Twentysix Gasoline Stations is the first artist's book by the American pop artist Ed Ruscha. Published in April 1963 on his own imprint Heavy Industry Publications, it is often considered to be the first modern Artist's book, and has become famous as a precursor and a major influence on the emerging artist's book culture, especially in America. The book does exactly what its title suggests, reproducing 26 photographs of gasoline stations next to captions indicating their brand and location. From the first service station, 'Bob's Service' in Los Angeles where Ruscha lived, the book follows a journey back to Oklahoma City where the artist had grown up, and where his mother still resided. The last image is of a Fina Gasoline Station in Groom, Texas, which Ruscha has suggested should be seen as the beginning of the return journey, 'like a coda'.
Originally printed in a numbered edition of 400, a second edition of 500 was published in 1967 and a third of 3000 in 1969. Neither of these later editions was numbered. It has been suggested that these reprints were a deliberate attempt to flood the market in order to maintain the book's status as a cheap, mass produced commodity. The book originally sold for $4.00.
"Ruscha's books combined the literalness of early California pop art with a flat-footed photographic aesthetic informed by minimalist notions of repetitive sequence and seriality....Thirty years later, with a quarter of a century of mainstream artworld activity between, the aspect of shock-effect and humor has diminished somewhat. But in 1962 (sic) this work read against the photographic landscape of highly aestheticized image-making." Joanna Drucker
"I wasn't coming out here [California] to do anything in particular, or to be anything in particular except...except out of Oklahoma...a long way from Oklahoma, that's what I wanted to be, and everything it stood for. And away from the catholic church too, and Sister Daniella who beat my knuckles with a pencil the one year I was in parochial school." Ed RuschaRuscha had visited Europe in 1961, and been particularly taken by the books he saw for sale 'on the street, in those little bookstalls,' and been impressed by the 'non-commercial look... a strange kind of sober design including the typography and the binding and everything.' Back in Los Angeles, he conceived the idea initially as a play on words, deciding upon the title first, then working on the typography and design before taking the photographs. He took about 60 photographs, and edited them down to 26 by removing any that he felt were too interesting.
Dated 1962 in the foreword and dedicated to Patty Callahan, the book comprises of twentysix photographs of various different dimensions and proportions; most are layed out on a single page with the text facing the image; some go across the double spread, a few are placed next to each other. Three images are taken at night, including one of Tucumcari New Mexico, that appears to have been taken from a moving car that has no intention of stopping. But for three people walking across the forecourt on the Sunset Strip, a man getting out of his car at Flagstaff, Arizona and a man looking under his hood at Lipton, Arizona, there are no people present. There aren't even any cars visible in some of the photos. Almost all of the photos are taken from the other side of the highway.
All of the gasoline stations are on Route 66, a road that had already been mythologized by the TV Series Route 66 and in Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath, and later reappeared as a motif in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The order that the stations appear is almost the same as their position on the route west-east, with 5 stations moved out of order. With the exception of the last station in Groom, Texas, the relevant states listed are all in order.
The first edition was numbered and occasionally signed, which Ruscha later admitted was a 'mistake'. Apart from this detail, the books are defined by their 'professional polish, a clear-cut machine finish.'
"I have eliminated all text from my books- I want absolutely neutral material. My pictures are not that interesting, nor the subject matter. They are simply a collection of 'facts', my book is more like a collection of readymades.....It is almost worth the money to have the thrill of 400 exactly identical books stacked in front of you." Ed RuschaLater, in an interview in the National Observer, Ruscha declared;
"I want to be the Henry Ford of book making."The book is covered with a semi-transparent glassine dust jacket for protection. About 50 copies of the first edition came in a black cardboard slipcase. Apart from this, and the numbering on the last page of the first edition, each of the three editions is basically identical; but for the details of each edition at the beginning of the book, the three are indistinguishable.
"There is a connection between my work and my experience with religious icons, and the stations of the cross and the Church generally, but it's in one of method, you know; I do have some flavors that come over, like the incense... we all go through stages... the attitude comes out of a whole style of living and then coming up with statements." Ed RuschaThe book has also been cited as an artist's book equivalent of a road movie, and as a pop version of Walker Evans' photos of America, such as his deserted gasoline station in 'Highway Corner Reedsville West Virginia, 1935'. The last image, of a Fina station, has been interpreted as a Duchampian pun on Fin (end).
An original signed copy of Twentysix Gasoline Stations is now worth up to $35,000.