Monday, March 4, 2013

Ed Ruscha at Gagosian NYC

Ed Ruscha at Gagosian gallery NYC

Opening Tuesday night, and running until April 27, Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, NYC, presents an exhibition of Ed Ruscha’s artist books together with books and works of art by more than 100 contemporary artists that respond directly and diversely to Ruscha’s original project. Organized by Bob Monk, “Ed Ruscha Books & Co.” has been drawn from private collections, including Ruscha’s own. Most of the books are installed so that viewers can interact with them and browse their pages.

Inspired by the unassuming books that he found on street stalls during a trip to Europe, in 1962 Ruscha published his first artist book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations under his own imprint, National Excelsior Press. A slim, cheaply produced volume, then priced at $3.50, Twentysix Gasoline Stations did exactly what its title suggests, reproducing twenty-six photographs of gasoline stations next to captions indicating their brand and location. All of the stations were on Route 66, the road mythologized by the eponymous TV series and in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Ruscha’s book traveled more or less west to east, from the first service station in Los Angeles, where he moved as a young man, back to Oklahoma City, where he grew up. 
Initially, the book received a poor reception, rejected by the Library of Congress for its “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information.” However, during the sixties it acquired cult status, and by the eighties it was hailed as one of the first truly modern artist's books. Ruscha followed up Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) with a succession of kindred publications, including Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968), and Real Estate Opportunities (1970), all of which combined the literalness of early California pop art with a deadpan photographic aesthetic informed by minimalist sequence and seriality.

Ruscha’s artist books have proved to be deeply influential, beginning with Bruce Nauman’s Burning Small Fires (1968), for which Nauman burned Ruscha's Various Small Fires and Milk (1964) and photographed the process. More than forty years later, photographer Charles Johnstone relocated Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations in Cuba, producing the portfolio Twentysix Havana Gasoline Stations (2008). The most recent homage is One Swimming Pool (2013) by Dutch artist Elisabeth Tonnard, who re-photographed one of the photographs from Ruscha's Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968) and enlarged it to the size of a small swimming pool, consisting of 3164 pages the same size as the pages in Ruscha's original book. The pages of this ‘pool on a shelf’ can be detached to create the life-size installation.
“Ed Ruscha Books & Co.” will coincide with the publication of MIT Press's Various Small Books: Referencing Small Books by Ed Ruscha (2013), which documents ninety-one of the books inspired by Ruscha’s own, reproducing covers and sample layouts from each, along with a detailed description. Various Small Books… also includes selections from Ruscha’s books and an appendix listing most of the known Ruscha book tributes.

Carol Vogel's piece in the February 28, New York Times, Conceptual Inspiration, by the Book, is well worth a read. This bit resonated with me:
50 years ago Mr. Ruscha saw creating books as a cheap way to get his work in front of the public. Today there appears to be a kind of backlash against the digital universe, as artists are again embracing the notion of artist books despite the proliferation of electronic reading devices. “The quality of images on the Internet is deplorable,” said Mr. Monk, a Briton who lives in Berlin and creates books. “And printing these days has actually gotten cheaper.”
At the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., the demand for artist books and even exhibition catalogs has not diminished despite the availability of art books that can be seen online. “The book is a more intimate engagement with the artist,” said Tom Eccles, director at the Center for Curatorial Studies. “We find that we’re getting more visitors to our library than to our exhibits, in part because libraries are social spaces. Books have a durational audience. People still want a material relationship with the real thing.”  You can read the complete New York Times piece HERE.

Ed Ruscha in 1970

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