For more than half a century, Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha has been decoding the American landscape, creating iconic images of strip malls, apartment buildings, and gas stations. His early adventures on asphalt, and the work they inspired, are documented in the new book Road Tested (Hatje Cantz, $40). Here, he explains how these travels honed his vision and how the highway has changed since then.
DETAILS: How is it different to drive across the landscape today from how it was 50 years ago?
Ed Ruscha: The one thing I miss is hitchhiking. Now there's no more of that. When's the last time you saw a hitchhiker? It's not that I consider it a great sport, but it was my way of seeing the country. The open road, especially in the western United States, is still very pristine, but everything else around it has changed. The highways are bigger and wider and faster and more developed than they ever were, and that's never going to stop.
DETAILS: When you started hitchhiking, were you thinking it would provide material for your art?
Ed Ruscha: I just wanted to get from one place to another. I had a friend in Oklahoma who had this idea to go hitchhiking, and my folks were okay with it. I had no idea what to expect. I just remember that it took 26 rides to get from Oklahoma to Florida and then it took exactly 26 rides to get back. I didn't particularly relish meeting new people, but that's what happened, and I feel fortunate that I didn't meet any weirdos, so I was able to see the landscape without interference. I barely knew I wanted to be an artist. I liked my art classes and painting was fun, I guess, but I didn't realize that seeing the country was going to inspire me to further explore that … but that's what it did.
DETAILS: When you did decide to become an artist, did you deliberately try to document "Americana"?
Ed Ruscha: Well, at an early age I had to go see Europe. I had notions about it, mostly through American movies. Then I got there and it was all really new and unique to me, but I still craved American things. I wasn't captivated by the romance of Paris or London. I love visiting, but I'd rather be in L.A.
DETAILS: You've always paid attention to signage in your art. How has that changed? Is a Subway restaurant sign as intriguing to you as a Standard Oil sign?
Ed Ruscha: I didn't necessarily want more of it, but what I saw was inspirational—especially things that weren't corporate, things that were done by hand. You never see that anymore. That's a culture that's washed out and gone, and now we have plastic letters and that sort of thing. But it's all visual noise, and it's the lifeblood of the culture we're in.
DETAILS: You were close with Dennis Hopper. Do you have any thoughts on his passing?
Ed Ruscha: I just took down a painting here in the studio that I did of the word if. Dennis would come by here and sometimes bring friends with him. He would look up at that painting and immediately begin reciting Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." He would do it flawlessly, because he did these things in the theater in San Diego. I remember that with fondness, because he was a good friend and one of the first people to collect my art back in the early sixties. Just to see him go through his roller-coaster life was a wake-up call for—something. I'm not sure what! [Laughs]