THE DISTANCE from the Knox-Less service station in Oklahoma City to Bob’s Seaside Service, not so far from the Santa Monica Pier at the terminus of Route 66—both pictured in Ed Ruscha
’s 1963 artist’s book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations
—was about 1,400 miles. It’s a drive Ruscha has taken many times since he traveled it with Mason Williams in Ruscha’s lowered 1950 four-door Ford, with throaty Smitty Glasspack dual muffler, following their graduation from Oklahoma City’s Classen High School in 1956...
Ruscha’s drive straight out of high school was born of neither wanderlust nor economic anxiety; rather, it was spurred by a desire for new prospects beyond the limitations of Oklahoma City. Los Angeles offered the possibility of an education in graphic design and new adventures in a city experiencing a rapid evolution in the advertising, film, television, and technology sectors. In turn, the booming growth of the middle and upper classes had the capacity to sustain—albeit marginally—art galleries, which afforded scrappy young artists opportunities and odd jobs to make ends meet. In Ruscha’s telling,
As I came out to California, I knew that I had to have some of my artwork, so I packed up a portfolio and I tried to get into Art Center because that was commercial art to me, and that was the thing I wanted to be. I wanted to be a commercial artist. . . . In the Saturday Evening Post, there was a story about Art Center School which my dad read, so he encouraged me to go to that school for that reason. I got out here and found out I couldn’t get in, you know, there’s no opening. So, I went to Chouinard and started to go to school there. Now that was the Bohemian school...
Read the essay in the September 2023 issue of Artforum now in-print & on-line
Images: Two spreads from Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations
(National Excelsior Publications [Edward Ruscha], 1963) © Ed Ruscha.