Winterset, IA
Fueling the Internet Superhighway— Winterset, IA

ER: In the early 1950s I was awakened by the photographs of Walker Evans and the movies of John Ford, especially Grapes of Wrath where the poor “Okies” (mostly farmers whose land dried up) go to California with mattresses on their cars rather than stay in Oklahoma and starve. I faced a sort of black-and-white cinematic emotional identity crisis myself in this respect—sort of a showdown with myself—a little like trading dust for oranges. On the way to California I discovered the importance of gas stations. They are like trees because they are there. They were not chosen because they were pop-like but because they have angles, colors, and shapes, like trees. They were just there, so they were not in my visual focus because they were supposed to be social-nerve endings.

. . . BB: For the last fifteen years or so that you have been using words and sentences, they have always been painted or drawn on paper or canvas, never directly on a wall as Lawrence Weiner or Victor Burgin do. Why do you need to present a “picture”?

ER: This seems to be a question of permanence versus mobility. I am a victim of the power of the four-sided rectangle and I think it is here to stay. It seems so logical to make a mobile picture.

“Interview with Edward Ruscha,” Bernard Brunon, Leave any Information at the Signal p. 250-251

I grew up about two miles from the Hilltop labor camp portrayed in Grapes of Wrath. I’ve always felt a stronger connection to gas stations and telephone poles than trees; Ruscha makes perfect sense to me. Gas stations and telephone poles were just “there” in a way that nature wasn’t—I never thought of what they “did” as social nerves, they were simply part of the visual field I found interesting when I began making pictures. Mobility is just there, a part of the background noise of the world I have lived in.

Food for thought

He speaks politely and openly to studio visitors about his work, although he rarely seems to say what the more philosophical among them want to hear. This kind of visitor, usually from out of town, believes that artistic issues such as literal vs. depicted space, the muse of mathematical composition systems, transubstantiation of word and image, non-narrative discourse, and the objectification of vernacular speech all have something to do with Ruscha’s work.

But in responding to questions about, say, the a priori numerical field defined in his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha tends to change the subject discreetly.

“You know, what really interested me about that project,” he might reply, “was the sound of the number ‘26.’ I really like the number ‘26,’ and I wanted to do something with ‘26’ in it.”

Patricia Failing, “Edward Ruscha, Young Artist: Dead Serious About Being Nonsensical” Art News, April 1982.

Twentysix Gasoline Stations

Lithograph by Ed Ruscha

“I used to drive back four or five times a year,” says Ruscha, “and I began to feel that there was so much wasteland between L.A. and Oklahoma that somebody had to bring the news to the city. Then I had this idea for a book title—Twentysix Gasoline Stations—and it became like a fantasy rule in my mind that I knew I had to follow. Then it was just a matter of being a good little art soldier and going out and finishing it. It was a straightforward case of getting factual information and bringing it back. I thought of it as making a sort of training manual for people who wanted to know about things like that.”

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, published in 1962, was the prototype for most of Ruscha’s subsequent books. It contains black and white snapshots of gasoline stations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Amarillo, Texas— the model for Ruscha’s famous 1963 painting, Standard Station—each photographed from across the street and identified by a one-line caption giving name and location.

Patricia Failing, “Edward Ruscha, Young Artist: Dead Serious About Being Nonsensical” Art News, April 1982.


“Air, Water, Fire” (detail). cover image from Graphic Works by Ed Ruscha, 1978

I’ve been going through my things and throwing most of them away. It seems like I’ve done this every summer for the last four years—each year, I reduce the bulk by about half. You’d think that eventually I’d have nothing, but it doesn’t work that way. I collect things at an amazing rate. I’m never sure if I’m gaining or losing in the battle of the bulk.

I didn’t realize that Ed Ruscha’s critical stock had risen in the last few years. His influence on me came really early, circa 1977. My mentor at Bakersfield Community College, Harry Wilson, kept the reserve-reading section of the library stocked with Ruscha’s (then quite inexpensive) bookworks. I’d sit in there and marvel over them. I think Twenty-six Gasoline Stations was my favorite; it sort of set the tone for most of my attempts at photography in the late 70s / early 80s. I acquired my first (and for the longest time, only) book about him—the exhibition catalog I’ve been quoting from—somewhere around 1985. I had no idea that there were several books issued in the last few years (I’ve ordered a few new ones), let alone an entire issue of October (Winter 2005) dedicated to him. I thought I was onto something, but it seems I’m behind the curve (typical).

But I remember this book fondly as part of a wonderful purge/binge. A local bookstore had purchased an estate’s art books. I was broke (typical) and decided that it was time to improve the quality of my book collection. I grabbed every book in my house that wasn’t absolutely essential (mostly how-tos and sci-fi novels) and traded them in for more interesting art titles. Thus, I reduced my bulk, while beefing up on food. It was a win-win. I’m not so sure that this is what’s happening now, but I hope it’s something like that.

On the visibility and viability of labels

From Ray Davis:

For the sake of argument, and to judge all others by myself, I’ll admit that people who don’t explicitly theorize are working on the basis of latent or unarticulated, unreflective or implicit theory.

And with my admission, I’ll affirm there are worst crimes than letting theory remain latent and unarticulated. Something has to. Just because we found our writing on a theory doesn’t mean the theory’s worth writing about.

It’s like a badge of honor to sever allegiance to explicit theory to just write about the thing itself. But it also seems like a cheat to those attempting to learn from the work. Although the price-tag of theory is skyrocketing, theoretical tags underwrite any form of critical thinking. Do they disappear if we tear them off?

There’s a different and unrelated perspective from Tom Matrullo:

Continue reading “On the visibility and viability of labels”


Lithograph by Ed Ruscha ,1970

It seems to me that there is an intrinsic connection between art and comedy, but I never realized that Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams, the head writer for the Smothers Brothers Show, were collaborators. I never really got the joke of Williams’ “Classical Gas”—they played it on the radio incessantly when I was growing up. Ruscha and Williams cooked up some weird stuff:

Continue reading “Crackers”