Postmodern Topography: A New Reading of Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip
Ed Ruscha’s photo books are among some of the most puzzling art objects produced in America during the 1960s and 70s. Each title reads like a set of instructions, usually consisting of a quantity (whether an exact number or a quantitative adjective) followed by a tangible, countable subject, which, in Ruscha’s case, ranges from gas stations to crackers to artificial plants. Though they appear to conform to the standard conventions of bound paperback volumes, and are nearly indistinguishable from any other one might find on a bookshelf, Ruscha's book projects of the 60s and 70s have come to be recognized as crucial to photography's development, encouraging new conceptual approaches to the medium and heightening interest in analyzing the built landscape. Ruscha produced sixteen photo books between 1963 and 1978 in large editions of several hundred or thousand using high-speed professional presses, all of which were available for a relatively nominal price. Six of them incorporate the topography of Los Angeles, the artist’s adopted city including his first, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963), and his third, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), both arguably the artist’s most well known, as well as the most frequently addressed in the literature on Ruscha. Since their appearance in the mid-1960s, both have been situated into traditions ascribed to Pop, photo-documentary and conceptual art practices, but uncomfortably so in each case. Despite the wealth of scholarship on these books, they make fruitful case studies for addressing what has been, more or less, an overlooked question: what reading of 1960s greater Los Angeles do Ruscha’s photo books actually perform? In my project I propose a new reading of Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip, one that investigates them in the context of theories on postmodern architecture and the urban experience. I offer a new term to describe them: postmodern topography. Using this definition and the writings of Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard , Reyner Banham and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip theorize his term I have proposed. Considering their inability to fit within existing terminology, Ruscha’s books are defined by contradiction, embodying a sort of “both/and” quality that both embraces and rejects the postmodern urban experience. In the case of postmodern topography: Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip appear to celebrate Los Angeles’s freeway system, as does Banham, yet Ruscha withholds the visual representation of roads and cars from his readers. While they seem to anticipate Venturi and Scott Brown’s conception of sign culture, the absence of cars and highways seems to void this, as well. While they seem to confirm Baudrillard and Jameson’s dystopic views of postmodern society, they also pose formal qualities that do not solely adhere to their grammar of flatness and surface. While the photographs contained within them are flattened, as well, the books themselves assume an architectural character that challenges this conception. Postmodern topography embodies these books’ proclivity for tension and contradiction. Seeing that it is contradictory itself, it is only fitting that a curious term is used to define these equally curious publications. Taking this into account, Ruscha’s decision to publish books at the time at which he did seems to suggest that Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip comment on a particular time and place, that being Los Angeles in the 1960s.