“ We never know when we are going to get kissed or kissed-off”.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Ed Ruscha is Gas Station. I see him pulling into a Sunoco or Chevron… driving a ’56 Chevy, the kind Dennis Wilson and James Taylor drove in the movie Two Lane Blacktop… or a 1970 Dodge Challenger, the one that Barry Newman drove in the movie Vanishing Point. The station also turns out to be a place on the radio and then a place in a painting. The painting is a gas. The station on the radio is a classical gas. All three places is an octane of pop minimalism, abstraction and realism. What am I talking about? What am I listening to? And most important, what’s in front of me right between the space of my outstretched arms… “Do you see what I see?” asks the deejay. Ed, with his elbow out the window and his eyes checking the rearview mirror… answering, mutters something underneath his breath, “I can only guess”.
Far Past The Trees of Crazy Sorrow
The Byrds come on the AM singing Hey Mr. Tambourine Man… That sounds good. All twelve strings. Roger MaQuinn and Gene Clark. Early Byrds get the worm. I wonder if Ed thought about painting the Byrds. Byrd is the word. Right now, it’s Southwestern landscapes and Los Angeles highways. Los Angeles is a city of cars and parking lots, especially empty ones… ones that look like earthworks designed for graphic junkies. Asphalt and oil spots, white slashes like military ranks aping early Frank Stella geometry. I have a circular driveway. Problem is I can’t get out.
Thirty Four Parking Lots
These are places where you stop, rest and make-out. Where you sit and have a beer. A place to listen to top-ten and watch a drive-in movie. Devoid of grass and flowers. Empty ashtrays and brown paper bags stepped on and attach themselves to the surface. Take a look at the lot at the State Board of Equalization. Part of it looks like a blackboard jungle scratched up and signed by Cy Twombly. The lots are like Jasper John’s targets… the bull’s eye for Ed’s way of seeing. There’s nothing there that’s psychic or emotional or needs to be appreciated judged or interpreted. It’s off limits to any kind of umpiring. It’s all matter of fact. What’s already out there. Like some nutty social science fiction. Neutral, objective, deadpan. "What moves me as an artist", Ruscha says, “is a certain flavor of decadence… theme parks and warehouses say something to me and give me a sense of reality”.
The Beach Comber Yells, “I Claim It”.
When Ruscha put out Thirty Four Parking Lots, his day job was working as a sign writer at an advertising agency doing layout. I’ve always thought about slipping off on weekends and brainstorming for someone like Jay Chiat. Sit around and figure out how to sell a sneaker, a chocolate bar, an airline, some lipstick. Lew Welch, the beat poet, friend of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg… he did it, to make ends meet… worked at an agency in Chicago… came up with the line “Raid kills bugs dead”. Pretty wonderful. Japanese haiku. The last anyone heard or saw of Lew was when he walked off into the desert carrying a rifle.
At the end of Thirty Four Parking Lots, the last lot pictured, (another last) Santa Monica Blvd. from Roxbury to Wilshire Blvd… the last part of the image is neatly folded back into the book. This extension to the layout only happens here. This attention to detail could have only occurred to Ed Ruscha. It’s off the charts phenomenal design; gives the book a perfect ending. I have a first issue, first printing, signed copy. I have another first printing, one of 2413 copies, illustrated throughout in black & white, printed wrappers, spine slightly sunned, minor wear to the extremities… inscribed in blue ink on the first free endpaper: “To Bruce Best Wishes Ed R”… the Bruce being Bruce Nauman. I’ve got a third copy in a glassine dust jacket, (as issued) inscribed to Henry Geldzahler and his then boyfriend Christopher Scott: “Hang In There Henry & Chris! Ed Ruscha”. I once asked Ed if he was ever a beatnik. He said, “No”. I asked him if he was ever a hippie…, “No”. What about being a punk? He just scratched his head…
Joe Friday, “Just the facts”.
The way Los Angeles is spread out with little or no public transportation; you’re almost required to have a car. Better get used to the road, the freeways, the traffic, the stops and starts, the carpool, and mostly the isolation you’ll feel when your car boils over and your tires shred and you find yourself stuck in the middle of some J.G. Ballard giant novel. Think O.J. Simpson meets Concrete Island. You don’t walk in L.A., you make appointments. You don’t suddenly run into someone on the sidewalk and decide to take a break and catch up over coffee. Having an automatic transmission is a good place to start.
Having lived in New York City most of my life, I’m always amazed when I’m visiting L.A. how you can be “riding along in our automobile”…. say on Sunset Strip and just off to the right or left you can find yourself in front of a ranch house or bungalow with a front lawn. A perfectly manicured front lawn with a fence, shrubs, and a driveway. I find the sudden suburban inclusion bizarre. It wrenches away the fantasy of L.A. being filled with the neon rain of Blade Runner. What did Raymond Chandler say in the Big Sleep? “Los Angeles is a one-story town”.
Tune In Turn On Drop Out
Every Building On Sunset Strip, published in 1966, is exactly what the title says. It is every building on Sunset Strip. The book is 27 feet long, an accordion of folded pages that collapse into a small square-like road map. Take the trip, past the Whiskey, where in a couple of years The Doors will be the house band. It’s a riot. When I was growing up there was a T.V. show called 77 Sunset Strip. I think it was about a private eye. It starred Ed “Cookie” Burns. A kind of cross between Maynard G. Krebs and the Steve McQueen character in the movie Bullet. The show was supposed to be “cool”. All I remember was that “Cookie” looked in the mirror and combed his hair a lot. He drove a Corvette, an American version of the Ferrari. And like McQueen in Bullet, wore what was new & “ultra”: a turtleneck. He was finger-snapping hip. He would have fit right into the Ferus Gallery stable. He could of hung out with Wallace Berman and Joe Goode and Billy Al Bengston and Irving Blum. He could have been Ed Ruscha’s chauffer.
Ruscha didn’t photograph the buildings on Sunset Strip from a sports car. He stood in the back of a pick-up truck snapping away with a motorized camera. Each exposure was a way of coating, containing and surrounding his subject. Looking through the lens, he was “taking” things that didn’t move. He was the one moving. He was not capturing. There was no chance involved. If he didn’t get it today, he could always come back tomorrow. The drive-by was in black and white. I’ve got a copy of Every Building On Sunset Strip in it’s silver foil slipcase, (this one lacking the paper belly-band)… it’s inscribed to Timothy Leary: “To Tim-Tops! Ed R”. Leary, the guru of LSD. Famous for staying out of jail…then famous for going to jail…then famous for escaping from jail. It’s interesting to think the visual sensation of the book suggests a trippy ambiance. We’re off to see the Wizard. The right side up upside down layout of the buildings presents both sides of the street… the white space in-between… the road space. The whole visual experience is like riding up and down the strip… the physical make-up is the experience itself. Are you experienced? The surveillance filmic quality tracks along with Zappruda filming Kennedy’s assassination. The difference being Ruscha’s film is premeditated and Zappruder’s is an accident of something premeditated. When something’s strange the weird get going. It’s a million dollar bash. I once heard Ed say… “I can’t help it if I’m lucky”.
Somebody’s House Is Burning Downtown Downtown
It’s interesting to know that early on in some of Ruscha’s “word” paintings, he would paint the sides of his canvas with the same word as he would paint on the front of the canvas. Like the 1962 Radio painting. The painting would then become a large three-dimensional object. It’s shape not unlike an oversized book. Subtle. Another subtext. Another “otherness” to the work. “Bothness”. In the commentary section, along side the painting Standard Station Amarillo Texas in the Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings of Ed Ruscha Vol.1 1958-1970, words such as idealized and uniform are used to describe the painting. It is perhaps Ruscha’s most famous painting. It resides in the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; the state famous for it’s license plate motto “Live Free Or Die”. The wordplay hadn’t occurred to me. “Standard” was always the name of the gas station. It never dawned on me as something stereo, two-sided, a twin or having a double meaning. I had always thought about this painting as a symbol, as something that had always existed even before Ruscha painted it. Independent and lacking an author or creator. I think sometimes that’s how great art works. It becomes part of your life and you forget that someone made it up.
Too Cool For School
It’s only recently that “artist’s” books have shown up at antiquarian book fairs and auction houses. Photography books have become especially collectible. A fair copy of Robert Frank’s “Americans” went for a little over sixty thousand at Christie’s in London this past spring. Ruscha’s books preclude the interest. Alone among artists who specialize in the medium, they have been highlights of booksellers booths for sometime. They are one of the few examples of an artist’s production that has “crossed over” into the first edition trade. It’s strange that the highways, billboards, jazzed-up diners… the motels and apartment buildings, the generic effects of development in suburban spaces have become treated like small precious illuminated bibles. It’s funny too because I think it’s always been Ruscha’s intention to treat his publications like a salesman’s sample. Modest. Unassuming. Homogenized. A staple of sorts. Like a roadside café menu, you expect cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake. Ruscha is the Henry Ford of bookmaking. I’ve been squirreling away Ruscha’s books for twenty-five years. Kept them in a rucksack wrapped in tinfoil inside a baggie like a dime of primo weed. I even hitch-hiked from NYC to Boulder, Colorado in the early ‘70’s with a copy of Various Small Fires… my goal, to camp out along the way and leave a page from the book at each campsite covered with diaristic inscriptions dedicated to Neal and Caroline Cassidy. What can I say? You have to start somewhere…
Ed Ruscha had the radio on in 1963. That was the year he printed 400 copies of a small book picturing 26 snapshots of gasoline stations that were spread out on U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. Cunningham Press in Alhambra, California printed them. This was the beginning of what has been described as a “democratization” of the traditional livre d’artiste. Gone is the refined book as art with its leather boards and sturdy binding… gilted edges, fussy tissue, embossed lettering, Japanese paper. With 26 Gas Stations, Ruscha introduces “artist as engineer”; only this time instead of a locomotive, he is driving a car. He focuses on an industrial look: plain, blunt, almost invisible. I’m not sure if he had any idea of how it would be distributed. Passed around? Handed-out? Gifted at birthdays and holidays? Slipped in the mail? It seemed to have a built-in censored quality… almost as if he was anticipating an unrecognizable leftover cold war senate subcommittee would confiscate it. Paging Dr. Strangelove. Like Ginsburg’s Howl, banned in Boston. I can almost feel the morons in Washington asking Ruscha to testify about what goes on in the restrooms after the attendant fills up your tank. And, of course, it makes sense to know that Twenty-Six Gas Stations was rejected by the Library of Congress.
There are two Various Small Fires in my library. The first is inscribed to Andy Warhol: “Hey Andy Ed Ruscha 1965”. The second, the “impossible” copy, the copy that “dreams”, is inscribed to his girlfriend at the time Patty Callahan: “For Patty-My Heart Burns For You-Love Ed Dec. 1964”. This is the kind of copy you shouldn’t even have. There should be a law. I have one more inscribed to Patty Callahan, a copy of his first book Twenty-Six Gas Stations. What’s impossible about this copy is that the book is dedicated to Patty Callahan. Presentation copies of any book to the person the book are dedicated to are a true rarity. I have one other… Sylvia Plath’s Colossus inscribed to her husband/poet Ted Hughes. These inscriptions make the book trustworthy. Snap, Crackle and Pop. You tend to share them with other collectors like they’re gold medals. One more thing about the inscribed Twenty-Six Stations to Patty Callahan… On the last page of the book it says a National Excelsior Publication. It states 400 copies printed in April 1963. This copy is #_____. And just after the #, on the underline, it’s written the number ONE.
More Mom Than Pop
Functional. False Front. Passerby. Movie set. Manufactured roadside. Territory of the automobile. Where the sky meets the ground. These are words and phrases I’ve heard when people try to describe Ruscha’s work. I would add, “art and copy”. Ruscha is running his own renegade advertising agency. Cowboys and Indians. Milk and Cookies. Sam and Dave. Bob and Ray. Ladies and Gentleman, while I was coming out to the mike I forgot my act! You can almost hear the rim shot. What he puts out are mom and pop campaigns that draw lines in the sand. Lines that he encourages an audience to cross so he can step back and draw another line. Just look at the self-fashioning “wedding announcement”: “Ed Ruscha Says Goodbye To College Joys”… It’s a declaration of independence. Ed in bed with two ladies. Ménage a trois. The Last Tango. Another step back to the garden. The carnal knowledge. The M&M’s…, the message and medium joined at the hip. The Sly surrounded by the Family Stone. That’s what I like. He’s in Detroit listening to the Three Stooges. The ambivalent commitment. The not quite so sure I’m sure alter ego anti-subjective hold-out, hoping and praying for the ultimate reaction of no response. It’s what I like even more. He almost cut his hair that day.