I wanted to make a book,’ Ed Ruscha told me last summer, when reminiscing about his early years. ‘At that point I could have gone down several avenues, but the book was the final end result.’ Entitled Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), it turned out to be not only one of Ruscha’s most important works, but one that has had – for a self-published volume with no text, in an edition of 500, initially rejected by the Library of Congress for its ‘unorthodox form and supposed lack of information’ – a surprisingly large cultural impact.
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes at the Serpentine Gallery and an advocate of artists’ books, takes up the story. When he visited architects Venturi, Scott Brown in Philadelphia, he asked them about their own book, Learning from Las Vegas (1972, revised 1977), an appreciation of the billboards, glitz and neon of the Las Vegas Strip that was itself a crucial text in the development of Post-Modernism. Obrist had long been fascinated by this book. ‘It was an unusual thing for an architect to do in the ’70s, learning from vernacular architecture in this way, producing this manifesto and using images in it so creatively. So I asked them what the trigger was. They said it was absolutely Ed Ruscha. They’d even visited Ruscha in his studio with their architecture class. So here we have Ruscha inspiring a whole field of architecture and graphic design through his books.’ In a couple of steps, a quirky project by a young West Coast artist developed into a wider shift in taste.