A Closer Look

Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip

Why the artists' book is a reminder of freedom

Jim Lewis

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  • Starting in the early 1960s, Ruscha made a series of small, cheap artists’ books, which both fondly and wickedly offered up mock typologies of Southern California life and design: “Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles,” “Some Los Angeles Apartments,” “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.” Their overt content was exhausted by their titles, which consisted of a marker of modern life—business cards, small fires, palm trees—preceded by a quantity: some, nine, a few, various. Of these, probably the most renowned—and certainly my favorite—is “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” which is exactly that: a series of photos depicting a mile-and-a-half section of Sunset Boulevard, 25 feet long and folded, accordion-style, into a single paper volume, which was printed in 1966 and sold for $2.
  • Artists’ books constitute a medium of their own, equidistant from both visual art and standard publishing. They have their origins in the early twentieth century, in manifestos, pamphlets, chapbooks: Dada and Surrealism relied on them to convey principles and works that would not otherwise be seen, and the practice was revived in the early ’60s, with Ruscha as one of its greatest progenitors. They aren’t art books or catalogs: as a rule they contain no reproductions or writing, unless it’s scrawled by the artist on an image. They’re works of art unto themselves, usually self-published, in editions that can range from two or three to thousands (Ruscha originally printed a thousand copies of “Sunset Strip” and a few years later added another five thousand.) They are meant to be democratic, experimental, cheap, and easy to distribute, though, perhaps inevitably, Ruscha’s own books are now hard to find and very expensive. Still, they have a secular, demotic air about them, a sense that history isn’t glossy: it’s handmade.
  • Photography, Ruscha once said, was simply “an excuse to make a book. That’s what I wanted to do most of all, really, to make a book, not necessarily to take photographs.” So “Sunset Strip” is a book of anti-photography: once the original idea is settled, all other decisions become more or less moot. Film stock, camera, angle, lighting? These are unimportant (in the event Ruscha made them by mounting a motorized Nikon in the bed of his pickup). Instead, what we get is a kind of conceptual documentary, shorn of all dynamics, emphasis, or cadence, and delivered with a poker face. The very thought of it makes me smile, not because the book is inherently humorous, but because it’s such a strange and unexpected pleasure—the pleasure that comes from expecting more and getting a koan instead, which makes you wonder what, exactly, you thought was going to happen, why you thought it, and whether you’re better off without it.
  • Ruscha is an artist of plenitude; he makes a virtue of prolixity, of superabundance. The MoMA show consists of more than two hundred works, a very large number for a retrospective. Ruscha’s catalogue raisonné now runs to eleven hefty volumes, with an unknown number yet to come. He recently donated his archive of photographs to the Getty Center in L.A.; it came to 750,000 images, which averages out to about thirty-three a day, every day for the past sixty-one years or so. For some artists, this would be a dilution of their powers, but it serves as the basis of Ruscha’s.
  • His touch is loose and improvisational, as cool as a jazz musician’s, thoughtful without being ponderous, light enough to makes leaps from the known to the unknown. There is something Oklahoma about it, wide-open and why-not. There’s something L.A. about it, too, slick and sometimes glamorous. You get the sense that he knows something that the rest of us don’t, but he doesn’t push the point, he just goes his way; we can follow if we like and maybe find out something for ourselves, that fundamental fact, that we, too, can be free.

Ed Ruscha, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (Detail), 1966. Artist book, offset printed, each page: 7 x 5 1/2 inches (17.8 x 14 cm), overall: 7 1/8 x 5 5/8 x 1/2 inches (18.1 x 14.3 x 1.1 cm). © Ed Ruscha. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

Welcome to A Closer Look, a new column at The Yale Review, in which we invite a writer to annotate a piece of art or an archival object. Mouse over the image and click on the blue circles to learn about the object’s history, provenance, and cultural relevance today.

There are certain artists who serve to remind us that it’s possible to be free. I mean free in what we make and how we make it, but also free in how we experience the world we live in, free from constraints on meaning, on beauty, on style and method. This power, which is the power of liberation, is ultimately utopian, but it can come in the most casual way, unmotivated, untheorized, senseless on any conscious level; it can be serious or frivolous, or both at once. It is the power of surprise and delight.

In America, Robert Rauschenberg is perhaps the great forebear of this kind of work; his descendants include figures like David Hammons, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci, for whom art seemed to be a version of play, where the demands of specific media collapse and with them, the sense that content can be controlled. Instead, a certain significance, impossible to paraphrase, emerges from a welter of gestures, responsibilities and irresponsibilities. The will is tested and found wanting, and something like fun—but not exactly fun—crowns the whole.

Ed Ruscha, whose long and prolific career provides the occasion for a deluxe retrospective now up at the Museum of Modern Art, is an eminent example of just such a figure: an all-American sorcerer and jester, born in Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma. As a young man he headed west for art school in Los Angeles, taking Route 66, in those days the quickest way to the coast. The road was father to the man: his art has always been a version of that highway, vernacular, brassy, always in motion but swerving this way and that, always chattering or blaring, and usually a good time.

After school Ruscha did layouts for an ad agency, but soon enough he was showing regularly at L.A.’s Ferus Gallery, one of the foundries of the ’60s avant-garde. At first his canvases were recognizably Pop, but in time they began to shift, becoming more cryptic and vaguely threatening. Eventually, he settled into his canonical style: language paintings, consisting of seemingly random but evocative words and phrases, at first set against fields of color and then floating above and amidst evocative and sometimes gauzy skylines. One early painting has “SMASH” painted on it. Others say “THE STUDY OF FRICTION AND WEAR ON MATING SERVICES” or “PAY NOTHING UNTIL APRIL” or the palindromic “TULSA SLUT.” Museum-quality though they are, they remind me of nothing so much as Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy. There’s the same sense of absurdity, the curious spectacle of meaning, or perhaps nonsense, floating by overhead. An antic endeavor, which nevertheless reveals itself, at odd moments, to be profound.

Jim Lewis is the author of four novels, including Ghosts of New York. He lives in Austin, TX.
Originally published:
December 18, 2023

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