Los Angeles

Ed Ruscha

In a New York Times article from 1972 bluntly titled “‘I’m Not Really a Photographer,’” Ed Ruscha claimed he took up the practice only in order to make his books—among them, the now-seminal Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)—and that his pictures should not be considered art objects but merely tools or means to an end. He focused on the photograph as a purveyor of technical data, believing it could bring a readymade object or site—a gas station, a swimming pool—into the realm of art without aestheticizing it. Offering an alternative to the fine-art print by presenting photographs in the context of mass production (the books originally went for three dollars), he had as radical an impact on the discipline as any photographer of the postwar period.

At least since 1993, when Walter Hopps published a 1961 Ruscha photo of outdoor signs in LA that predated the artist’s earliest book (Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations) by two years, it’s become clearer that Ruscha’s engagement with photography as he himself described it is not the whole story. Among the most interesting discoveries in this exhibition were a series of still lifes, also from 1961, of everyday household products, including a can of Spam and a box of Sun-Maid raisins (both of which can be found in Ruscha’s paintings). The series demonstrates that the subtle formal intelligence and visual and verbal humor that one associates with Ruscha were fully realized in his photography even before it appeared in the painted work. All the products are photographed on a white shelf with a white wall behind. Three or four photos are lit so that the joint between the shelf and the wall dissolves; objects appear to float in an indeterminate space that’s coterminous with the picture plane. For Products—Oxydol, 1961, a picture of a bottle of bleach, Ruscha “burned in” the top of the print and underexposed the rest, creating an extreme contrast between top and bottom. Toward the center of the print, he suppressed the contrast so that the white lettering on the packaging looks like unbleached gray. In nearly all the photos, the product’s brand name is positioned slightly above the centerline, a trick that gives the items the appearance of being precisely centered. In another recognizable Ruscha pun, he’s placed a package of Sun-Maid raisins on the center-line in such a way that the words appear to be sinking.

Alongside his transformation of household products into inhabitants of flat pictorial space, Ruscha transformed Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations—that is, the book itself—from a collection of flat images and text into a thing that elaborates the space around it. In one photo, the book is shown floating at an oblique angle to the picture plane, its objecthood emphasized. In another, Ruscha tips its top edge slightly away from the lens, and this motion, in combination with the smaller-size typeface of the word TWENTY-SIX relative to the word GASOLINE, makes us think we are somehow seeing it in perspective. This slightly uncanny quality is apparent as well in some of the photos selected from the books and enlarged. The extremely long, flat foregrounds that characterize so many of his images of the urban landscape could be explained away as a requirement for a consistent page layout. But, bigger and in isolation, each single-handedly defeats the idea that these photos are merely utilitarian.

Andrew Perchuk