Ed Ruscha and his Significance for the Developement of the Artist´s Book

by Anne Thurmann-Jajes

“It’s an artist book if an artist made it, or if an artist says it is.” (Lucy Lippard, 1985)1

In the following, I would like to shed light on the significance of Ed Ruscha’s artist’s books – particularly his early artist’s books – for the development and establishment of the artist’s book genre. To do so, I will embed my remarks on Ruscha’s artist’s books Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip in a brief overview of the history of the artist’s book. Here it will be necessary to take into account the other artists’ books produced in the 1960s concurrently with Ed Ruscha’s, as well as the factors that were decisive for the development of his artist’s books. Then I turn my focus to what might have influenced Ed Ruscha to produce artist’s books. To that end, I take a brief look at the emergence of the artist’s book in the 1950s and the role played by the photo book. I conclude with remarks on the importance of Ruscha’s artist’s books for the further development of the genre. My presentation is based on the holdings of the Centre for Artists’ Publications, which comprise some 12,000 artists’ books, and other artists’ books I am familiar with.

Ed Ruscha and the artists’ books of the 1960s

Ed Ruscha made nine of his first sixteen artist’s books in the 1960s, and the rest in the 1970s.

  1. Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Los Angeles: self-published 1963 (ed. 400 / 1967: 500 / 1969: 3,000)
  2. Various Small Fires and Milk, Los Angeles: self-published 1964 (ed. 400)
  3. Some Los Angeles Apartments, Los Angeles: self-published 1965 (ed. 700)
  4. Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Los Angeles: self-published 1966 (ed. 1,000)
  5. Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, Los Angeles: self-published 1967 (ed. 2,413)
  6. Royal Road Test, Los Angeles: self-published 1967 (ed. 1,000)
  7. Business Cards, Hollywood: Heavy Industry Publications 1968 (with Billy Al Bengston) (ed. 1,000)
  8. Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, Los Angeles: self-published 1968 (ed. 2,400)
  9. Crackers, Hollywood: Heavy Industry Publications 1969 (with Mason Williams) (ed. 5,000)
  10. Babycakes with Weights, New York: Multiples, Inc. 1970 (ed. 1,200)
  11. Real Estate Opportunities, Los Angeles: self published 1970 (ed. 4,000)
  12. A Few Palm Trees, Hollywood: Heavy Industry Publications 1971 (ed. 3,900)
  13. Dutch Details, Sonsbeek: Octopus Foundation, 1971 (ed. 3,000)
  14. Records, Hollywood: Heavy Industry Publications 1971 (ed. 2,000)
  15. Colored People, Los Angeles: self published 1972 (ed. 4,065)
  16. Hard Light, Hollywood: Heavy Industry Publications 1978 (ed. 3,560)

The 1960s saw the production of a number of further artist’s books, including the following:

Water Yam was produced as an artist's book by George Brecht. Originally published in Germany, June 1963 (ed. unknown) in a box designed by George Maciunas and typeset by Tomas Schmit, it has been re-published in various countries several times since.

Emmett Williams published four artists’ books in the 1960s: 13 Variations on 6 Words of Gertrude Stein 1965 (ed. 111), rotapoems 1966 (ed. 1,200), sweethearts 1967 (ed. 500), The Last French-Fried Potato and other poems 1967 (ed. unknown), The Boy and the Bird 1969 (ed. 350).

Allan Kaprow’s artists’ books of the 1960s are Assemblage, Environments and Happenings 1966 (ed. 1,500), Some Recent Happenings 1966 (ed. unknown), Photoalbum: moving, a happening 1967 (ed. unknown), Record II, for Roger Shattuck: a happening 1968 (ed. unknown).

Sol LeWitt produced three of his many artist’s books in the 1960s. His first artist’s book was Serial Project No. 1 of 1966 (ed. unknown) (from Aspen magazine #5/6), followed by further artist’s books like Drawing Series Set II/ 1-24A (ed. unknown) 1968, Three Part Variations Using Three Different Kinds of Cubes (ed. unknown) 1969, and Four Basis Kinds of Straight Lines (ed. unknown) 1969.

Mieko Shiomi: Disappearing Music for Face (I and II), 1966 (ed. unknown), is a performance by Yoko Ono photographed by Peter More and published as flip book by George Maciunas.
Andy Warhol: Kiss and Buzzards over Bagdad (with Jack Smith), both from Aspen magazine #3 from 1966 (ed. unknown), and Andy Warhol's Index (Book), 1967 (ed. unknown).
Lawrence Weiner produced only one artist’s book in the 1960s, Statements of 1969 (ed. 1,000), which was also his first artist’s book.
George Maciunas, Alison Knowles, Al Hansen, Jean Toche, John McCracken, Dick Higgins, Ray Johnson, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Naumann and Richard Tuttle also published artists’ books in the late 1960s.

In Canada, Greg Curnoe began making stamp books in 1962, and has been considered the first maker of artists’ books in Canada: Rain was published 1962, followed by Blue Book 1–7, 1964–71.2 Iain Baxter’s first book was Look Voyez from 1969 (ed. unknown) and Jeff Wall published Landscape Manual in Vancouver in 1969–70 (ed. unknown).

Numerous artists’ books came out in Europe in the 1960s as well. Whereas artists’ books were still rather scarce until 1965, in 1966 the number of publications rose sharply and from that time onward increased from one year to the next, tripling by 1969. I will therefore introduce only a few examples dating from before 1966, as well as books produced on the basis of photographs.

Dieter Roth published, amongst others, bok 2a of 1960 (ed. 35), bok 3c of 1961 (ed. 40), and bok 4a (1961) (ed. 100).
Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1960 (ed. 1,111).
Pol Bury: Ponctuations. Un point c'est tout, 1960 (ed. unknown).
Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd: PÅ SAMMA GÅNG (PA SAMMA GANG), 1961 (ed. unknown), and Prix Nobel, 1966 (ed. unknown).
Ferdinand Kriwet: Rotor, 1961 (ed. unknown).
Guido Biasi: Alphabet, 1961 (ed. 86).
Ludwig Gosewitz: typogramme1, 1962 (ed. 500).
Klaus Burckhardt: portrait & einwände, 1962 (ed. unknown).
Heinz Gappmayrs first artist’s book zeichen dates from 1962 (ed. 200), zeichen II (ed. 100) dates from 1964, and zeichen III (ed. 200) from 1968.
Marcel Broodthaers: Pense Bête, 1964 (ed. unknown).
Daniel Spoerri: an anecdoted topography of chance, Something Else Press New York, 1966 (ed. unknown), in German Anekdoten zu einer Topographie des Zufalls, 1968 (ed. unknown).
Hans-Peter Feldmann made around 35 booklets entitled Bilder between 1968 and 1974 (ed. unknown), e.g. 11 Bilder from 1969.

Other European artists who produced artists’ books in the late 1960s were amongst others Bengt Emil Johnson, L. Alcopley, Timm Ulrichs, Eugen Gomringer, Alfonso Hüppi, Per Kirkeby, Robert Filliou, Bohumila Grögerova, Pierre Alechinsky, Josef Hirsal, Wolf Vostell, Gerhard Rühm, Ake Hodell, and Piero Manzoni.

The majority of the representatives of the first generation of artists all over the world who produced artists’ books only began publishing them in the late sixties and – in the majority of cases – the early seventies. Artists’ books did not begin circulating in earnest until the 1970s, when innumerable further artists began producing artists’ books and the number of published artists’ books increased at an exorbitant rate.

In view of the nine artists’ books he published in the 1960s, Ed Ruscha is an exception. No other artist produced anywhere near as many artists’ books in this period, or in similarly large editions. Every Building on the Sunset Strip came out in 1966 in the first artist’s book edition of 1,000 ever published. From that time onward, he increased the sizes of his books’ editions steadily. By 1967, altogether 6,413 artists’ books by Ed Ruscha were on the market or available, by 1969 the number had risen to 14,813. These were joined in the 1970s by a further 21,725 artists’ books. This makes 36,538 artists’ books in all. Considering the fact that in general the average edition of an artist’s books was between 300 and 500 in Europe and up to 1.000 in the US, the editions of Ruscha’s artist’s books were enormous.

Conspicuously, the majority of artists’ books of the 1960s are based on a preoccupation with language. The works were developed primarily in the context of Concrete and Visual Poetry, the Fluxus movement, Nouveau Réalisme, Pop Art, Concept Art and Stamp Art.

Generally, photographs are not encountered in artists’ books in Europe until the second half of the 1960s. While it is true that Dieter Roth’s 1961 Bok 3c contains photos, those photos are found material and leftover make-ready paper with illustrations of postcards and other things. Like Ed Ruscha in the U.S., Hans-Peter Feldmann represents a singular artist position in the Germany of the time. Having worked conceptually with photography from 1968 onward, Feldmann used ordinary everyday images – some he made himself, some he collected – and assembled them in small series which he brought out as booklets and books. In his œuvre he amassed a repertoire of everyday objects and actions. The chief concern of Ruscha, Feldmann and Warhol was the production of non-aesthetic documentary photos. The low-resolution photos they used lent them an amateurish character. The photographs themselves were subordinate to the overriding artistic conception of the respective artist’s book. This approach to the use of photographs had a formative stylistic influence on artists’ books in general.

In the United States, for their part, the conceptual use of photographs was widespread after 1966, as seen in books by Warhol, Kaprow and Shiomi; initially, however, the connection to the performance and happening was primarily responsible for this circumstance.

Industrially produced artists’ books were a provocation not only to the art world, which was dominated by the concept of the original. The first edition of Twentysix Gasoline Stations, which was available for 3 dollars, was also initially rejected by the Library of Congress. It was that rejection that moved Ruscha to publish an ad in the March 1964 issue of Artforum magazine out of protest. The first show devoted exclusively to his books took place in Germany at the Gallery Heiner Friedrich in Munich, in March 1970.3

The first artists’ books of the 1950s and their influence on Ed Ruscha

There are only very few artists’ books dating from the 1950s. Here are a few examples of books that can already be referred to as artists’ books:

Pierre Alechinsky: Les poupées de Dixmude, 1950 (ed. 300).
Henri Michaux: Mouvements, 1951 (ed. 1,350).

Between 1952 and 1960, Andy Warhol published altogether eight books of his own making, each in an edition of approximately 100:
Love is a Pink Cake
, 1952
A is an Alphabet
, 1953
25 Cats Name(d) Sam and one blue Pussy
, 1954
A La Recherche du Shoe Perdu
, 1955
In the Bottom of my Garden
, 1956
A Gold Book
, 1957
Wild Raspberries
, 1959
Holy Cats by Andy Warhol’s Mother
, 1960.

Bruno Munari: Quadrat Blatt, 1953 (ed. 2,000).
Eugen Gomringer: constellations, constelaciones, konstellationen, 1953 (ed. unknown).
Filliou Robert: A selection from 1000 Basic Japanese Poems, 1953 (ed. unknown).
Gwen Barnard: The shapes of the river, 1955 (ed. unknown).

Dieter Roth published five books in the 1950s, referred to as:
, 1956 (ed. 3)
O.T. (Book)
, 1956 (ed. 150)
, 1957 (ed. 100)
Bok 1956–59
, 1959 (ed. 150)
, 1959 (ed. 100).

Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd: I LAGENS NAMN, 1957 (ed. 700), and CONCERNANT LA DISCIPLINE A BORD, 1959 (ed. 500).
Hans Carl Artmann / Gerhard Rühm / Friedrich Achleitner: hosn rosn baa, 1959 (ed. unknown).
Hans G. Helms: Fa:m'  Ahniesgwow, 1959 (ed. unknown).

Of all the earliest generation of artists’ books, more or less none make use of photographs in any way. Those books emerged from poetry and Concrete Art, and for the most part are to be classified as Concrete Poetry. The book A Gold Book by Andy Warhol is an exception.

Of primary relevance for the production and design of artists’ books in Europe was, on the one hand, dissociation from National Socialist conceptions about the renewal of literature and art, and on the other hand a reversion to the publications and ideas of Dadaism and Surrealism. Ed Ruscha will not have been familiar with the publications by European artists. It can be assumed, however, that he was aware of Andy Warhol’s artist’s books of the 1950s. This we can surmise on the basis of the fact that Ruscha’s first exhibition following his study of photography, paintings and graphics at the present-day California Institute of the Arts in Valencia took place at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963. Founded in 1957 by the curator Walter Happ and artist Ed Kienholz, who later likewise published artists’ books, the gallery played an important role in the history of art in California. What is important for the purposes of today’s discussion is that Andy Warhol also showed his work there.

One motivation for the production of artists’ books that should not be underestimated is the artists’ personal relationships to books in general. Ruscha had quickly abandoned his original aim of becoming a cartoonist or commercial artist. During his studies, however, he worked as a printer’s assistant, and afterwards as a layout designer in an advertising agency. Dieter Roth, Andy Warhol and Ferdinand Kriwet likewise all worked as graphic designers, Heinz Gappmayr as a typesetter, Emmett Williams as a publicist and Marcel Broodthaers as a journalist and book auctioneer.

On the influence of photo books on Ed Ruscha’s artist’s books

Ed Ruscha’s artist’s books are referred to as both artist’s books and photo books. Particularly Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip are frequently encountered in anthologies of photo books, as is Andy Warhol’s Index Book. This may have to do with the fact that Twentysix Gasoline Stations represented a new type of photo book and can be regarded as the first artist’s book exclusively based on photographs. Measuring more than seven metres in length and consisting of nine parts glued together, Every Building on the Sunset Strip is still an exceptional book project to this day. Ed Ruscha was the first artist to combine the spheres of the visual arts and photography in artists’ books.

Ruscha was inspired by Eugène Atget and American photography of the 1940s and 1950s, whose exponents include Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott.

Eugène Atget: Atget Photographe de Paris, 1930
Walker Evans: American Photographs, 1938
Berenice Abbott: Changing New York, 1939
Wright Morris: The Inhabitants, 1946
YOSHIKAZU SUZUKI and SHOHACHI KIMURA: Ginza Kaiwai. Ginza Haccho. Tokyo: Toho-shobo, 1954 (ed. unknown).

The second volume, Ginza Haccho, contains a half-tone photographic panorama folded concertina-style with a panorama length of 3.95 metres. The two volumes describe the history of the buildings along the Ginza in Tokyo. “The photographer Suzuki Yoshikazu (dates unknown) worked from November 1953 until spring of the following year to take over 200 images having to make sure that weather and light conditions would be more or less the same in order not to affect the overall homogeneity of the panorama. Interestingly, Suzuki added an element of photomontage, placing extra cars (and possibly pedestrians) at intersections to heighten the sense of drama.”4

Ruscha’s works differ from traditional photo books in that they do not group the images according to themes, nor do they contain any text apart from the title. This was because the artist wanted to have absolutely neutral material. What is more, his concern was not with perfect photography. The photos in his artist’s books are characterized by their amateurish quality and snapshot character. The successive photos are reminiscent of road movies or visual novels. The photography is not an end in itself but a means to the realization of an artistic idea, or a medium within a conceptual process. In the case of Twentysix Gasoline Stations, for example, the artist began by deciding on the title, which then determined the concept and contents of the book project. Then Ruscha realized it in the sense of a commission, or as an act of putting an idea into practice. Twentysix Gasoline Stations is not a narrative sequence of twenty-six photographs along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, but a deliberate structure that can be understood as a personal alphabet according to the artist’s rules. The Fina station brings Ruscha’s book to a close and can also be regarded as a fictive end of a ‘film’: ‘FIN’.

Thus it can be said that photo books did indeed exert an influence on Ed Ruscha, but he developed that medium further within the framework of the visual arts.

Ed Ruscha’s artists’ books are a manifestation of photography’s emergence into a new era around 1960, an era that comprehensively redefined the boundaries between art and photography. Ed Ruscha thus came to serve numerous younger artists as a source of inspiration. The anthology Various Small Books of 2013 provides impressive evidence of how “small books revisit, imitate, honor, and parody Ruscha in form, content, and title.”5 Even if Twentysix Gasoline Stations was not among the earliest artists’ books, it was the first to position photography as a conceptual element of artists’ books, thus ushering in a long tradition. By subordinating the photographs and their quality to an artistic idea or concept, Ed Ruscha put the idea of the artist’s book in a nutshell and contributed to its canonization at a time when the form of the artist’s book had not yet been firmly established. By publishing an artist’s book œuvre that was extremely large in terms of the total number of copies, Ed Ruscha achieved an unprecedented dissemination of his artist’s books, which thus not only served – and still serve – as a reference for artists and art historians in the classification of artists’ books, but also contributed to the further development and establishment of the artist’s book genre.


Contribution to the Panel: Furthering the Critical Dialog: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations & Every Building on the Sunset Strip atContemporary Artists’ Books Conference (CABC), PS1, New York, Sept. 17, 2016.




1 Lucy Lippard, “New Artist’s Books”, Joan Lyons (ed.), Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook (Rochester, New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), p. 53.

2 https://www.ago.net/assets/files/pdf/special_collections/SC066.pdf. Stand 11.9.2016, pp. 1–122: 2.

3 See also Margit Rowell, Ed Ruscha Photographer, in Ed Ruscha Photographer (exhibition catalogue Whitney Museum of American Art, New York / Steidl, Göttingen, 2006), pp. 11-41, 19.

4 http://aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.blogspot.de/2011/06/yoshikazu-suzuki-and-shohachi-kimura.html (accessed 11 Sep. 2016).

5 Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton and Hermann Zschiegner, eds., Various Small Books (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).