Pages from Ed Ruscha’s journal featuring the original manuscript for “The Information Man,” 1971. ©️ 2023 Ed Ruscha. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Susan Haller, Ed Ruscha Studio

Ed Ruscha started self-publishing artist’s books soon after leaving art school. Small, commercially printed photobooks began to regularly appear, documenting things and places—such as records, swimming pools, and parking lots—to which the artist was drawn. The first of these quite uncategorizable publications, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, was published in January 1963 and comprised images of gasoline stations encountered on the road between Los Angeles, where the artist still lives today, and Oklahoma City, where he grew up. A photograph included in this book became, a few months later, the source for one of Ruscha’s largest and most well-known paintings, Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963). Contrary to paintings, however, books can exist in hundreds of identical copies and spread into the world well beyond art museums and galleries. Ruscha paid very close attention to their distribution, making sure to republish throughout the 1960s when titles fell out of print. In 1971, the notoriously elusive artist wrote “The Information Man,” in which he wondered what had happened to the thousands of copies he had disseminated over the years. ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN, the current retrospective of the artist’s work at MoMA, drew inspiration from this intriguing text, reuniting, from the perspective of the present, works made over six decades and dispersed across multiple continents.
—Christophe Cherix, The Robert Lehman Foundation Chief Curator of Drawing and Prints

Pages from Ed Ruscha’s journal featuring the original manuscript for “The Information Man,” 1971

Pages from Ed Ruscha’s journal featuring the original manuscript for “The Information Man,” 1971

The Information Man

It would be nice if sometime a man would come up to me on the street and say “Hello, I’m the information man and you have not said the word ‘yours’ for 12 minutes – you have not said the word ‘praise’ for 18 days, 3 hours & 9 minutes. You have not used the word ‘petroleum’ in your speech for almost four and a-half months but you wrote the word last Friday evening at 9:35 P.M. and you used the word ‘Hello’ about 30 seconds ago.”

This “information man” would also have details as to the placement and whereabouts of things. He could tell me possibly of all the books of mine that are out in the public that only 17 are placed face up with nothing covering them. 2,026 are in vertical positions in libraries, while 2,715 are under books in stacks. The most weight upon a single book is 68 3/4 pounds and that is in the city of Cologne, Germany in a bookshop. 58 have been lost; 14 totally destroyed by water or fire; while 216 could be considered badly worn. A whopping 319 books are in positions between 40 and 50% [degrees] and most of these are probably in bookshelves with the stacks leaning at odd angles. 18 of the books have been deliberately thrown away or purposely destroyed. A surprising 53 books have never been opened, most of these being newly purchased and put aside momentarily.

Of the approximate 5,000 books of Edw. Ruscha that have been purchased only 32 have actually been used in a directly functional manner = 13 of these have been used as weights for paper or other things. 7 have been used as swatters to kill small insects such as flies and mosquitoes and 2 have been used in bodily self-defense. 10 have been used to push open heavy doors (probably, since they are packaged in 10’s, one package was used to push open one door.) 2 were used to nudge wall pictures into correct levels while one was used as a wiper to check the oil on a dipstick. 3 are under pillows.

221 people have smelled the books’ pages probably most of these on the original purchase.

Profanity used to discuss the books is as follows = 312 people have used profanity in criticizing them while 435 people have used profanity in praising them. (This last high figure probably due to the fact that profanity no longer is used to necessarily condemn things.)

3 of the books have been in continual motion since their purchase over 2 years ago all three being on a boat near Seattle, Washington.

It would be nice to know these things.

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Ed Ruscha / Now Then: A Retrospective.

The exhibition ED RUSCHA / NOW THEN is on view at MoMA September 10, 2023–January 13, 2024.