Artist Books / Artist's Novels is an ongoing inquiry by Stephanie La Cava that looks at the intersection between visual art and literature. Each entry is a conversation with an artist or writer whose books defy genre expectations and exist outside of the traditional form.
Stephanie LaCava on Ed Ruscha’s Metro Mattresses
The following is from a letter Ed Ruscha wrote on February 25, 1966 to John Wilcock, a publisher who asked Ruscha to write about his books:
The only thing I can say about my books is that I have a certain blind faith in what I am doing… I am 28 and am mainly a painter (in Ferus stable). One important thing is that I do not cherish the print quality of a photograph. To me the pictures are only snapshots with only an average attention to clarity. The only distributor I have is Wittenborn’s in N.Y.C. They will actually buy a certain amount of books without consignment…
This is a charming prologue to an exemplary career. Fifty years later, it’s difficult to get a hold of Ruscha’s early books, and impossible save for a certain price. The books Ruscha made in the 60s and 70s are largely credited with a reinvention of the genre. They all feature photographs: images of gas stations, small fires, swimming pools, palm trees, cacti, LA apartments, buildings or parking lots, Dutch bridges, babies or film stills, and Ruscha’s record collection.
Unlike the others, Ruscha’s latest book, Metro Mattresses, features no photographs. Inside are twelve reproductions of the acrylic and pencil mattresses rendered on museum board paper as they were shown at last year’s Metro Mattresses exhibition. Ruscha and I emailed about Metro Mattresses last December, on his 79th birthday.
STEPHANIE LACAVA: Is there an implied narrative in the mattresses?
ED RUSCHA: There is no story line with the arrangement of images in the book. These mattresses began catching my attention as I moved around the city, especially Hollywood. They became my “clown” paintings. Clown paintings, in general, might be universally detested for what they are, but I began seeing mattresses as sad, and yet humorous subjects like clowns.
SLC: Why not photos of the mattresses?
ER: A shift from photographs to painted images gave me a vision of another kind. The images were pampered with paint rather than with a camera. However, this left the book with a feeling of street objects being interpreted within the confines of a studio rather than being grabbed from the street itself.
SLC: What do you think is most vital and important about artist’s making books? Has this changed since you began your practice?
ER: I am wide awake when I see artist books. Here are people using actual ink on paper in the eventual age of total digital. For this reason I am retaining my hope and expectation of more books.
Material taken from the Roth Horowitz books on Photography put together by Andrew Roth in 1999.
Stephanie LaCava is an author and journalist living in New York City.