Cultural Standards: Ed Ruscha Finds America at the Gas Station
by Christina Badal
The first purpose-built gas station in the United States—jury-rigged with a gardening hose, no less—was constructed in 1905 in St. Louis, Missouri. Less than thirty years later, the nation’s gas stations would number over 120,000, many of which had already evolved into the full-service “drive-in” stations we’re familiar with today. Thanks to the runaway success of Henry Ford’s Model T, which opened up car-ownership to the average middle-class American, what had begun as a side business for a handful of mom-and-pop stores quickly became a major industry. Over this past century of astounding growth, gas stations and their signage became the unofficial icons of the American landscape and the quintessential symbol of our nation’s gas-fueled car culture.
American artist Ed Ruscha was one of the first to recognize the cultural potency of the gas station, bringing it into the realm of the exploding Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Known for his deadpan irreverence and informed by the vernacular of Los Angeles and Southern California landscapes, Ruscha held a particular fascination with gas stations as the quotidian emblems of American pop culture and suburbia.
Ruscha’s groundbreaking first book—also considered to be the first modern artist’s book—took a particularly candid look at the gas station. Entitled Twentysix Gasoline Stations, the 1963 publication delivered exactly what it promised, reproducing 26 black-and-white snapshots of gasoline stations next to captions indicating their brand and location. Emphasizing the conventional, manufactured qualities of the subject matter, Ruscha likened the book to a “collection of readymades.” In a contemporary society built on mass production and the proliferation of the quotidian, the mundane, ubiquitous gas station became a powerful and deeply rooted phenomenon. Indeed, Ruscha pinpointed the gas station as a significant representative of a growing mass culture, one which was fundamentally linked to the rise of the petroleum industry and the standardization of goods and services.
The notion of a “standard” became a touch-point for Ruscha, who would transform one of his twenty-six gasoline stations, the Standard Station in Amarillo, Texas, into a long-running series of paintings and prints. From 1966 to 2011, Ruscha has produced variations including “Mocha Standard” (rendered in coffee tones), “Cheese Mold Standard with Olive” (green-toned and garnished like a martini), and “Ghost Station” (uncolored embossed paper, leaving only the shadow of the iconic edifice). Here, “standard” takes on multiple dimensions, indicating not only an oil company’s brand name, but also the idea of a basic cultural “type.” Paradoxically, the standard is both archetypal and derivative: an ever-expanding set of iterations without any original.
Like Andy Warhol’s famous facsimiles of Marilyn Monroe, Ruscha’s Standard stations are a perceptive study of American popular culture. His work, however, gains particular resonance today as we struggle to re-imagine and evolve our relationship to energy in the face of global climate change. The gas station, tied to the predominance of automobiles, our notions of freedom and independence, and the reliance on fossil fuels, speaks to the way we understand, value, and accept our sources of energy. By 2025, the Standard station might look very different. Will it be a Tesla station? Will it roll off an assembly line in China? Or will it disappear completely off the page?