On the occasion of the exhibition Enjoy – The mumok Collection in Change, the mumok Library is presenting artist’s books acquired over the past ten years, and placing these within a dialogue with older books that have been in our collection for a longer time.
By Simone Moser
# 1 Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963
Some artist’s books write history, and Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations is one of them. And some artist’s books are cited, interpreted, and appropriated by others, and this is the case here too.
In his artist’s book, Ruscha makes use of very simple things. The theme, material, motifs, contents—all these are very banal and quotidian. But, or perhaps because of this, Ruscha succeeded in generating a new prototype for artist’s books. The artist’s books of the 1960s and 1970s made a significant contribution to the democratization of art and they even became the means of transportation for avant-garde ideas. In order to reach a wide audience, they had to be simply made and cheaply distributable.
Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a book of object photos with autobiographical points of reference. It presents photographs of gas stations on Route 66, snapshots from the many series that Ruscha made during his regular trips between California and his original home in Oklahoma. This small book contains no text, but “only identifying captions (the trade name of the gasoline station and its geographical location),“ as Henry Hopkins disdainfully put it when commenting on the very first Ruscha retrospective.“(1)
These photos of gas stations are not quite so meaningless as Hopkins argued, however. Ruscha is following a specific concept that, even before the first steps toward the production of the book were taken, was aiming at the melodious titles of the photos.
The selection, sequence, and arrangement of these images follow a narrative line in a geographical, temporal, and thematic logic. The artist selected the gas stations—phenomena of mass culture and also fixed points of orientation along the Route—very precisely from his collection of photos. He rejected all the eccentric or conspicuous images, and he varied the form of their presentation, from double page to half a single page.
Seen from the viewpoint of traditional photo aesthetics, the individual photographs all seem more or less to be failures—too much empty space, unfavorable perspectives, a lack of contrast. But, Ruscha argued that it wasn’t the photographs but rather the gas station themselves that were the artworks.(2)
The price of the book was relatively cheap. An advertisement that Ruscha placed in the art magazine Artforum in March 1964, in order to publicly address the fact the Library of Congress had refused to accept the book, mentioned a price of three US dollars. The price was deliberately kept very low so that the book could be affordable for anyone. But very quickly Twentysix Gasoline Stations became a cult object and today it can cost around 3,000 Euro.(3)
Twentysix Gasoline Stations was not just Ruscha‘s first book. It was also the start of a series of 16 artist’s books. The publication of the first one in 1963 led to a veritable chain reaction of book publications that referred to Ruscha‘s work. All of the books mentioned here are held by the mumok Library. Many more books referring to Ed Ruscha’s books--homages, adaptations, and imitations—are mentioned in the publication Various Small Books.(4)
Twentysix Gasoline Stations
3rd edition, Los Angeles 1969
Michalis Pichler, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 2009
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the French energy company Total established a dense network of gas stations in former East Germany. Inspired by Ed Ruscha‘s artist’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Michalis Pichler took photographs of these gas stations and thus created a homage to his famous predecessor. Pichler appropriates the concept of the original book, even to the extent that the cover of his own book very closely resembles the original. The contents of Pichler’s book represent a modern update showing 26 gas stations all decked out in the identical colorful Total corporate identity. The final picture reveals Pichler’s witty approach very clearly. A hand (Pichler’s) is holding a scrap of paper on which we can read Ruscha’s statement where he explains that the “eccentric gas stations” were the first that he discarded. This photo is accompanied by the following caption: “Some words in a line instead of some missing stations.”
Twentysix Gasoline Stations
“greatest hits,” Berlin 2009
Printed Matter, Inc., New York 2009
Jeffrey Morger, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 2013
Another homage to Ruscha‘s artist’s book was made by the Swiss artist Jeffrey Morger, who dedicated his version of the Twentysix Gasoline Stations to Ed Ruscha, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol. Morger sticks largely to the original model, but the simply made binding is done without the original’s transparent cover. The theme and content are gas stations the artist photographed in the city of Zurich. In contrast to Michalis Pichler‘s sharply contoured and centrally positioned gas station images, Morger‘s color photos are partly out of focus and seem to be deliberately amateur, as Ed Ruscha’s snapshots also were.
Twentysix Gasoline Stations
self published, Zurich 2013
Claudia de la Torre, Ten (unknown) Gasoline Stations, 2012
Claudia de la Torres’s book Ten (unknown) Gasoline Stations is also a tribute to Ed Ruscha. The publication shows ten unnamed gas stations, all of them on photographs taken in the 1960s. The artist found these online in the internet, where they had been uploaded by an unknown person who hoped that users would be able to identify them, asking: “Does anyone know this gas station and know where it was?“
The picture captions in de la Torres’s book name the photographers, give an estimate as to the date when each picture was taken, and the number of online visits, but they do not identify either the exact date or the location of the gas station.
This short book of only 12 pages in black and white differs in both size and format from the original. The simple stapled binding with two loops cites Ruscha‘s unmistakable title-page typography on the cover.
Claudia de la Torre
Ten (unknown) Gasoline Stations
Backbone Books, Berlin 2012
Stefan Oláh and Sebastian Hackenschmidt, Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen, 2010
My last example that refers to Ruscha comes from Vienna. Photographer Stefan Oláh and art historian Sebastian Hackenschmidt focus on rather special Viennese gas pumps. They show 26 city gas stations that are all notable for special locations—in back yards, on sidewalks, in the first story of a communal building—or for unusual pumping situations, such as at the Champion gas station where cars to be filled up are brought into position on a turntable.
The two authors treat the theme from a position that runs somewhat counter to Ruscha’s idea. Oláh’s professional photographs and his composed documentations of urban architecture contrast with Ruscha’s “amateur” snapshots. Their motifs are so “eccentric” that Ruscha would most likely have discarded them. “But the typical Viennese gas stations are different anyway,“ we read in the text in this book. The Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen were then extended to 34 in a second edition—“a pleasant and intentional overstepping,“ as Sebastian Hackenschmidt says.
Stefan Oláh and Sebastian Hackenschmidt
Sechsundzwanzig Wiener Tankstellen
1st edition 2010 / 2nd edition 2011
Roma Publications, Amsterdam
1 Phyllis Rosenzweig, „Ed Ruschas Künstlerbücher“, in: Neil Benezra, Kerry Brougher, Ed Ruscha, Zürich/Berlin/New York 2002, S. 179.
3 Depending on the edition and whether the copy is signed, the price can reach up to 15,000 US dollars.
4 Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton, and Hermann Zschiegner (eds.), VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS, Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha, Cambridge MA, 2013.