On Ed Ruscha’s Books, Los Angeles, and Peripatetic Flow

Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), 7 x 5 1/2 inches. ©Ed Ruscha. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Ed Ruscha arrived in Los Angeles from the flatlands of Oklahoma City in 1956. He made the trip with his high school friend, Mason Williams, at a formative moment in their young adulthood, driving a black 1950 Ford along Route 66.1 In the context of postwar America, their trek inevitably summons associations with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, undertaken in 1951 and published in 1957, and its coming-of-age story of throwing aside the suffocating expectations of consensus culture to find transcendence in the open road. For critics, Ruscha’s use of photographs seemingly taken from automobiles in his early book projects further cemented “the road” as a metonym for the cultural liberation experienced by an Oklahoma boy upon reaching LA, and more broadly for the passage from modernism to postmodernism, lapsing into late capitalist dysfunction. Implicit in these readings, however, is the idea of a one-way trip—from east to west, from then to now—that is at odds with Ruscha’s work itself (or indeed, Kerouac’s story). This essay examines the directional orientations in Ruscha’s art—what the artist Richard Prince calls Ruscha’s “bothness”—not only denotatively but also philosophically, as a matter of geographical lability and the patterns of ideational and material flow.2

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  1. Michael Auping, “A Long Drive,” in Ed Ruscha: Road Tested (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), 11. []
  2. Richard Prince, “Radio On,” in ibid, 41. []