The photographs in the book were taken by Art Alanis. The final image, which crosses a two-page spread, has a small flap attached to the right-hand page that extends the photograph an additional 1.5 in. (5.1 cm) from the right edge when unfolded. Ruscha made a series of editioned photographs based on this book in 1999.
All my artistic response comes from American things, and I guess I've always had a weakness for heroic imagery.
“Artists' books began to proliferate in the sixties and seventies in the prevailing climate of social and political activism. Inexpensive, disposable editions were one manifestation of the dematerialization of the art object and the new emphasis on process.... It was at this time too that a number of artist-controlled alternatives began to develop to provide a forum and venue for many artists denied access to the traditional gallery and museum structure. Independent art publishing was one of these alternatives, and artists' books became part of the ferment of experimental forms.”
The Artist's Printed Extension
Cover to Cover: Artists' Books & Ephemera
Artists who publish books of documentation are, in a sense, using the artform to its simplest degree. —Tim Guest, 1981
Sharing an artwork through the very public method of printing and reproduction is the epitome of democratic dissemination. In their seminal 1981 publication Books By Artists, Tim Guest and Germano Celant begin by addressing their audience’s predictable desire to define a book. They suggest that it is not really possible – or necessary – to define what an artist book is, because any given work becomes a conceptual extension of the artist and is therefore an object of infinite incarnations.
There is too frequently a misinterpretation of printed works and editions as lesser commodities in the market. With artist’s books, the goal was often to distance an artist’s idea from the proverbial canvas, to use words and non-dimensional media as a means to engender and distribute a creative philosophy. Such efforts often led to the creation of superbly idiosyncratic editioned works that succinctly communicate an artist’s entire conceptual foundation, however ineffable. In this way, the artist’s book and the development of conceptual art are inextricably linked. Take, for example, Seth Siegelaub’s July, August, September 1969 exhibition catalogue in which the book is the exhibition. On its pages, it brings together eleven works from eleven artists working in separate locations, works that never physically shared premises themselves.
For artists like John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha, whose broad outputs often hinged on the collision of word and image, the book became a quintessential medium. One of my favorites from this selection is Baldessari’s rare Brutus Killed Caesar, in which two unknown antagonists face each other with a randomized household object between them. It is understood that these objects are murder weapons, but nothing violent takes place outside of the viewer’s imagination, likely shaped by earlier historical texts like Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Brilliant. Another scarce title herewith is Ruscha’s Dutch Details. Comprised of multiple images taken by the artist showing bridges in The Netherlands, it plays off of his Every Building on the Sunset Strip from five years earlier. Oblong as well, with large fold-outs, this book was very difficult to produce and the publisher did not fulfill the edition, therefore making this the rarest of Ruscha’s coveted artist books.
The book’s potential for comprehensively documenting an ephemeral work or performance was critical for many artists, including Gordon Matta-Clark and Bruce Nauman, the latter whom made an artist’s book (Burning Small Fires) about burning another artist’s book (Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk).
The pursuit to collect such a wide and comprehensive library of these titles is a passionate endeavor, and it is my view that no collection could be complete without the artist’s book. A personal library needs this texture to augment the rigid monographs and academic surveys that equate the bulk of most collections. Whether a single rarity catches your eye or you’re drawn to group lots from the likes of Christian Boltanski, Gilbert & George, Richard Prince, and Sol LeWitt, Cover to Cover is a fantastic opportunity to bolster an existing reading room or to plant the seed of a collection to cherish for years to come.
Ed Ruscha is known for his detached, cool gaze over the American landscape, its vernacular and built environments. He is a leading voice in contemporary art, consistently subverting the aesthetic and conceptual conventions of photography and painting, as well as the mythic narratives surrounding American culture.
Ed Ruscha was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937 and grew up in Oklahoma City. He moved to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend what is now the California Institute of the Arts. Upon graduating in 1960, Ruscha began working in commercial advertising, putting him in contact with relationships between image and text and the language of consumerism and popular culture. Ruscha’s early drawings and paintings bucked against the prevailing trend of abstract expressionism, depicting wry, irreverent takes on the banality of the urban landscape. In 1962, Ruscha was included in New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum, a show considered the first museum exhibition of Pop Art that included works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Wayne Thiebaud.
In 1963, the year Ruscha’s now-famous artist book Twentysix Gasoline Stations was published, he received his first solo show at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Ruscha made sixteen artist books in the 1960s and 1970s, most of them comprised of photography taken in an antagonistically plain, documentary style, covering subjects such as swimming pools, parking lots and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). In his photography and painting, Ruscha does not attempt to idealize his subjects, but rather stares deadpan at the ordinary objects and spaces that exist on the periphery of the experience of our surroundings. Ruscha is also celebrated for his approach to language, which is often amusing, incongruous and common, exploring the multiplicity of words and turning them into solid objects to be contemplated and played with.
Ruscha’s first major retrospective was in 1982 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The cover of the catalog featured a drawing he had made in 1979, with the text: “I don’t want no retro spective.” Ruscha continues to reside in his adopted city of Los Angeles, actively creating work that speaks to our rapidly changing contemporary landscape, the way we use language and our conception of the American ethos.