That Was Then, This Is Now

by Ian McDermott


Link to slides on SlideShare:



Ed Ruscha’s iconic books have earned their well-deserved place in the artist book hall of fame. In fact, they are so revered that Clive Phillpot declined to denigrate them with the term artist book, instead calling them bookworks. For my talk, I will spend some time on “then,” situating the books in a particular artistic and critical contexts and shift to “now,” and discuss how Ruscha’s subsequent work can shape our understanding of his books and how we can engage with them today.

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963

Twentysix Gasoline Stations does not suffer from neglect; there are many methodological approaches to analyzing Ruscha’s books. My interest is in how Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and other books participate in and comment on urban development and theories of Los Angeles. While I see these books as crucial works of art I try to approach them as part of visual culture because they are also notable for the moment in time they depict. It is a remarkable coincidence that Ruscha came of age before Route 66 became kitsch, when it was simply the way you drove across the country. Yet, he chose to document the commercialization of the western landscape. Here and in other books Ruscha emphasizes the commodities we purchase to traverse and construct the landscape. This attitude is clear in the book’s pacing and fragmentation. Distances are collapsed, the open road is absent, the journey is invisible. We are left with circumstantial evidence. Compare Ruscha’s travels on Route 66 to today’s interstate. It is the slow route, the one you take to savor your road trip, to avoid the soulless interstate. I should confess that I have made the drive across the country to Los Angeles several times and I have never taken Route 66. Much has been made of the book’s deadpan style and Ruscha’s photographic anti-style, but Twentysix Gasoline Stations - and his work in general - is personal and even nostalgic in a peculiar way; something that has become clearer over time and that I will discuss later.

The Structural logic of Twentysix Gasoline Stations

Twentysix Gasoline Stations roughly follows Ruscha along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, his hometown - a drive he made regularly after moving to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend Chouinard Art Institute. The penultimate image in the book is in Oklahoma but the book ends at a Fina station in Grooms, Texas, heading west back to towards Los Angeles; in other words, towards home.

Every Building on the Sunset Strip

Here’s a frequently used quote from Ruscha, “Los Angeles to me is like a series of storefront planes that are all vertical from the street and there’s almost nothing behind the facades … the ultimate cardboard cut-out town.”1 Ruscha also flattens the geography of Sunset Boulevard. Those familiar with the road know that it has many twists, turns, and hills. It is a dramatic, and fun, drive, save for the traffic. While this is a commentary on the artificiality of the spectacle of the Sunset Strip, Ruscha’s formal choices also foreground Los Angeles’s lack of cohesion.

As a brief aside, based on a Google Street View drive of the Strip, I am delighted to report that 8912 Sunset Blvd is currently occupied by Spray La Vie, a spray tan spa.

Ruscha’s Relationship to Architecture and Urban Theory

Ruscha’s books coincide with the rise of postmodern architectural theory, which had an ideal case study in Los Angeles. Some architects and theorists—Reyner Banham, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi identified and admired Ruscha’s books for documenting the peculiarities of Los Angeles. Scott Brown and Venturi borrowed the design of Sunset Strip for a photo-spread of the Las Vegas strip in their book Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form.2 While Banham, Scott Brown, and Venturi mostly celebrated Los Angeles, it is also worth mentioning that the 1960s and early 1970s were rife with political and cultural turmoil. None of this is present in Ruscha’s depopulated books: the Watts Riots of 1965, the Manson Family murders, Ronald Reagan's tenure as Governor from 1967-1975, the Chicano Movement, and the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, a controversial project to increase water supply for Los Angeles. Alternately, in 1960, MIT-based urban theorist Kevin Lynch wrote about the “legibility” of cities in his book The Image of the City. Based on studies of residents of Los Angeles, Boston, and Jersey City, Lynch posits that people are most pleased when a city's “parts can be recognized and can be organized into a cohesive whole.” He concluded that Los Angeles was a vexing case and the city, “seemed to be hard to envision or conceptualize as a whole.”3 It is an added irony that Ruscha’s books, while cohesive as self-contained objects, uniform in style and design, reinforce this conception of Los Angeles. From the absence of space between the gasoline stations to the flattening of space in Sunset Strip, Ruscha visually represents Lynch’s theory, denying the viewer/reader the ability to create a coherent image of the city. 

Ruscha on the continuum of picturing Los Angeles

In 2007, I curated an exhibit at Yale University’s Arts of the Book collection, now the special collections at Yale’s Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, called “Views of Los Angeles, The City Beautiful.” I also relied heavily on the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Collection of Western Americana. The exhibition attempted to place Ruscha’s books in an historical context of Los Angeles visual culture. I found that popular media, government agencies, and commercial industry share Ruscha’s preoccupations: cars, freeways, real estate, and water. Los Angeles’s explosive growth in the 20th century is often used as a key feature in legitimating its cultural significance. Boosterism has been essential for a city where abundance and scarcity are in a constant struggle: plenty of land but not enough water, massive population but no culture, etc. This is evidenced in photographs of Beverly Hills in the 1920s and 1950s, documenting explosive growth. An 1857 lithograph is strangely similar to Ruscha’s Some Los Angeles Apartments book of 1965; the buildings depicted are not exactly typological studies, like Ruscha’s photographs, and many use the same perspective where buildings are depicted from a corner, creating dynamic compositions that lead the eye all around the print. The abundance and scarcity dialectic reminds me of Kevin Hatch’s 2005 essay in October, ““Something Else”: Ed Ruscha’s Photographic Books.” Hatch expands upon the tension between stasis and motion in Ruscha’s books, and photography in general. He writes, “Each station appears as a discontinuous time exposure, empty of human actors and exhibiting a meditative, morbid, stillness. Yet the banal subject of the shots is the very thing most often fall out of memory: the routine stop for gasoline at an anonymous filling station.”4 Beyond the specific images, we look back at these books and see a city, a landscape from fifty years ago. We can see the changes, but the details are rarely visible, from the banal to the profound. I am drawn to these yawning gaps Ruscha has left us. For me, these gaps provide lines of inquiry.

Some Los Angeles Apartments and Real Estate Opportunities

Curating the exhibition led me to take a closer look two of Ruscha’s books, Some Los Angeles Apartments of 1965 and Real Estate Opportunities of 1970. Both books lack a clear structure or logic with regard to their sequencing, though Ruscha includes the address of each building. This made me think, where are these buildings and plots of land? I decided Ruscha was challenging us to fact check him. I received a small research grant from the Art Libraries Society of North America to travel to Los Angeles, where I spent a week driving around the region, visiting and photographing the locations in each book.

What did I learn? Traffic is worse now than it was in the 1960s! In an interview Ruscha mentions he took the pictures for Real Estate Opportunities in one day. It took me a week of driving eight to ten hours every day to visit the 59 locations in both books and I finished with a few hours to spare.5 Spending so much time with the books and at the locations opened many avenues of research… most only partially explored. Most of the buildings in Some Los Angeles Apartments are located throughout the western side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods including Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Century City. However, there are also buildings in Pasadena, East Los Angeles, and Van Nuys, though the addresses do not specify which town or city.

Some Los Angeles Apartments: 1555 Artesia and 6565 Fountain in SLAA

The pictures on these two pages are positioned so that they meet in the gutter, the roads in front of the buildings form a “V” shape as each building recedes diagonally in opposite directions, a common Ruscha trope. Additionally, these pictures and many others in the book feature power lines streaking across the frame. The power lines in this double-page spread accentuate the harsh perspectives but also lead the eye in different directions, emphasizing the viewer's disorientation. The association between these two buildings is primarily formal; they are both two-story rectangles, anonymous without their ornamentation. This might imply they are geographically close, but they are twenty-five miles away from one another, in Hermosa Beach and Hollywood, respectively. Ruscha further disorients the viewer, reinforcing Kevin Lynch’s argument that Los Angeles difficult to “envision or conceptualize as a whole.”

Today, 1555 Artesia Blvd bears no resemblance to its former tiki-inspired self. The lettering is gone and the facade is now covered in overgrown plants with bright red flowers, as if someone tried to cover up the scene of a crime.

Real Estate Opportunities

The properties for sale in Real Estate Opportunities are hopelessly anonymous and are spread across the entire metropolitan region, from Anaheim to the south to Santa Clarita in the north, separated by 60 miles. By photographing these properties, Ruscha lays bare how Los Angeles's amorphous development occurs, prospectors are everywhere! After mapping the locations in Real Estate Opportunities, it is clear that nearly all of the locations roughly follow a diagonal route, along Interstate 5 and US Route 101. Though Ruscha may have photographed the locations on a day’s drive, the book’s sequencing does not adhere to a linear route. For example, the last two pictures in the book are the northern and southernmost locations. Curiously, the first picture, “500 W. Washington Blvd., Montebello” is geographically close to the last, “Gilbert & La Palma Ave., Anaheim.” The book begins and ends in the same general area, creating a continuous loop of sprawling development, which reminds me of Ruscha’s ongoing palindrome paintings.

I will end this portion of my talk with Ruscha’s photographs of the Santa Ana Freeway in La Mirada. This area has been so radically transformed since 1970 that it is impossible to discern exactly where Ruscha photographed. However, off one of the exit ramps there are neighboring gasoline stations, one open and one abandoned.

Then and Now

Then and Now is not only a 2004 book by Ruscha that shows Hollywood Boulevard in 1973 and 2003 but also an ongoing fascination for him. He has photographed a number Los Angeles roads and highways in this manner, in addition to Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards: Pacific Coast Highway, Melrose Avenue, and Santa Monica Boulevard.

Course of Empire

The “Course of Empire” series consists of Ruscha’s “Blue Collar” paintings from 1992 and later paintings from 2004 and 2005 where he reimagines the older works as places altered and repurposed by capitalism. Of course, the series borrows its name from Thomas Cole’s 19th century paintings depicting the degradation of the Hudson River Valley here in New York. Far from Eden, Ruscha’s “Blue Collar” paintings nonetheless are a lament for the gutting of blue collar work they represent, which is reinforced by the later paintings. Stasis and motion again are major themes. One can envision the systems of capitalism at work over the last fifty years via Ruscha’s books and paintings. It is not hard to see one of Ruscha’s Real Estate Opportunities as the site of Ruscha’s 1992 painting, Blue Collar Tool and Die. Nor is it hard to imagine the movement of capital that could lead to it being sold to a multinational corporation, as he depicts in his 2004 painting, The Old Tool & Die Building.

Coda: Ed Ruscha’s Legacy

Ruscha inspired books are a cottage industry, for better or worse; the summer of 2016 saw another exhibition dedicated to Ruscha acolytes at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills location. But I see Ruscha’s books and paintings as a portal for urban archaeology and after fifty years these books deserve new approaches. Digital mapping tools, online exhibition software, and other digital humanities tools enhance traditional historical research. This way, we can fill in geographic and cultural gaps Ruscha so cleverly left for us to explore. As the artist Joachim Schmid has said about his own Ruscha-inspired book, “Unlike the original books it relates to, this work was made entirely at my Berlin studio. I didn't visit Los Angeles to make the book and I didn't use a camera either. The camera is out there.”6 Surveillance and the drone, a true 21st century methodology.


Contribution to the Panel: Furthering the Critical Dialog: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations & Every Building on the Sunset Strip atContemporary Artists’ Books Conference (CABC), PS1, New York, Sept. 17, 2016.



1 Gary Conklin, “L.A. Suggested by the Art of Edward Ruscha,” in Ruscha, Edward, and Alexandra Schwartz, 2004, Leave any information at the signal: writings, interviews, bits, pages, Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 223-224.

2 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, 1977, Learning from Las Vegas: the forgotten symbolism of architectural form, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

3 Kevin Lynch, 1960, The image of the city, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2-3, 41-42.

4 Kevin Hatch, ""Something Else": Ed Ruscha's Photographic Books," October 111 (2005)., 112.

5 David Bourdon, “Ruscha as Publisher [Or All Booked Up],” in Edward Ruscha, and Alexandra Schwartz, 2004, Leave any information at the signal: writings, interviews, bits, pages. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 44.

6 Host Gallery, “Joachim Schmid / Ed Ruscha / Joachim Schmid,” July 14, 2010,