“Every Building on the Sunset Strip”: Ruscha’s Celebration of the Vernacular

In 1966, Omaha-born, L.A.-based artist Ed Ruscha began self-printing 5,000 copies of one of his few art books, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” While printed cheaply and intended to break free from the constraints of fine art books, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” went on to become an iconic book in the world of pop art and photo-based conceptualism. Today, it is housed in museums in glass cases and the few copies available online sell for thousands of dollars. Interestingly, the college owns a copy, located today in McCabe’s rare books section.

“Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is an accordion book of photos that folds out to an extensive 25 feet, giving the viewer two views of the monumental mile-and-a-half stretch of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It functions similarly to Google Street View; however, the photos are stitched together much more casually, with occasional jaggedness and gaps. The book was not Ruscha’s first attempt at crafting an artist’s book — he was continually inspired by vernacular architecture, documenting arbitrary landmarks like gas stations and apartment complexes in other books in the 20th century. Similar to these other books, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” was self-published, cheaply printed, and crudely produced in a monochromatic black and white palette. Even its cover speaks to the book’s unassuming and minimalist nature: it is a simple white shade with the title, the author, and the year spelled out in black square-serif capital letters.

Ultimately, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” redefined the identity of the art book. It was cheap and accessible at $1 per production cost. Furthermore, there is minimal text, one of the unusual features of a book — the only text is on the cover and on street labels. Rather than describe the nightclubs or destinations shown in the photos, Ruscha lets their signage speak for itself. As my eyes wandered across the stitched together photographs in the book, I realized that Ruscha manages to successfully tell a nuanced story without the use of a single sentence.    

Ruscha’s book is versatile, lending itself to a variety of uses and interpretations. Art aficionados appreciate Ruscha’s honed usage of the motorized camera; architects respect his fascination with the vernacular and the mundane; planners recognize the potential for urban planning research that “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” affords. While meticulously specific in its focus, the book opens doors to a breadth of research and exploration. Not only is the book versatile, but it is innovative, proving to be a crucial piece of the narrative of West Coast pop art and conceptualism. By photographing recognizable, conventional architectural elements of Sunset Boulevard, Ruscha solidified his understanding of the vocabulary of mainstream America and bridged the seemingly disparate worlds of high art and popular culture.  

“Every Building on the Sunset Strip” provides a comprehensive glimpse of the Sunset Strip at a specific point in history — 1966. While streets and neighborhoods are dynamic and ever-changing, the book provides a static, documentary-like snapshot of this particular environment. In Ruscha’s photos, the Sunset Strip appears modest, unpopulated, and like a symbol of the California mundane. In particular, I was struck by the omittance of pedestrians in Ruscha’s photographs. While surely a choice to highlight the architectural qualities of the boulevard, it further distanced the boulevard from the crowded and bustling 21st century identity that I recognize. Today, the Sunset Strip attracts hordes of tourists, glimmers with lights at all hours, and is filled with blinking billboards. Thus, Ruscha’s book provides a baseline for research and can be used in conjunction with demographic data, news stories, and property data to reveal the social, cultural, and political transformations of iconic Los Angeles streets over the last 50 years. “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” surpasses genre constraints, instead proving to be a pivotal resource in art, architecture, planning, and urban history alike.

Gazing at the expansive layout of photographs in “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” is a conflicting experience. The copies that remain today are generally housed in libraries; rare book collections; and architectural, art, and design archives. Thus, even getting the chance to view the book takes careful consideration and coordination — something that is almost the antithesis of Ruscha’s methods of production for the book. While Ruscha emphasized the ordinary and mundane nature of the California built environment with his black and white photographs, I couldn’t help but be in awe. His photographs only reveal the facades of buildings and thus seem to fulfill a solely aesthetic purpose at first glance. Yet beyond the facades, his photographs document the social history of the space — how it was used and by whom. The photographs, conceived and compiled with simple, utilitarian purposes in mind, have instead adopted a dynamic identity, highlighting the ever-changing nature of an urban history.

Featured image courtesy of http://blogs.getty.edu

Elena Moore

Elena '21 is from San Francisco and plans to double major in art history and sociology/anthropology. Her favorite author is Elena Ferrante and one day she hopes to successfully finish a Saturday NY Times crossword puzzle.

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