Ed Ruscha’s ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’

When Ed Ruscha published Twentysix Gasoline Stations in 1962, the book was returned to the artist, marked ‘Rejected by the Library of Congress’. Ruscha has said that he received no explanation, but it’s assumed that his book, a volume of black-and-white photographs taken along Route 66, without introduction or any textual context, was too unorthodox to be catalogued. An inauspicious beginning, given Ruscha’s book is now credited with having shaped the form of the modern artist’s book. Until Twentysix Gasoline Stations, monographs were high-end productions released by resourced publishing houses. Ruscha’s book, with an unassuming first print run of 400 numbered editions, and subsequent runs of around 4000 copies, eventually sold very well (including at the gas stations featured in the book) and now fetches upwards of $35,000 for particular editions.

When I was 16, I bought my first artist’s book. It was Bill Henson’s Mnemosyne. Henson was the first artist whose work I became enamored with and Mnemosyne was my first encounter with a monograph. Owning the book felt like I owned a splice of Henson’s work. His photographs have been beautifully reproduced: 500 plus pages that span decades of his output. It’s a reference book that I still look through from time-to-time: there’s an inimitable mood gifted to a publication that is devoted to one artist’s work that can always be revisited.

Bill Henson’s ‘Mnemosyne’

Recently published in 2012 by Rainoff, Matt Connors: A Bell is a Cup chronicles the work of Los Angeles-based artist, Matt Connors. The book situates images of Connors’ work with reproduced texts from Gertrude Stein and Jack Spicer, plus a new, semi-abstracted essay from PS1 director Peter Eleey. I was beholden by this introduction to Connors’ work. With his art framed by these particular texts, Connors’ work is lent an unforeseen context that augmented my appreciation for his output.

Melbourne-based artist Martin Bell has produced artist books throughout his career. Three examples, My Birthday Party (2007), From the Fourth Dimension (2010), and I’m Only Little (2013), are all self-published and offer acuity into the work of this multi-disciplined artist: spanning collage, drawing and sculpture, the books unite these mediums and Bell’s practice, illuminating that what upon first inspection seems frenetic is realised to be seamlessly cohesive. Bell, who is represented by Tolarno Galleries, seems to approach the production of his books with the same consideration in which he approaches his collage, illustration and sculpture. What Bell, and similarly Ruscha, offers are books that situate themselves as complementary to his body of work, rather than as an aside.

Ruscha is currently holding a show, Books & Co., at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, New York. It’s tribute to his influence on a collection of contemporary artists, each of whom have paid homage to him in their own artist’s book, displayed as part of the exhibit. Books, and publishing, have long captured Ruscha: he is well known for his text-based paintings. When speaking with Martin Gayford from The Telegraph in 2009, Ruscha told: ‘I began to see books and book design, typography, as a real inspiration. So I got a job with a book printer. He taught me how to set type, and then I started to see the beauty of typography and letter-forms. Somehow that led me off on this little path, almost like a bumper car, you know.’ For any typography enthusiasts: Ruscha created Boy Scout Utility Modern, his own font for use in his word works (The New Yorker reports that he was a Tenderfoot).

I can’t leave out Dieter Roth; he joins Ruscha as a founding father of the modern artist’s book. Take his work, Copley Book (1965), which began when Roth won the William and Noma Copley Award in recognition of his book projects. The prize for the award was funding to create a conventional, retrospective monograph, but Roth declined. Instead, he spent a few years intermittently posting his sketches, process notes and found images to a friend and collaborator in London, artist Richard Hamilton, who he instructed to collate these artifacts into a volume. Included in the end work was a letter from the printer, apologising for misplacing a page that was intended for inclusion. When Roth decided the volume was finished, it was simply stapled together. To read the book it needed to be taken apart again and read in loose pages. Copley Book, in its rejection of being an orthodox monograph, illuminates much of what drives Roth’s work to date.

This is, of course, a very small sampling of artist’s books. Our good fortune is that there’s always more to be found. Despite their modesty, they record for us the work we might never have opportunity to see. No matter, the magic is that these books are art too, as much a pleasure as what awaits on the gallery wall.

Belle Place is a Killings columnist and the Publishing Coordinator for Affirm Press. She lives and writes from Melbourne.

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