PRINT January 1997


ON A RAINY NOVEMBER evening in 1964, in a bookstore across the street from the University of Texas in Austin, I came upon five thin white books stacked on a waist-high breakfront shelf. On the cover of the top book, three lines of bold, red serif type announced:


I picked one up and opened it. The title page read “TWENTYSIX/GASOLINE/STATIONS/EDWARD RUSCHA/1962,” and I immediately thought, “Sixty two! I’m two years late!”—because the book was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Well, maybe not altogether cooler than the Warhols I’d seen that summer, but cooler in a plainer, more cowboy way. Because the contents of Edward Ruscha’s book were exactly as advertised: twenty-six blunt photographs of gasoline stations with captions noting their location.

The first was Bob’s Service in Los Angeles, the last a Fina station in Groom, Texas. The rest were gasoline stations strung along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, with a little buttonhook at the end (the Fina in Groom) so the book ended facing west; and since gasoline stations are, quite literally, stations, the book seemed to document a journey, but not a one-way trip. Even in those days, twenty-six tanks were a bit excessive for a drive from LA to Oklahoma. Also, the book included two gasoline stations in Los Angeles, two in Williams, Arizona, and two in Oklahoma City.

The book was arranged, then, so that our progress through its pages, left to right, was roughly analogous to our progress across a map from west to east, while the narrative obviously recounted a journey from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City and back. Thirteen tanks of gas one way and thirteen the other! How cool! I thought, How Pop-Joycean! And then, for reasons I can only attribute to Ruscha’s subtle genius, I counted the unnumbered pages. There were fifty-two of them, front and back, including the covers—twenty-six individual pages! Somehow, I had known there would be, and, clearly, if we moved through this book as we move across a map, as we move across America, and the number of physical pages corresponded to the number of objects depicted . . . well, hell, it all might mean something! The complete object might be speaking to us in some odd language of analogue and incarnation.

In that moment, I became an art critic—or, more precisely, an art dealer, since I bought all five books. Because it wasn’t just personal. Ruscha’s book nailed something that, for my generation, needed to be nailed: the Pop-Minimalist vision of the Road. Jack Kerouac had nailed the ecstatic, beatnik Road. Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady were, at that moment, nailing the acid-hippie Road, and now Ruscha had nailed the road through realms of absence—that exquisite, iterative progress through the domain of names and places, through vacant landscapes of windblown, ephemeral language.

Only the year before, a year after Ruscha’s book, John Baldessari had documented the back of every truck he passed on the highway from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, and I myself had documented a literary excursion through West Texas, beginning at Henry Adams Gulf Station in Austin, dining at Shakespeare’s in Lampasas, passing through the little towns of Bronte, Tennyson, and Dickens, gassing up again at Samuel Richardson’s before proceeding into Lubbock where my in-laws lived.

So I knew what I had and so did my friends. For the next two weeks, we happily worried away at two conundrums. First, which side of the highway were these stations on? Second, on which leg of the trip, coming or going, did one stop at which station? These facts, we decided, might be encoded in the sequencing anomalies, in the angle from which the stations were photographed, or in the printing of the photographs on the left- or right-hand pages. We never figured it out, of course (you can’t “figure out” Ruscha), but the invitation was there nonetheless (just as it is in Watteau), so we had fun trying, and these were halcyon days when the pleasures of interpretation were just that. And, over the years, surprisingly enough, these pleasures have scarcely diminished.

One afternoon in the late ’70s I asked Ruscha about his “Standard Stations” paintings: “These are standard stations, right? As in standardized stations?” Ruscha nodded. Then he said, “Yeah, but they’re also standard stations,” and a little bell went bing! Of course! Lapsed-Catholic Ruscha! Standard stations of the cross! Fourteen stations, minus the crucifixion. Thirteen stations from Los Angeles to the Calvary of Ed’s hometown in Oklahoma—then thirteen stations back to Los Angeles, refusing that sacrifice. Perfect.

Then, just a few months ago, Christopher Knight pointed out to me that the end of Twentysix Gasoline Stations makes perfect sense if you read “Fina” as Fine—like at the end of a movie. And again, I thought, “Of course! What could be more Ed?” I felt stupid for not having seen it, but delighted as well that Ruscha’s little book was still unfolding like a flower—and doubtless will continue to.