In 1963 Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations was published, pioneering a new era in artist books. In the spirit of the counter-culture, this seemingly simple book altered the way that books were understood. The term “artist book” is a confusing and malleable term used differently by different people, but Ruscha’s work is understood as being at the incunabula of that discussion. Of course, Ruscha may not even accept the term for his own book, which he felt was mere documentation. What is Twentysix Gasoline Stations about? Ruscha might answer— it’s not about anything. It is exactly what it says it is: twenty-six gas stations. He is quoted in Mary Richard’s essay, “Artist Who Do Books,” firmly stating: “Not that I had an important message about photographs, or gasoline, or anything like that—I merely wanted a cohesive thing” (Ruscha quoted in Richards, 30). One could argue that this is a slightly disingenuous stance given that he is the photographer, choosing the subject matter, angle, and method of delivery. In fact, by virtue of his choosing to present his photographs at all he is making a statement.
What that statement may be, is, of course, a more complicated matter. But there is at least one consistent element that comes through when reviewing Ruscha’s work as well as other works of that period, like Sol LeWitt’s Arc, circles & grids, or the whimsical Choosing Green Beans by John Baldessari. That is: the seemingly objective and removed nature of the content. Perhaps through a sort of wry humor Baldessari inserts himself a bit into his work, but these are all ostensibly impersonal works. They are“collections of facts” as Ruscha would say in Richard’s essay (31). They are all, also, works produced by men.
Those works, therefore, juxtaposed with the feminist works, like those of Carolee Schneemann, Susan King or Jen Bervin, make for a very stark comparison. The female artists that were struggling to get their voices heard took to the artist book as a means to bypass the patriarchal authorities that kept them (and still keep them) out of the high-end art world. Books, they discovered, provided an accessible means for women to communicate their art. Lucy Lippard wrote in her essay “Escape Attempts” that the burgeoning genre of Conceptual art touch on the idea that “communication between people was subordinate to communication about communication” (Lipard, xvii). And that idea is clearly delivered in the works of Ruscha and DeWitt and many female artist as well, but when one considers the suppression of female artists throughout history, “communication about communication” takes on a deeper meaning. Feminist artists laid their minds, hearts and vaginas on the line in their art.
Carolee Schneemann challenges notions of “polite society” and forces her viewers to consider just who it is that gets to say what women (and therefore people) can and can not talk about or display. In her book Vulva’s Morphia, Schneemann gives Vulva a voice, her radical stance is that Vulva has been denied the ability to communicate and the results, in Schneemann’s beautiful velvet-bound book, is at once sardonic and poignant. Vulva has a voice and through her voice, Schneemann raises the sexual vitality of womanhood to fine art. The fact that, even in this day-and-age it feels incendiary, speaks volumes about how far women have yet to go to achieve equality in the art world—”‘vulva” is not even welcome as a word. It would seem we are not that far from the familiar, imposed “morality” that is pointed to at the end of the book: “Vulva goes to church and discovers she is obscene.…(quote St. Augustine)” (Schneemann). When Vulva says it— it is funny, but also, quite sad.
Another popular and well-worn method of suppression is the relegating of “women’s work,” to some special, lesser genre. Some artist like Jen Bervin turn traditional female crafts (like needlework) onto the page in strikingly conceptual ways. Teasing out the secret world of Emily Dickinson’s unconventional notational systems in her poetry, Bevin creates in The Dickinson Composites a lovely minimalistic work in which one woman explores the secret inner life of another while expressing the deep continuity between them.
The intensity of the intimacy of Dickinson’s poems considered in Bervin’s gorgeous book is moving without being mawkish or sentimental. Here is a book that is just as much a statement of “communication about communication” as a Ruscha or DeWitt, and yet in Bervin’s work one can see that the impersonal tack is not the only approach to the concept. Just as Dickinson’s poetry is deeply personal, to the point of some inscrutability, Bervin highlights the mysteriously subjective communication that was, significantly, largely whitewashed out of Dickinson’s poems when they came to be published.
In the history of the art world there has always been a privileging of a male-centered perspective, reflected most obviously in the fact that males dominate the work that is shown and/or published. It is implicitly understood that the (preferable) rational, objective mind belongs to the domain of men while the emotional and subjective is relegated to women and children. Obviously that point of view is not only erroneous, but also damages and limits both sexes, yet it is clear that the stereotype still prevails. By comparing the above books, which are only loosely related, but share some conceptual, artistic and historical influences, one can see that the female and male perspective alike offer compelling and artistic insight and exploration into the experience—our experience, of being human. The artist that seeks publication is necessarily connected to communication and all the historical dynamics that influence the ability to be heard. Ruscha insist that he is not up to anything “deep” in his work. He is not, he states, being “arty.” But an anti “arty” stance in fact depends upon notions of “arty” to work against. Ruscha states that, “I think photography is dead as a fine art; its only place is in the commercial world, for technological or informational purposes” ( Ruscha quoted in Richards 30). But as the feminist artists of the 20th century show us, who disseminates the information, and for what purpose, matters.
*Vulva’s Morphia and The Dickinson Composites were published by Granary Books
**This essay was previously published in The Artist’s Book in the 20th Century Blog for Smith College in 2014.