Ed Ruscha’s Innovative Approach To Artist’s Books

In the 1960s the American artist Ed Ruscha re-invented the livre d’artiste with his artist books. The following article explains what makes Ruscha’s books so unconventional and special.

Jul 26, 2020By Alexandra Karg, BA Art History & Literature
ed ruscha every building sunset strip
Ed Ruscha unfolding Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Jerry McMillan, 1967, via The Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica


The American artist Ed Ruscha is associated with the rise of the Pop art movement as well as conceptual art. Ruscha has worked in different mediums including painting, printmaking, drawing as well as in photography and film. In his artworks, Ed Ruscha reflects about his hometown Los Angeles, about the relationship between image and language as well as about photography in new media and about the rising advertisement industry. Besides his large word paintings, Ruscha in the 1960s had especially become famous for his artist books. Between 1963 and 1978 Ruscha produced sixteen of them, many of which were produced and printed using conventional, commercial production techniques. 


The Revolution Of Ed Ruscha’s Artist Books

ed ruscha books
A group of 16 artist’s books by Ed Ruscha, via Christie’s


While the books with titles like Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) or Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967) were sold for only a few dollars in the times of their making, they are now coveted artworks worth several hundred, some even thousands of dollars. Ed Ruscha’s artist’s books are also characterized by their simple design. In his books, Ruscha shows elements of the urban space of Los Angeles that characterize the city – and yet are not regarded as typical motifs a photographic book is dedicated to, like gas stations, parking lots, or palm trees. But it is precisely these contradictions that make Ed Ruscha’s books so unconventional and special. Today Ed Ruscha is said to have been reinventing the artist’s book in the 1960s. Ed Ruscha turned away from the luxury standard of the common livre d’artiste and put more emphasis on the artistic idea and concept, presented in a very reduced and simple form.


Ruscha’s Famous Artist Books


1. Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962)

twentysix gasoline stations ed ruscha
Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha, 1962, via Christie’s


Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) is Ruscha’s first artist book. He finished it in 1962 and published it only one year later. The book contains exactly what the title promises: 26 photographs of gasoline stations captioned by their name and location. The 26 depicted petrol stations, however, are by no means any petrol stations: They are all located on a specific highway route that is of personal importance to Ed Ruscha; it is Route 66 that connects Los Angeles with Ruscha’s hometown Oklahoma City. Therefore the sober formal design meets a personal background – a connection that can also be found in other books of the artist like for example in Nine Swimming Pools and A Broken Glass (1968) or Babycakes With Weights (1970).


double page book twentysix gasoline stations
Double-page of the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha, 1962, via Widewalls

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Ed Ruscha photographed the different gas stations mostly out of his car. That is the reason why the street occupies a large part of the pictures. The style of the photographs in Twentysix Gasoline Stations varies between static shots and shots that indicate movement. The viewer of the book can recognize the tension between movement and statics. All in all, the seriality of the motifs becomes the most important design element of the book. 


2. Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1996)

every building on the sunset strip ed ruscha
Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha, 1966, via Christie’s


Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is Ed Ruscha’s most famous artist book. At first glance, Every Building on the Sunset Strip looks like many other artist books by Ruscha. However, if you take the book out of its silver slipcase and open it, you will see that this book is far from normal. The 25-foot long accordion-folded book contains two continuous photographic views of the south and north side of the Sunset Strip. The photographs – as the title of the book already suggests – depict the entire architecture of the famous part of Sunset Boulevard. Using a paste-up technique Ed Ruscha combined the individual photos by hand.


every building on the sunset strip
Every Building on the Sunset Strip unfolded by Ed Ruscha, 1966, via Christie’s


It is however not only the unconventional format that made this book famous, but also the production progress of the photographs for the book is very special. Ed Ruscha took the pictures with a so-called motorized camera and on film rolls. He placed his Nikon camera on a tripod and then on the loading area of his pick-up truck. In this way, Ed Ruscha and his team took several pictures per second as they drove along Sunset Boulevard at a speed of 12 km/h. Ruscha used this photographic technique for many years. Over five decades, he documented the important boulevards of Los Angeles in this way and shot at least 500,000 photographs.


3. Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967)

thirtyfour parking lots ed ruscha
Thirtyfour Parking Lots by Ed Ruscha, 1967 (printed 1974), via Christie’s


Another artist’s book by American artist Ed Ruscha dates from 1967 and is entitled Thirtyfour Parking Lots. Once again, the title explains the content: The book contains 34 photographs of parking lots. This time, however, the pictures were taken from a bird’s eye view. The book is a good example of the fact that Ruscha obviously had in mind to change the view of the city of Los Angeles with his books. 


double page thirtyfour parking lots
Double Page of Thirtyfour Parking Lots by Ed Ruscha, 1967, via Art Gallery NSW, Sydney


Viewed from a distance and from above, the parking lots take on a special formal structure. Small elements, details such as oil stains become motivic features and come to the fore in a way that could never be discovered from the ground. 


4. Various Small Fires and Milk (1964)

various small fire and milk
Various Small Fires and Milk by Ed Ruscha, 1964 (printed 1970), via Christie’s


Ed Ruscha’s artist book Various Small Fires and Milk plays with the meaning of the word fire as well as with linguistic images. A total of 15 photographs show different kinds of “fire”, one time in the form of an actual small fire in the street, another time figuratively in the form of a cigarette or as the flame of a lighter. The last black and white picture in the book represents a glass of milk. It is up to the viewer of the book to recognize the significance of this break in content.


small fires book ed ruscha
Overview of the pages of Various Small Fires and Milk by Ed Ruscha, 1964 (printed 1970), in Edward Rusha: Editions, 1959-1999: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 1-2 by Siri Engberg, Edward Ruscha, Clive Phillpot, 1999


This overview of the individual pages of the book points to an important detail in many of Ed Rusha’s artist books. Many of the books contain some blank pages that appear after the pages printed with photographs. Often there are more than ten double pages, which Ed Ruscha deliberately left blank. In many cases, these empty pages act as an invitation to the viewer to continue the content of the book and to fill the book based on their own imagination and association.


5. Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968)

nine swimming pools and a broken glass
Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass by Ed Ruscha, 1968 (printed 1976), via Christie’s 


The book Nine Swimming Pools in a Broken Glass apparently joins, according to its cover, the ranks of many other artists’ books by Ed Ruscha. When opening the book, however, one special feature quickly becomes apparent: Instead of black-and-white photographs, this book contains color photographs. In fact, these images were colored by hand. The color particularly enhances the impression of the turquoise-blue water and a sunny backdrop of the city of Los Angeles. 


ed ruscha swimming pools book
Page of the book Nine Swimming Pools in a Broken Glass by Ed Ruscha, 1968 (printed 1976), via The National Gallery of Australia, Parkes


It is also the water that Ruscha apparently examines as a linguistic image in this book. This becomes clear when looking at the photograph of the last picture in the book. Not only does this literally break with the expectations of the viewers of the book – but the colorfulness of the photograph also establishes a connection between the contents of the pools and the contents of a water glass that is broken. Here, too, Ruscha leaves the interpretation of the photographs to the viewers. The book does not contain text.


ed ruscha swimming pools
Page of the book Nine Swimming Pools in a Broken Glass by Ed Ruscha, 1968 (printed 1976), via The National Gallery of Australia, Parkes


Ed Ruscha has called his artist books a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Even this small selection of five books shows: there is something true about this statement. Even if the books appear uniform in form and resemble each other in their superficial design, a closer look makes clear: Ed Ruscha’s artist books are particularly diverse in their content. To this day, these books are a reference for other artists – this applies both formally and creatively as well as in the choice of motifs.


Ed Ruscha’s Books: “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” 

artists who do books
Artists Who Do Books by Ed Ruscha, 1976, via Tate, London


Ruscha states in an interview that he wouldn’t call his work “revolutionary”, but he called his artist books “the most powerful things I`ve done,” (see Bernard Blistene, “Conversation with Ed Ruscha”, 1989). The artist explained: “My books were very hot items – it was hot art to me, almost too hot to handle. I liked the idea that my books would disorient, and it seemed to happen that people would look at them and the books would look very familiar, yet they were like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.“ In 1976, Ruscha even painted an artwork that read “Artists Who Do Books“ and thus provided another classification of his artist’s books as part of his own art.


burning small fires nauman
Burning Small Fires by Bruce Nauman, 1968, via The National Gallery of Australia, Parkes 


Ed Ruscha’s artist books are “complex and refractory objects that have confounded repeated attempts at categorization” as Kevin Hatch put it aptly in an article about Ruscha in the October magazine in 2005. In the beginning, Ruscha’s artist books were classified as West Coast Pop. Later Sol Lewitt called them conceptual art and also connections were made to the American tradition of photo documentation which puts Ruscha in one line with photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank


Ruscha’s books have not only been bought by lovers of his art but they have also been dealt with by other artists. One of them was Ruscha’s contemporary Bruce Nauman. Under the title Burning Small Fires (1968) he burned Ruscha’s book Various Small Fires and photographed the process. 


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By Alexandra KargBA Art History & LiteratureHey! I am Alexandra Karg. I am researching, writing and lecturing on topics in the field of art and culture. In my hometown of Berlin I completed my studies in literature and art history. Since then I have been working as a journalist and writer. Besides writing, it is my passion to read, travel and visit museums and galleries. On TheCollector.com you will find articles by me about art and culture, especially about topics referring to the 20th century and the present.