Michael Webb
writes on modern architecture, design, and travel. He is the author of 26 books, most recently Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection (Rizzoli) and Venice CA: Art +Architecture in a Maverick Community (Abrams). He travels widely in search of new and classic modern architecture and contributes to magazines around the world. Michael lives in the Neutra apartment that Charles and Ray Eames once called home.

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Books: Honest Ed

By Michael Webb

Various Small Books: Referencing Various Small Books by Ed Ruscha. Phil Taylor. (The MIT Press, $39.95); Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles. Alexandra Schwartz (The MIT Press, $29.95); Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments. Virginia Heckert (J. Paul Getty Museum, $24.95).

David Hockney defined the light and color of southern California, as Matisse did for the Côte d’Azure, but Ed Ruscha is the quintessential LA artist. Like most keen observers of the local scene, Ruscha is an immigrant (from Nebraska and Oklahoma) who drove to LA in 1956 and stayed on. In those six decades he has addressed the urban landscape, and created iconic images of the Hollywood sign, the 20th Century Fox logo, gas stations, commercial strips, and the geometry of city boulevards. The man and his art are perfectly matched: laconic, deadpan, infused with irony. The simplicity of his paintings and prints is deceptive; Ruscha is a true original and a master of his craft.

Between 1962 and 1978, he created 16 small artist’s books, starting with Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the product of repeated trips on Route 66. Succeeding volumes included Various Small Fires, Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, and the classic, concertina fold Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Sold cheaply they are now increasingly valuable collectors’ items and they inspired a succession of artists to pay homage with their own small books. Mark Rawlinson compares them to Duchamp’s breakthrough in re-contextualising mundane objects to give them the status of art works. He reveals that Ruscha, who has always had a fascination with words, thought up titles and then took artless photographs as documentation. These modest books “continue to inspire and, perhaps, infuriate, but crucially engage the interest of contemporary artists and photographers,” he writes.

Various Small Books is a catalog of about a hundred titles from around the world, including a fold-out on the buildings along Tokyo’s Ginza that predated Ruscha, and None of the Buildings on the Sunset Strip, which shows the side roads with only a hint of the structures to either side. There are 17 Parked Cars, Fifteen Pornography Companies, and 149 Business Cards. All of these books, along with the ones that inspired them, function as Pop or Conceptual art works and as time capsules memorializing objects and buildings that may soon be as rare as typewriters. 

In Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles, Alexandra Schwartz explores the artist’s long love affair with his adopted city, starting with the Chouinard Art School (now Cal-Arts) and the legendary Ferus Gallery; the evolution of Pop art (of which Ruscha is one of the last respected exponents), and his contribution to LA as a world capital of contemporary art.

The Getty publication is an elaboration of Ruscha’s 1965 book, providing a commentary on and superior reproductions of the original black and white photographs. It accompanies a small exhibition, In Focus: Ed Ruscha, of material from the Getty’s archives that is itself a companion to Overdrive, a major show I reviewed last month. 

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