Ed Ruscha’s gas stations
September 11, 2016 § 2 Comments
ED RUSCHA WAS 18 when he drove a 1950 Ford sedan from Oklahoma City, where he lived, to Los Angeles to attend art school. That 1956 trip was the first of many in which he roughly followed the fabled Route 66 through western Oklahoma, northern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the California desert.
The architecture and symbolism of the gasoline station — that archetypal element in any modern vision of the American West — has long fascinated Ruscha. He brought a camera on successive trips and decided to record in photographs the many stations he encountered.
For his book Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ruscha photographed gasoline stations between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. One of these, a Standard station in Amarillo, Texas, intrigued him more than the others and launched a major series of paintings, prints and drawings. “There was something new and clean about it. That gas station had a polished newness that I just had to draw and then paint,” he later recalled.
For his first painted rendition of a Standard gasoline station, Ruscha employed one-point perspective to emphasize its angular architecture. The compositional device provided “a zoom quality” that, with the addition of roving searchlights, visually projected the building out of the night sky and into the viewer’s space, situated below the pumps as if encountering the scene from a car on the roadside. Painted in this way, the station became Ruscha’s iconic symbol of the new, brash culture that was emerging from the western United States.
In early versions the station most often appears as a sleek, modernistic red-white-and-blue symbol of the new American West, robust in the age when gas was cheap and great highways connected the land. Ruscha’s more recent renditions suggest meanings of change and obsolescence, whether they depict the station as a dark abandoned building, in a fiery haze, or as a ghostly apparition.
The exhibition “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West” continues at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through October 9, 2016.