies and, by circumventing the usual display of artists’ work and attempting to belittle the value of a mass-produced product, the photographic artist book became a pioneering moment in 20th Century art.

It also presented an obvious challenge to his contemporaries’ photography. Ruscha’s book arrived four years after American road photography was shaken up by Robert Frank’s seminal photo record of his and his family’s trips across the country, titled The Americans. Beat author Jack Kerouac, in the foreword to Frank’s now-iconic set of black and white images, said the Swiss photographer had “sucked a sad poem right out of America”. Another quote by a contemporary art critic said: “The pictures took us by ambush then … [Frank] established a new iconography for contemporary America, comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars, and unknowable faces.” Ruscha’s images are not concerned with the aesthetics of the petrol stations nor appear to be making a critical comment on them. Like Frank he was training his eye on another part of the American everyday experience but his photographs don’t pack any kind of punch. “I just wanted to explore the subjects dead head straight on without much emotion,” he said.

With the exception of Edward Hopper’s Gas of 1940, petrol stations had not appeared as a focus of artistic contemplation and Ruscha makes no attempt to drape the pumps in a warm early evening light as Hopper does. He did explore the iconography of the stations in a series of paintings that became his signature through the 1960s that certainly took some of their clues from the Hopper painting. Ruscha was concerned with the sites in response to themes of landscape, place and culture. “What used to belong to the Navajo and Apache indians now belongs to the white man and he has gas stations out there. So I started to see [them] as cultural curiosities.”

The key with his artist book is to look beyond the photographs and see the other elements that make up the pages and which Ruscha was meticulous in designing. “I changed the form about 50 times at the printers,” he admitted. Big decisions were made about the front cover typeface – three lines of impact lettering spaced out at top, middle and bottom with a protective frosted sleeve diminishing the impact of the blood orange text. Inside Ruscha maximises more white space, bringing a neutrality to the images that are not numbered and supported only by the sparsest of literal descriptions; “Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles” or “Self Service, Milan, New Mexico”. The images are generally presented chronologically but crucially not all, undermining any order or rigid documentation of the stations that might give the book a sense of purpose. The reader starts out in “Bob’s Service, Los Angeles, California” but doesn’t end in Oklahoma City. Instead Ruscha signs off with “Fina, Groom, Texas” to give the sense of having begun a return journey. The only aspect of the book that Ruscha came to regret was its numbering of editions as it has granted the original copies an order of value rather than something equal as a mass produced product. The books were originally sold for a few dollars through ArtForum magazine after being rejected by the Library of Congress.

What the books did for Ruscha’s art was to better realise his driving intentions or feel for engaging with the world with a perplexed aloofness.I felt when I got going on the books that it was really the red meat of my work. It was the choice bit. Although I was painting pictures at that time, I felt that the books were more advanced as a concept than the individual paintings I had been doing. I realised that for the first time this book had an inexplicable thing I was looking for, and that was a kind of a “Huh?” That‘s what I’ve always worked around. All it is is a device to disarm somebody with my particular message.”

He followed up Twentysix Gasoline Stations with two sequels: Thirtyfour Parking Lots in 1967 and Nine Swimming Pools in 1968, the latter in colour. An artist aesthetic had definitely come into play by the time he headed into the air with a professional photographer to document the parking lots of Los Angeles and later a handful of the city’s swimming pools that had caught his eye in the aerial trip. Both are perhaps too beautiful or artistically pleasing to make anyone feel confused. Ruscha explored similar work with unnumbered titles at the same time. Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) and Royal Road Test (1967), in which he threw a typewriter out of a moving vehicle and then photographed the strewn pieces, allowed him to bring his ideas to an audience without them visiting a gallery, even if the ideas remained hidden or empty.