Ed Rucha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a thin paperback that resembles an industrial manual of the 1960s, is often considered to be the first modern artist’s book. The book is exactly what the title describes: 26 images of gasoline stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha was living and working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and frequently traveled the route between the two cities to visit his family.
“I just had a personal connection to that span of mileage between Oklahoma and California,” Ruscha told NPR earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of the book. “It just, it kind of spoke to me.”
In an interview with Avalanche magazine in 1973 he said, “I’d always wanted to make a book of some kind. When I was in Oklahoma I got a brainstorm in the middle of the night to do this little book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. I knew the title. I knew it would be photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations.”
So, Ruscha documented gas stations along that route in black-and-white photographs and labeled them with their locations, from “Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles” to “‘Flying A, Kingman, Arizona” to the final image “Fina, Groom, Texas.”
Ruscha published the book at age 26 in a run of 400 numbered copies in April 1963. Though it was the same year as Ruscha’s first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the book didn’t initially receive a warm reception. In a 1963 letter, the Library of Congress declined to add a copy to their collection, noting the book’s “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information.”
The book gradually acquired cult status in the 1960s, and a second edition was published in 1967 and a third in 1969. Surviving first editions of the book are rare.
Ruscha’s archive, which was recently acquired by the Ransom Center, includes snapshots of the gas stations, Ruscha’s notes about the project, the Library of Congress letter, and an advertisement with the headline “REJECTED Oct. 2, 1963 by the Library of Congress.”
Four large bins containing the archival material of artist Ed Ruscha arrived at the Ransom Center recently. Packed and carefully layered within were boxes, tubes, and portfolios containing Ruscha’s notable creations on paper. The collection includes his limited edition artist’s books and deluxe suites of prints, photographic publications, colorful exhibition posters, prints of his 16 mm movies, and a rich assortment of papers and journals documenting the creation of his publications and art commissions and referencing his various literary influences. Together, this material represents the achievements of a remarkable artistic career that spans more than half a century.
Born in 1937, Ed Ruscha is considered today to be one of the most important artists of his generation. Words and wry phrases have always played a central role in his artwork, beginning with the West Coast Pop Art phenomena of the 1960s where his roots run deep. For Ruscha, whose background includes commercial art and typesetting, words are visually malleable and can carry multiple meanings. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” Ruscha once said.
Arts writer, Calvin Tomkins, summed it up best: “His (Ruscha’s) early paintings are not pictures of words but words treated as visual constructs.”
Single word paintings with odd titles such as Oof (1963) and Boss (1964) were early precursors to more complex works such as the series of rhyming prints titled News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970), which are included in the archive.
Ruscha’s art would evolve and expand intellectually—Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns were early influences—to become beautifully crafted and complex conceptual works of art, which have been described over the years as being comedic, deadpan, and elegantly laconic.
West Coast car culture and commutes on Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma where Ruscha grew up all helped inspire many of his photography-based artist’s books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Royal Road Test (1980), and Parking Lots (1999). All are represented in the archive.
Most recently published is On the Road (2010), Ruscha’s limited edition artist book of the classic novel by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). The archive includes full-size mockups of the book, annotated copies of the novel, sketches, photographs, correspondence, and business papers. These materials resonate perfectly with the Ransom Center’s own collection of materials related to Beat Generation authors, which includes the journal that Kerouac kept while preparing to write On the Road.
Also included in the archive is Sayings (1995), a folio of ten color lithographs bound in linen that are based on Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale (1894). Ruscha selected phrases written by Twain in a black dialect spoken during the era of slavery. He superimposed the phrases (hand-written in what Ruscha calls his “Boy Scout Utility san serif”) over colorful wood grain patterns, creating a tension that resonates with larger social and racial issues in America today.
Ruscha’s creative distillation of popular American culture over the last half century with its layers of typographical code makes him an exciting artist to explore, and, for the Ransom Center, one of the more compelling if not quintessential to acquire.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In the years since, he has been widely recognized for his paintings, drawings, photographs, and artist’s books.
Ruscha is known for art that often manipulates words and phrases in unconventional ways. Ruscha’s art is deeply influenced by his love of books and language, as reflected by his frequent use of palindromes, unusual word pairings and rhyme. He has often combined the cityscape of Los Angeles with vernacular language, and his early work as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence his aesthetic and thematic approach.
Ruscha’s archive comprises five personal journals filled with preliminary sketches and notes; materials related to the making of his artist’s book of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (2010); notes, photographs, correspondence and contact sheets relating to the creation and publication of his many other artist’s books, including Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965); and materials relating to his short films Miracle (1975) and Premium (1971); his portfolios; and several art commissions.
Once processed and cataloged, the materials will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room to students, researchers and the public.
The purchase of the archive was primarily supported by generous donors, including Michael and Jeanne Klein, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Foundation, Mark Wawro, and Melanie Gray. The University provided additional support for the acquisition.
Ruscha, who continues to live and work in Los Angeles, donated a substantial portion of the archive to the Ransom Center, including a complete set of his artist’s books, print portfolios, 16 mm reels of his films, and a complete set of exhibition posters.
A small selection of materials from the archive will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through December 1.
The definition of what constitutes an artist’s book varies significantly depending on the social or critical circle observing the book. Is it an artist’s book, a livre d’artiste, an artist’s illustrated book, bookart, pop art, or a fine press book? If one were to look up the term and read any of the numerous essays about it, there would certainly be canonical titles offered and artists’ names as well—Henri Matisse, Ed Ruscha, and even William Blake, to name a few. Seeing these three artists of vastly different periods, styles, and mediums is proof that a single definition would not suit all audiences. In the preface in Artists’ Books: a Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Dick Higgins writes, “There is a myriad of possibilities concerning what the artist’s book can be; the danger is that we will think of it as just this and not that. A firm definition will, by its nature, serve only to exclude many artists’ books which one would want to include.”
Although the history of artists’ books is as vigorously debated as the definition, artists’ books truly began to proliferate in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular with the idea of the “democratic multiple”—well suited to the social and political climate of the times. Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and George Brecht’s An Anthology of Chance Operations are just a couple of examples from this period housed at the Ransom Center. Though it may be difficult to define artists’ books, often times you will know one when you see it because they can be quite unique—like a work of art. Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists’ Books offers one distinction as “books made as direct expressions of an artist’s point of view, with the artist involved in the conception, production, and execution of the work.” A few of the more “artful” examples in the Ransom Center collection include Clair Van Vliet’s Aura and Countercode archeo-logic by Timothy Ely. Some of the characteristics present can include plates or illustrations cut from wood, linoleum, stone, or even metal; the bindings can be made of leather, wood, metal, etc.; the paper can be handmade, stitched, rolled, cut, or folded; and there is no limit to shape, size, and sometimes even sequence. Some artists’ books are even designed to be shuffled like a deck of cards and read in any order.
Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. At the Ransom Center there are numerous examples of artists’ books, ranging from Henri Matisse’s famous Jazzto Henry Miller’s heartfelt Insomnia or the Devil at Largeto smaller press items like the collaboration of artist Steven Sorman with poet Lee Blessing in Lessons from the Russian. There are even a few gems in the collection that have until now escaped categorization as artists’ books. We are reviewing seminal bibliographies that address the evolving definitions of the genre and plan to revise and expand available resources to make the books in the collection more accessible. To search for artists’ books in the Ransom Center’s collections, access the UT Library Catalog: type in “artists’ books” (in quotation marks) and limit the results to the Harry Ransom Center. There is also a checklist of artists’ books available in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms.
Lynne Maphies also contributed to this blog post.
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