Edward Ruscha 'Twentysix Gasoline Stations' 1963

Edward Ruscha born 1937
Twentysix Gasoline Stations
1963, 3rd edition 1969
[Los Angeles]: Edward Ruscha, 1969 

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a modest publication consisting of black and white photographs with captions, is an iconic artist book. The photographs are of petrol stations, along the highway between Ruscha’s home in Los Angeles and his parent’s house in Oklahoma City. Clive Phillpot, writer, curator and former Director of the Library at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, observes that the photographs are not reproduced in a linear sequence, with five photographs out of order.1 Taken from the highway and often including large areas of forecourt or road, the shots appear to be simply factual records of the petrol stations. Each opening of the book reveals one or two photographs in varying but repeated layouts, with the photographs set in relatively large areas of white space. The captions consist of the name of the petrol station and its location (for example, ‘Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles’ and ‘Flying A, Kingman, Arizona’). The front cover has the title printed in red as three separate lines, the stark brightness of the design muted by the wrap around protective cover. The book is the first in a sequence of photographic artist books by Ruscha.

Twentysix Gasoline Stations was first published in 1963 (although the title page states 1962) in an edition of 400 numbered copies. It was subsequently republished in two unnumbered editions. Ruscha’s books, and this one in particular, are considered seminal in the history of artist books. Johanna Drucker, writer, critic and book artist, observed:

Thirty years later, with a quarter of a century of mainstream art world activity between, the aspect of shock-effect and humor has diminished somewhat. But in 1962 this work read against the photographic landscape of highly aestheticized image-making work which carried photography’s claims to art status forward on the double engines of fine at imagery and/or humanistic critical vision (the Edward Weston, Ansel Adams tradition on the one hand and the Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans tradition on the other).2

The artist closely supervised the design and printing of the book. In an interview in 1973 he said, ‘I’d always wanted to make a book of some kind. When I was in Oklahoma I got a brainstorm in the middle of the night to do this little book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. I knew the title. I knew it would be photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations.’3 Also, ‘Months went into the planning of that. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by loosening up. You know, not gotten so concerned with how I wanted the thing to look. I changed the form about fifty times at the printer’s.’4 Later in the same interview he stated: ‘I realized that for the first time this book had an inexplicable thing I was looking for, and that was a kind of a “Huh?” That‘s what I’ve always worked around. All it is is a device to disarm somebody with my particular message.’5

Later, in an interview in 2008, Ruscha underlined the importance for him of his bookworks, stating, ‘I felt when I got going on the books that it was really the red meat of my work. It was the choice bit. Although I was painting pictures at that time, I felt that the books were more advanced as a concept than the individual paintings I had been doing’.6

The book was relatively cheap: copies of the first edition were advertised as $3 in an article in Artforum in March 1964 that announced the book’s rejection by the Library of Congress.7 Tate Library’s copy is from the third unnumbered edition of 3,000 copies published in 1969. It seems that Ruscha perhaps regretted numbering the first edition, stating in 1965 that he was ‘not trying to create a precious limited edition book, but a mass-produced product of high order. All my books are identical. They have none of the nuances of the hand-made and crafted limited edition book.’ 8

Ruscha’s work has been copied, mimicked, appropriated and played upon by other artist book producers. As early as 1969 the American artist Bruce Nauman produced Burning Small Fire, a folded broadsheet showing his page-by-page burning of another of Ruscha’s works, Various Small Fires and a Glass of Milk (1964). More recent appropriations, held by Tate Library, include Twenty-Four Former Filling Stations (2007) by Frank Eye, Thirtysix Fire Stations (2004) by Yann Sérandour, Eleven French Publishers (2011) by John McDowall and Fortynine Coach Seats Travelling Along the M4 (2003) by Tom Sowden.

Further reading

Willoughby Sharp, ‘“… a kind of a Huh?” An Interview with Edward Ruscha’, Avalanche, no.7, Winter/Spring 1973, p.30.
Clive Phillpot, ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations that Shook the World: The Rise and Fall of Cheap Booklets as Art’, Art Libraries Journal, vol.19, no.1, 1993, pp.4–13.
Mary Richards, ER: Ed Ruscha, London 2008, pp.30–5.

Maria White
May 2013