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Book Notes

Ed Ruscha Revisits ‘Some Los Angeles Apartments’

“My pictures are not that interesting nor the subject matter. They are simply a collection of facts.”
— Ed Ruscha

Fifty years ago, contemporary artist Ed Ruscha published Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the first of 16 photo books that would help to redefine the art-book genre. Now, Ruscha is presenting an updated volume of Some Los Angeles Apartments in part to commemorate this landmark.

Born in 1937, Ruscha drove to California from Oklahoma in 1956. He studied with Robert Irwin at the Chouinard Art Institute and became an active member of the Los Angeles Pop Art movement during the 1960s. Working in painting, photography, film, printmaking, publishing, and drawing, Ruscha honed his offbeat, humorous approach to subject matter.

Some Los Angeles Apartments, like Ruscha’s other highly collectible and sought-after photo books, has been the source of a lot of head-scratching over the years. The usual conceptual art question arises: Why is this art? The seemingly blank, expressionless representation of apartment buildings and other Southern California landmarks might initially seem void of aesthetic meaning. Ruscha’s photoconceptualism is, in some sense, baffling and confrontational.

These photographs avoid narrative and emotionalism, but what at first seems reductive becomes more meaningful when the viewer considers that the artist’s craft and identity has been, for the most part, removed. The viewer is left to regard these scenes, almost always representing life in Los Angeles, as simple flat surface.

Ruscha’s photo books have taken on new associations. Recently, he published Then and Now featuring a series of snapshots exposing a 12-mile section of Hollywood Boulevard in 1973, contrasted with the same 12 miles revisited in the 21st century. The viewer witnesses the transformation, fluctuation and instability of places over time. The deadpan morphs into a kind of anthropology of urban landscapes.

Ruscha is also famous for his word paintings — graphic illustrations of words as objects in space, a still life with letters instead of bowls of fruit. The thread that runs through all of Ruscha’s work is his consistency in illustrating the “thingness” of his subjects. Words, like buildings, are equal in that they are objects deconstructed of context.

Some Los Angeles Apartments was published by the Getty Center as part of a larger acquisition project beginning in 2011 when the museum acquired a large portion of Ed Ruscha’s photo-based work. The publication also coincides with the Getty’s current Ruscha photo retrospective, Ed Ruscha In Focus, which runs through Sept. 29, 2013.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at www.mindtheimage.com.

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