Gasoline Stations 1962 is a compilation of ten gelatin silver prints from Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963, one of Ed Ruscha's most renowned photography books. In 1989, 150 years since the development of photography, Ruscha made his first new edition of photographic works, a selection of ten images that were commercially printed, and offered as a portfolio in a limited edition of twenty five. In these works, Ruscha continues a distinguished lineage of American art that finds inspiration in popular American subjects. When it occurred to him that this vast expanse of southwest America was mostly unknown to others, he set out to make the information more widely available. With titles indicating the station's name and location, the photographs present a glimpse at the banality of the still developing southwestern landscape of the 1960s. In these images, Ruscha combines the literalness of early California pop art with a deadpan photographic aesthetic informed by minimalist sequence and seriality.
Ruscha describes his roots as "Real Middle America." Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937, he moved with his family to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma at the age of four. In 1956, when Ruscha moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, he was extremely stimulated by the environment. The artist assimilated into the west coast lifestyle, and became recognized as a Californian artist, much like David Hockney would do a few years later.
Although he trained as a commercial artist, Ruscha had always been intrigued by photography and making photographs, as well as by the book format as an artistic object. Ruscha's emergence during the 1960s coincided with a period in contemporary American art that was especially receptive to an increased blurring of the boundary between popular culture and fine art and was open to experimentation in many directions, such as photography.
Ruscha experimented with this medium while making road trips between Los Angeles and Oklahoma, documenting his trip with black and white photographs of the gas stations where he stopped to refuel. All of the stations were on Route 66, the road mythologized by the eponymous TV series and in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. This was a subject matter that the artist had been contemplating for a few years. The first allusion to the American gas station in Ruscha's work appears in U.S. 66, 1960, with the name of the famed American highway submerged in expressionist brushwork.
This highway adventure resulted in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963, as well as two monumental paintings, the sharply rendered and colorful Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963 (Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College) and Standard Station, 10 cent Western Being Torn in Half, 1964 (The Modern, Fort Worth). Ruscha recognized the gas station as an American visual icon and also saw the impersonal image possibilities for graphic and coloristic variations, producing a series of four screenprints of the station in different colors and formats from 1966 to 1969.
These ten photographs that make up Gasoline Stations 1962 emphasize the range of American utilitarian architecture dotting the western landscape. Shot with his Yashica 2 1/4 camera, Ruscha's sense of graphic design also dictates the image. Many of the works are cropped, for example Knox Less, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In this image, the artist eliminated the excess sky and street to give the image a horizontal sweep, making the decorative flags dominant. However, the results give the impression of an amateur snapshot, with broad stretches of road in the foreground and empty desert skies above. Taken from multiple perspectives at different times during the day, the light emphasizes each stations facade. Staying true to his desire to document the true nature of the landscape, Ruscha made only one exposure at each station, using the camera as recording device rather than as an expressive tool. His wry, romanticized view of ordinariness and celebration of repetition and banality influenced his contemporaries such as Dan Graham and Robert Smithson.
The photographs span the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, from the first service station in Los Angeles, where he moved as a young man, back to Oklahoma City, where he grew up. Ruscha was profoundly affected by the work of Walker Evans, who was among the earliest artists to immortalize symbols of contemporary urban life in photographs as part of his exploration of America. Evans' documentary style and appreciation of the landscape of roadside reality can be seen in his photograph Highway Corner, Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935.
Ruscha's attraction to photography also reflects its central role in the pop sensibility permeating the art of the 1960s. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, and Tom Wesselman were all using photography as source materials for their paintings. However, Ruscha's base in southern California led the artist to be more influenced by the Hollywood film culture, rather than advertising media.
Robert Frank's The Americans, was a photographic book that would deeply influence Ruscha in both its sequencing of imagery and mass culture subject matter. Frank captured the rather surreal experience of being on the open road in the 1950s. In the same way, Ruscha focuses on the signs and road stops dotting the landscape of the mythic west. The road signs, billboards, and filling stations that Ruscha saw as he traveled down Route 66 were a surreal presence, their attention to commonplace matters such as the speed limit and brand of gas are juxtaposed to the limitless sky and setting sun. The words on the signage float in emptiness, filling the uneasy void of the desert and foreshadowing the word paintings for which the artist is known.
The automobile and the highway played an important role in shaping a generation and became a popular reference in literature and films, such as On the Road, 1957 and Rebel Without a Cause, 1955. The sameness and sequence of filling stations turns them into points replacing towns on a map, highlighting the importance of Route 66 as a collective memory map of Americans. Not only is Gasoline Stations 1962 a personal document, but a documentation of a moment in American history.