Interviews

Ed Ruscha on Route 66, Making Books and “Choppy Movement”

By The ASX Team on January 24, 2015

“So in a sense they (books) had no–there was no school of thought, and I felt at that time that it was unexplored. That’s one reason it attracted me.”

MR. KARLSTROM: What about your books? This is a last thing that I’d like to at least get started on. You have created I don’t know how many, but a fair number of really interesting little booklets. I don’t know what the first was, and I don’t know the exact progression; I’m certainly familiar with some of them, “Various Small Fires” [1964], and then “L.A. Apartments” [“Some Los Angeles Apartments,” 1965], Buildings along the Sunset Strip [“Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” 1966], “Gas Stations” [“Twenty six Gasoline Stations,” 1962], “Palm Trees” [“A Few Palm Trees,” 1971], and the one that I can think of–I mean I can think of a number of them, but the one that I’d like to kick it off with, if you don’t mind is “Crackers,” [1969] which you did with — when was that?

MR. RUSCHA: 1969, I believe.

MR. KARLSTROM: And that was a collaboration with Larry Bell? At least he was in it.

MR. RUSCHA: See, it was a movie best of all, but first it was a book. It was a book that was a movie fallen short. I didn’t realize I was going to make a movie, but I wanted to make one and had no funds to, so I made the book first, and then came the movie. The book was from the short story by Mason Williams, called “How to Derive the Maximum Enjoyment from Crackers” [Boneless Roast. Los Angeles, CA; Mason Williams: 1967]. The story literally follows his story, and it possessed some of the shaggy dog techniques that he and I responded to in everyday living situations. He got the story down, and I saw it as a potential story, and I wanted to investigate this telling of the story in some way. I couldn’t do it with a painting; it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t make a drawing of it, I couldn’t write a song because I’m not a song writer. So it came to pass as a book. But as books, I could see that this was my least favorite. It had less to do with my orientation with my art–

MR. KARLSTROM: “Crackers,” you mean.

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, the book “Crackers” had less to do with me as an artist. I felt it was possibly, for that reason, one of the weakest things I’ve ever done.

MR. KARLSTROM: It was fun, though.

MR. RUSCHA: It was fun, but the important thing about it was that I saw it–I stopped for a moment and saw a story, the telling of a story. It was an option to being a sort of visual raconteur. But even at that I felt like the book was not the proper way to do it, even though I had, unfortunately, seen that after it was finished. But the thing that was good for me about it was that I was able to make a film out of it, and that–

MR. KARLSTROM: Was that the first film?

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, the first film I did, and I subsequently called it Premium [1971, 24 min.], because of Premium Crackers. The idea of making a movie was like a whirlwind project. I had gotten a Guggenheim grant for $13,000 and literally spent the money in five days making the movie. I couldn’t write checks fast enough, and I immediately saw immense problems in putting together a movie project. So I taught myself an expensive lesson.

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Interior view of Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha

“Route 66, I’ve had a great affection for that road because of its connection between the places I’ve been and worked. It was like a continuous ribbon, it was like a real magical formula for keeping my life going. I thought it was great.”

MR. KARLSTROM: Luckily it was at the Guggenheim’s expense.

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, luckily it was at their expense and not mine. But I had gotten the Guggenheim grant from the work I had done with books, which I’ve always felt to be one of the private sides of me that is particularly strong. I felt like my books had been in a sense, oh, unique, or kissed by angels, they have not had to endure criticism. They don’t ask to be criticized because the types of books I was involved with–I wanted something that was on a non-critical platform. That sat out on a platform, they were things that were just curiosities unto themselves, and I wanted a sense of–I didn’t want people to look at them and say, “Oh, well.”

They look at a painting and a painting has a direct function, hang it on a wall. It has–besides several thousands of years of history and weight behind it, if you look at it that way, the books didn’t. The books represented an excursion off onto some side issue that was even puzzling to me, and yet offered me a platform for speaking, in a sense. The first book I did was “26 Gasoline Stations.” It gave birth to the painting, too, of the Standard Station.

MR. KARLSTROM: Which, just for the record, was pointed out to me, are gas stations only from between Los Angeles and Amarillo, Texas, is that right?

MR. RUSCHA: No. The one that I picked, I did the painting using studies from snapshots I’d taken. The one that I picked was situated in Amarillo, Texas.

MR. KARLSTROM: But in the book itself, is it true that those gas stations are along the way on that particular journey?

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, they’re on US 66, between Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.

MR. KARLSTROM: But they’re not from all over the country.

MR. RUSCHA: No. They’re on US 66, the old US 66, between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.

MR. KARLSTROM: Route 66.

MR. RUSCHA: Route 66, yes.

MR. KARLSTROM: That was the first one.

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, which was my–you know, Route 66, I’ve had a great affection for that road because of its connection between the places I’ve been and worked. It was like a continuous ribbon, it was like a real magical formula for keeping my life going. I thought it was great.

MR. KARLSTROM: Now it’s Interstate 10.

MR. RUSCHA: It’s Interstate 10 now. Not much to say about that.

MR. KARLSTROM: Now let’s go back even a little further. You obviously had experience, you had worked at Plantin Press for, I don’t know, a while. You obviously had experience. I don’t know if you were typesetting or what you were doing.

MR. RUSCHA: Plantin Press –Saul Marks was a book printer, a fine art book printer. He believed in letterpress. It’s probably obsolete now, I’m sure it is. It’s been totally replaced by other forms of printing.

MR. KARLSTROM: There are a few left.

MR. RUSCHA: I’ve become lost from the whole medium myself. But he had a lot of type there, a lot of lead type that he set by hand. I learned to do that, and I learned to operate the offset press, but his real love was book printing and letterpress printing. So I got a flavor of things from him and from that place, the smell of ink, etc., that I got under my fingernails and never got out. But it made me aware of the techniques of things. If that man had seen my paintings, I think he would have been repulsed, confused and repulsed.

MR. KARLSTROM: I don’t know. You can’t ever tell. Clearly that experience prepared you for–

MR. RUSCHA: –for the next step along the line. Yes. So it did, it influenced me a lot toward doing books, and also it moved me into an area of exploring with premeditated imagery. See, I guess, in school we were taught to face a blank canvas, and have it out with the blank canvas. I found it difficult to do, and so I thought my way was to preconceive the things that went on, contrive them, what have you, have a notion of the end and not the means to the end. The means to the end has always been secondary in my art, and I’ve seen beyond the means, and so the fun of working in it is not always that much fun. It’s the end product that I’m after.

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Interior view of 26 Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha

“I pondered–it (Twenty-Six) was arbitrary–but I pondered it and somehow it had the right sound, the right feeling, it was the right thing at the right time.”

MR. KARLSTROM: You’re certainly not a process artist.

MR. RUSCHA: No, I’m not a process artist.

MR. KARLSTROM: You know what you’re not.

MR. RUSCHA: –find out what I am. But with the books I was able to see that there was some magic in dreaming up something that may not even have come to pass yet. So I came up with not only the pictures in my mind, not just the places, not just these specific gas stations or anything like that, but I saw a book out there full of photographs of gas stations, full of twenty-six gas stations, if you will.

MR. KARLSTROM: How did you decide twenty-six, arbitrarily?

MR. RUSCHA: I pondered–it was arbitrary–but I pondered it and somehow it had the right sound, the right feeling, it was the right thing at the right time.

MR. KARLSTROM: Twenty-six.

MR. RUSCHA: Yes. I had a subject, and I had a specific, and I had a qualitative — quantitative thing about it.

MR. KARLSTROM: Most of the little books I’ve seen are, I guess, privately published, generally incorporating photographs often in a serial way. You said something that interested me very much. You described the books as your favorite, for some reason, I guess in a personal way, favorite expression and body of work. What did you mean by that? Why do you feel that way about the books?

MR. RUSCHA: Well, first of all, it amuses me when people say “little books,” but I think I know what they really mean, in that the books are privately published and very unaggressive as books go. But I guess they’re my favorite–they were my favorite–I say were because I haven’t done a book for a few years now–but it was a very private thing that I had with myself, in the expression I had in those books, because of their uniqueness. There were no rules to be written and no rules to be followed in the same sense that there are in painting and sculpture and other forms of art. So in a sense they had no–there was no school of thought, and I felt at that time that it was unexplored. That’s one reason it attracted me.

MR. KARLSTROM: I’m familiar with some of the books, of course, and I think the ones that come to mind– we talked about “Crackers” a little bit last time, we went into that. That seemed to be a special case, because if I remember correctly that was almost like a project for a film, I believe that’s what you said. You felt that was a little different from what you really mean by the most successful ones.

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, “Crackers” was a narrative, and it was lighthearted and not as stoic or as–oh, maybe not as severe as the other books. For that reason, it’s my least favorite. But it was a book nonetheless first of all, and then came a movie. If I could go back and restructure and re-plan, redo, it would be first a movie and I would never make a book. It was like a little flip picture book in a sense. You remember those old books that were made years ago, you just flip through? It’s almost like that. They were like photographs, a photograph on each page of an event that just took place and in that order without the movement.

MR. KARLSTROM: It’s interesting that you mention the little flip books. Actually, they worked as manual animation, if I remember correctly. You flipped through and the little characters would–do you see any relationship between those and–you mentioned in fact in “Crackers”–do you see a relationship there? What about the others that incorporated what I call serial imagery or series, where you would show not the same image, but related images throughout, sometimes page after page, whether they’re apartments or palm trees or fires, Sunset Boulevard or gas stations. It seems they share this interest in repeating similar images. But do you think that–do you see any connection between the little flip books and these and yours?

MR. RUSCHA: Well, of course, the art form of the flip book is one facet of making books, one of many facets of making books. I mean, I never employed that use of the flip–manual operation–I’ve never used that. I wouldn’t say “Crackers” was that, it was not that at all. You’re speaking of the technique of up in the corner of each book where the thumb is flipped, and you actually see the motion going across. No, I’ve never used that, and I don’t think that could apply to my books at all.

MR. KARLSTROM: What I’m interested in is not so much the flip book–let’s forget that. One doesn’t want to make too much of that at all, but the use of repetition. Now it’s not creating animation, but, when you line up a series of images, especially of Sunset Strip, where you have–it’s a foldout– and you have photographs of all these buildings as one would drive by them on Sunset Strip. What you have is if not animation in the flip technique, you have the implication of movement and–

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Interior view of 34 Parking Lots in Los Angeles by Ed Ruscha

MR. RUSCHA: Choppy movement.

MR. KARLSTROM: Choppy movement, it’s true. What interests me, and maybe it applies even to the more conventional format where you just turn the pages and you see different gas stations or apartments or building, whatever they may be, for me there’s an implication of motion, of traveling, very much so, I think, in “Sunset.” [“Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” 1971]

MR. RUSCHA: It’s implied anyway. It’s implied in a lot of the books. So many of the books are architectural in nature, like the gas stations and the apartments, and a few of the other books. So they all possess a ground line, a landscape line, that is actually horizontal, and so it suggests itself all the way through the book that there is a ground line. You’re standing at person height, looking at these things, and each page is this way, so it continues, it is.

MR. KARLSTROM: It seems to me anyway–there’s implied movement, and moving from one place to another takes time. Were you at all conscious ever, or interested in this idea of time, the element of time, passing time, as you, say, leaf through a book or survey the Sunset Strip. Whether it’s intentional or not, it seems to me that you get both motion and time. I was wondering if that’s one of the elements.

MR. RUSCHA: Yes, time is one of the things. In none of the books did I actually explore that technique of time. But I had worked on a book that was never produced, called–and I did have a title for it at that time–Standard Station at Various Times of Day. It was a book that was never done because the concept was too simple, I guess.

MR. KARLSTROM: What do you mean?

MR. RUSCHA: In other words, I experienced the study of time with this thing. So the expression of it, or the book afterwards, was almost unnecessary.

MR. KARLSTROM: I see.

MR. RUSCHA: It was unnecessary, so I just never made the book. I photographed this gas station as the sun rose and fell throughout the day, and I was going to repeat that. I just felt it was a subject that had been maybe explored by other artists, and it was something that had just–had already been answered. It had already been answered. So my contribution in that sense was unnecessary. So I shelved the project. It was unnecessary.

“Choppy movement, it’s true. What interests me, and maybe it applies even to the more conventional format where you just turn the pages and you see different gas stations or apartments or building, whatever they may be, for me there’s an implication of motion, of traveling, very much so, I think, in “Sunset.” [“Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” 1971]”

MR. KARLSTROM: But you actually made photographs.

MR. RUSCHA: You do know now that I was involved with that, I was concerned with the concept of time.

MR. KARLSTROM: But you actually went to the point, process, where you photographed, you took the photographs, and so I assume you have a series of negatives or proof sheets on that.

MR. RUSCHA: Somewhere, yes.

MR. KARLSTROM: That’s interesting, and of course, you’re right, the theme has been explored. Of course, the great example that comes to mind is Monet himself, with his haystacks or Rouen Cathedral, showing them, the same view, but at different times of day. Exploring how light, the effect of light on a facade, or on the haystacks—

MR. RUSCHA: His study was light, and mine was almost being behind a camera and letting the light fall as it did.

MR. KARLSTROM: But there are similarities. The basic interest is there, in Monet, certainly, the overriding interest in the effects of light and perception. Of how it dissolves matter, depending on the conditions. How light actually changes matter, solid objects, which I gather wasn’t particularly your concern. But the time element obviously also was in the Monet series, and that, I gather, was what–

MR. RUSCHA: I was more involved with the inhuman aspect of it, the mechanical aspect of it, of simply recording time as it was, and not so much the study of light on a particular subject. I was more interested in the process. I didn’t care how it came out, I didn’t care how it changed. It would have been as good at night as it was during the day. There was no qualitative judgment. I was just being–I was recording something.

Excerpt from an Oral history interview with Edward Ruscha, 1980 October 29-1981 October 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(All rights reserved. Text @ Smithsonian Institution. Images @ Ed Ruscha.)