After Michalis Pichler after Edward Ruscha after Hokusai
Jean-Claude Moineau

TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS by Michalis Pichler is, as its title suggests, an appropriation of the well-known book of the same name by Edward Ruscha. Such appropriation has become, in the wake of Ruscha’s book, a genre unto itself, with Ruscha’s book being seen as the starting-point for two new artistic genres:

  • the artist’s book, which, though being defined in opposition to the art book and being rather an unsatisfactory term, still remains an artistic genre rather than an autonomous art form, according to a modernist canon which is nowadays being questioned, as a medium (the medium being, according to Ruscha[1], photography, although, here too, we are in the realm of “artist’s photos” and not “photographer’s photos”, even when it is Ruscha who takes the photos, which, in fact, is not always the case), a medium which must be “impure”… or a genre that does not fit truly with any other predefined style or aesthetic
  • and, with a delay of thirty years after the “start-up,” appropriation, itself characterised by Pichler as a genre[2]

(as it is often said, the twentieth century, far from witnessing the disappearance of all artistic genres —or at least the disappearance of some of them, and, above all, of the hierarchy between genres— along with the appearance of several new genres, firstly the ready-made —no matter how much reticent Marcel Duchamp was originally, in his drastic limitation of their number, to make the ready-made into a new genre— and the monochrome, followed of course by, among others, the artist’s book and appropriation)

… at least, when it comes both to the artist’s book as well as to appropriation, as constituted and recognised —and thus always legitimate— genres such as the many appropriations and numerous “artist’s books” that, as is always the case, came before the moment of “genre emergence” and thus were not given that name.


Like, according to Pichler in SIX HANDS AND A CHEESE SANDWICH

(a book whose publication, in 2011, accompanied the exhibition of artist’s books appropriating Ruscha’s artist’s books while sometimes also appropriating each other,

at least for those published before the exhibition date, given that the process did not stop, as we have seen since, in particular with the publication, in 2013, under the direction of Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton and Hermann Zschiegner, of the collective work VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS whose title itself appropriates that of Ruscha’s book, entitled VARIOUS SMALL FIRES,

followed (after hokusai), organised by Pichler in collaboration with Tom Sowden at P74 Gallery in Ljubljana, and whose title, for the very least, is itself an appropriation of that of the book, itself rightfully listed in Pichler’s own book, being successively attributed to Ruscha in person and to Joel Fisher, but whose real author remains mysterious, which, in this case, is just as well, being, according to Yann Sérandour more of a “parody” than a “genuine appropriation” of Ruscha’s book[3])

… the celebrated “series” of woodblock prints by Hokusai (even though a series does not normally constitute a book, and that seriality, no matter how widespread it is in both Japan and the West, has never given rise to a genre): Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. This series having already been appropriated twice by Hiroshige, once in landscape and again in portrait mode, and which has again been appropriated in his own way, in turn, by Ruscha. Hence the inscription of the title on the back cover of Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Pichler in old Japanese script. This back cover, in the Japanese order of reading, actually being the front cover, referring the origin of Ruscha to Hokusai, just as, in the Japanese order of reading, Six Hands and a Cheese Sandwich by Pichler starts with Hokusai.


In Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Pichler appropriates not just the “manner” of the photos that make up Ruscha’s work, with their wide-lens shots and their virtually total absence of human beings, leaving, as in Ruscha, or even more so than in Ruscha, a broad empty area in the foreground of each photo, whose effect is to keep the reader at a distance. But he has also appropriated the title, the format, the layout, the typography, all from the very hand of the artist in an artist’s book… and even appropriated the appropriationist practice itself, which Ruscha in person has never ceased from, as it were, reappropriating for himself (disregarding, after Pichler, Hokusai) his own books from one to the next, these being for the most part conceived according to the same “model” which was also to be that of Pichler’s books, thus deliberately participating, as with Duchamp for what was to become the ready-made —and perhaps precisely taking into account the precedent of the ready-made— in the genre-emergence of the artist’s book (or even of the artist’s-book-by-Ruscha, or else the appropriation-of-artist’s-books-by-Ruscha). What is more, in various drawings and paintings as early as 1962, the very year of publication of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS, Ruscha himself reappropriated a photo from that work, entitled “Standard, Amarillo, Texas”, while tightening its frame and intensifying the perspective to such an extent to make the upper vanishing point of the inverted left-to-right station coincide with the diagonal of the support, in a quite pictorial determination, or, in Bazinian terms, the transformation of a framework into a “frame”, thus denoting the change of medium from photography to painting. Even though such transformations are not exploited by Pichler when reappropriating himself, in SIX HANDS AND A CHEESE SANDWICH, his own version of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS is open, like that of Ruscha, at a given page, with only the blank page facing it being deformed by perspective. But in which the hands holding the open book, like the presence of a blotch of a sandwich,

even though on the same page as Crackers, BABYCAKES and FOURTEEN CHOCOLATE BARS which is not a box of chocolates but a “genuine” artist’s book by Jonathan Lewis

can be seen as forms of appropriation of the book by its readers as was already the case with another “clandestine” appropriation of a format, which is slightly greater than that of the original, as adopted by Pichler in TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS, where he contented himself by rephotographing, in successive gatefold pages, Ruscha’s book, rather in the manner of amateur reproductions of books in which the fingers of the photographer (or even pirate videos of mainstream films shot in cinemas and sold on the black market) can be seen, forms of appropriation of the type of those taken into consideration by Ruscha himself, in his text entitled “The Information Man.”[4]


Appropriations, in such cases, are not so much relative to an interpretation as being physical,

the reading of a book, or else of the text it contains, just as in the book as opposed to the text, has a physical, tactile, manipulatory aspect, a book being more made to be handled or “used” than to be exhibited, while an exhibition, by limiting handling, as opposed to the usual function which is to activate or “implement” (in the sense of Nelson Goodman[5]) works, tends to deactivate the book or to convert it into a sort of ready-made at best.

These appropriations being of the kind that Duchamp called reciprocal ready-mades —using one of his books as a hand-cloth, or paperweight, or mouse swot, or a wedge to hold up a bookcase…—, or else as a case of non-use (or, as with a “standard ready-made” itself, of a suspension, in a quasi-phenomenological sense, of use) —with unread copies— or else a destruction. This being the case with Bruce Nauman himself in burning small fires, in which he burnt, one after the other, in the order of reading, as though this were another mode of consumption, each page of a copy of VARIOUS SMALL FIRES AND MILK, Ruscha’s second artist’s book, while signing his iconoclastic action with a photo containing in its shot his own hand holding the open Ruscha book, so as to be able to set fire to the page in question, a gesture which Pichler, in SIX HANDS AND A CHEESE SANDWICH, Pichler has reappropriated by making appear, on the same page as the one where can be seen the covers of the books by Ruscha and Nauman, a photo of a hand holding an open copy of Ruscha’s book… An appropriation which Jonathan Monk has also adopted in his “artist’s film” SMALL FIRES BURNING (AFTER ED RUSCHA AFTER BRUCE NAUMAN AFTER), observing ironically that, in the meantime, the price of the “raw material” (which, already, tends to make Various Small Fires and Milk a reciprocal ready-made) has considerably risen in comparison with Ruscha’s “initial intention,” which was to make rather inexpensive, “blue-collar” books (as in the title of his painting Blue Collar Tool & Die) and, as a consequence, likely to be handled without too much attention (as in the painted or photographed architectures themselves)…

as in appropriations carried out by the inhabitants of the Frugès-Le Corbusier city in Pessac, with a view to making the architecture modernistic, and the “living machine” liveable —just as books themselves can be “lived in”, and not just by the ghosts that their reading convokes, and made liveable (dedications, ex-dono, ex-libris, dog-eared pages, underlined passages, marginal notes, various insertions…)— instead of, as Le Corbusier foresaw in his typically authoritarian way, the inhabitants ending up, in resignation, by “getting used” to the architecture. But where Ruscha seems far more open than Le Corbusier, or open in the sense of Umberto Eco[6] (where we are more in a Cageian non-determination rather than cautious openness —which was later to become ever more shut up on itself— as highlighted by Eco), even though, as Philippe Boudon has pointed out, Pessac’s architecture certainly turned out to be more “open” and more “permissive” than the approach adopted by Le Corbusier…[7] Appropriations that are themselves appropriated by the artists invited by Yves Aupetitallot, in the context of the exhibitions Project Unité 1, 2 and 3 in the early 1990s, who arranged to their taste and lived in temporarily the unoccupied apartments of the Unit of Habitation built by Le Corbusier during the early 1960s in Firminy.


Even though Ruscha has reappropriated himself, in “Five 1965 Girlfriends” (published in an underhand way in a special edition of Design Quarterly, normally devoted to conceptual architecture!), old snaps of five former girlfriends, two of which he had not even taken himself, rather as in Ruscha’s initial project for VARIOUS SMALL FIRES, but Ruscha failed to find enough ready-made photos that matched the selected theme.


Meanwhile, the readers will soon see that the version of Pichler’s TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS they are holding in their hands, and which they can leaf through, only contains, as opposed to that of Ruscha (and of the “clandestine” version as produced by Pichler), photos of sixteen instead of twenty-six gasoline stations, just as Pichler’s SIX HANDS AND A CHEESE SANDWICH contains photos of just five hands instead of six. This can also be seen as a form of appropriation, given that Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji actually featured forty-six views instead of thirty-six, while the nonchalance (mixed with rigour) which is often Ruscha’s “mark”, as with THIRTYFOUR PARKING LOTS which features photos (especially taken, according to his indications, on a Sunday morning, while the parking lots were empty, by a professional photographer specialising in aerial photography, whose work, even if the term is here being used in a different sense, he had appropriated) of just twenty-eight parking lots instead of thirty-four. Just as in the nonchalance of the title of SIX HANDS AND A CHEESE SANDWICH (both that of Pichler and of the still-unknown author) comes across as being an appropriation of nonchalance —such nonchalance, as ever, not excluding rigour— which is also that of Ruscha himself in VARIOUS SMALL FIRES AND MILK (VARIOUS SMALL FIRES on the cover, VARIOUS SMALL FIRES AND MILK on the inner title page). A nonchalance which Pichler has also appropriated in SOME FALLEN UMBRELLAS AND SOMETHING ELSE (alluding to SOME LOS ANGELES APARTMENTS) even though it melts away into Scott McCarney’s appropriation of VARIOUS SMALL FIRES AND MILK entitled VARIOUS FIRES AND MLK (Martin Luther King’s initials), with archive photos not of “small fires” but of race riots, or “great events” with an historical nature, followed by a photo of Martin Luther King… while Pichler limited himself to concluding his own version of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS with “some words” (“some words in a line instead of some missing stations”), or to be precise ten words (ten being the number of stations missing from Pichler’s book) which describe themselves, rather as in Gertrude Stein’s famous poem Five Words in a Line, and which act as a caption to an outdoor photo of a service area, empty as it should be, showing in the foreground a hand holding a piece of paper, on which the ten words have also been written, “the eccentric stations were the first ones I threw out,” itself an appropriation of an extract from an interview with Ruscha in 1969,[8] Ruscha having had taken not fewer but more than twenty-six photos of gasoline stations, while claiming to have deliberately eliminated, as opposed to normal photographic practice, not the least original photos, but instead the most original and aesthetic ones. Ruscha has always refused to take art photographs or make art books, and having set out to photograph the most banal possible forms of architectures, without qualities, and to photograph them in the most banal, ordinary, neutral (no matter how hard to access this enduring ideal may be, one which a large number of writers and artists have obstinately pursued over the past half century)… and least aesthetic way possible, like an amateur (even though amateurs can burden themselves with all kinds of aesthetic preoccupations), while steering clear of de-banalising or monumentalising them, be it in the photo or in situ (the sort of question that might be raised concerning the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher), and while not trying to re-enchant either art or reality. But fitting precisely, in terms of the tenets of classicism and of “style”, not so much with the subject as announced, as with the subject matter.


… Neither has Pichler, in TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS, attempted to appropriate Ruscha’s way of making, any more than he has tried, in opposition to Ruscha, to make something in the “genre”, which was itself still emerging, of the road movie,

despite the absence, from Ruscha himself, of the usual metaphysics of empty spaces associated with the genre and which, in Ruscha’s book, disregarding the cinematic character that, according to him, lay behind “Standard, Amarillo, Texas”, only “Enco, Tucumcari, New Mexico” seems to be a vehicular photograph taken from a moving car (vehicular photography and the road movie being also practised by Pichler, though not in TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS but rather SECHSUNDZWANZIG AUTOBAHN FLAGGENthe motorway not providing the possibility to stop so as to take photos— but which is in this respect only “weakly” —in the sense of Gianni Vattimo’s pensiero debole— an appropriation of a book by Ruscha, which thus also makes it an exception)

… Ruscha who had followed from West to East a large section of the legendary Route 66, popularised in The Grapes of Wrath and the eponymous TV series, as well as, later, by Easy Rider, which has since been threatened by the development of the highway network… between Los Angeles, where Ruscha was living, and Oklahoma City, where he had spent his adolescence and whence he had fled for Los Angeles, but where he still lived his mother, who he regularly went to see, by car, taking Route 66 which was, at the same time, becoming depopulated. As the photos in Ruscha’s book basically follow the order of this route, the reader’s journey through it reproduces that of the driver, each photo of a gasoline station being accompanied, in the tradition of documentary photography (photo documentaries being more like photo-texts than just photos), by a caption mentioning the company and the place,

while Ruscha has stated that his initial intention had not been to produce a document or a documentary or even a work of art, but instead a report, a “real report”[9], and not something that comes over rather as a parody of a report, as in Robert Smithson’s A Tour of The Monuments of Passaic with its desire for an ironic monumentalization of the lees of industrial society, no matter how close to each other the two projects are.

And the last photo, that of the Fina station in Texas, through which the book has already passed before arriving in Oklahoma City, referring simultaneously, and contradictorily, to the End (French: “Fin”) of the book and of the journey and to the start of the return trip (even though it was the outbound trip that had constituted the real round trip), or even to an inverted reading direction, in Japanese style.


While, with Pichler, there is no re-enactment; appropriation but no re-enactment, as opposed to Lewis who, in his own version of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS as a flip book (the flip-book in a sense pushing to its paroxysm the action of browsing a book), while he does not appropriate Ruscha’s photos but only their locations (or, at least, their past locations) on the map, it still has some of the character of a road movie, by actually bringing out the movie aspect.


But nor is Pichler’s approach a form of rephotography, in the succession of the Rephotographic Survey Project initiated in 1977 by Mark Klett, which consisted in retaking photos of American landscapes taken by Timothy O’Sullivan and others,

photographs taken, here too, without aesthetic or artistic preoccupations in the context of nineteenth-century military and geographical surveys, disregarding, despite everything, whatever their own aesthetic properties may have been and all attempts at resetting them in the world of art

… exactly from the same viewpoint, with the same framing, and in the same light, so as to be able to identify any modifications that had occurred in the landscape… Or else, as in the Observatoire Photographique du Paysage movement, introduced in 1991 by the French Ministry of the Environment, in the wake of Datar (Délégation à l'Aménagement du Territoire et à l'Attractivité Régionale) whose aim is to retake, while obeying an extremely strict protocol, the same photo in order to, once again, observe ongoing transformations in territories and landscapes.


Even though, on the contrary, without going so far as rephotography strictly speaking, the Californian photographer Jeffrey Brouws had already attempted something similar in TWENTYSIX ABANDONED GASOLINE STATIONS, the first book of photographs to have appropriated that of Ruscha,

while sharing the interest of John Brinckerhoff Jackson in the vernacular landscapes created by those who inhabit them and who, according to Jackson “live” there and “make” there, or at least arrange it, with a lack of the aesthetic preoccupations that generally concern landscape theorists[10] (once again, disregarding their own possible aesthetic properties, and even their own aesthetic reach)

… A book whose format and layout are identical to those of Ruscha’s book, with black-and-white photos “in the manner” of Ruscha, or, at least, with the same apparent absence of manner or style. Even though such an absence of style, “zero degree” style, or rejection of style and aesthetics does tend to become transformed into a style, just as the absence of architectural style historically claimed by Walter Gropius rapidly mutated, after penetrating America, into an international style… But photos with geographical locations that are different from those of Ruscha. In which Brouws made the observation that, since publication of Ruscha’s book, with an increase in prices and greater environmental constraints, the owners of independent gasoline stations, who were already in difficulty at the time when Ruscha took his photos, proved to be incapable of bearing the costs of the replacement of underground petrol reservoirs to make them obey new norms, and had shut up shop to the benefit of the oil multinationals, with the expectancy that these companies’ stations will in turn be threatened by the competition coming from hypermarkets.


This observation has since been doubled up, in More Gasoline Stations, by the French artist Nicolas Studievic who, after producing a road movie in 1998 in Ruscha’s wake, which led him from one side of the North American continent to the other, in search of old, abandoned gasoline stations, which he photographed in his own way, without necessarily trying to photograph the same stations as Ruscha nor adopting his “manner”… observed that, on publication in 2012, in a layout that was once again based on that of Ruscha’s book, that most of the photographed stations had since entirely disappeared, thus giving his photos, just like those of Eugène Atget or the Bechers, despite the risk of monumentalization, a value of what Alois Riegl has called rememoration (or else commemoration)[11]. Or even, according to Studievic, a character of timelessness, as was already the case with Ruscha’s own photos or, at least, with what Ruscha’s photos have become on ageing.


Meanwhile another French photographer, Éric Tabuchi, was reappropriating the title, or that of Brouws, of TWENTYSIX ABANDONED GASOLINE STATIONS, while tirelessly driving along the A-roads, not of the United States, but of the north of France, which have in turn become deserted by most drivers, to the benefit of motorways, and photographing twenty-six abandoned gasoline stations, which were thus once again void of any human presence, which he encountered during his wanderings. Even if he photographed stations, here too, not exactly in Ruscha’s “manner”, but in a mode that was less documentary than fictional, as though they belonged to the American Far West, with its wide-open spaces and its ghost towns,

rather as Lothar Baumgarten’s 1973–77 film, The Origin of the Night, Amazon Cosmos, inspired by the Tupi myth explaining the alternation of day and night, opens with a luxuriant landscape of tropical forest, then passes successively from the night to the day, and the day to the night, before revealing how, by playing with the viewer’s expectation horizon, in the words of Hans Robert Jauss,[12] it had been filmed in a Rhineland forest, near the artist’s home, using the toxic waste found there.

… Or as though these stations belonged to a “post-apocalyptic civilisation” of the kind which, Walead Beshty presumes,[13] despite its prosperity, is now prefigured by downtown Los Angeles, emptied of his population at weekends, who return to their cosy suburban houses, thus turning it into an ideal set for an SF genre film,

Beshty there observing a “façadism” which, in the words of Ruscha himself,[14] is the mark of Los Angeles, seeming to him like rows of fronts with nothing behind them, just like, to a certain degree, the caricature of Soviet towns, as drawn by Hergé in The Adventures of Tintin Reporter for ‘Le Petit Vingtième’ in the Land of the Soviets… Which, according to Beshty, would make them the architectural equivalent of photography, which is itself “pure façade”, perfectly flat, devoid of any depth and so of any interiority. Unless Beshty, despite the convergence of some of their analyses, makes his own the criticism made of Ruscha, following Edward Lucie-Smith,[15] by Mike Davis who accused him “via some brief subversions in the 1960s,” of having turned towards “a willed neutrality”[16].

A post-apocalyptic character that, as Beshty points out, was already pertinent to the photos void of any human presence in THIRTYFOUR PARKING LOTS


… After which, in a second book, TWENTYSIX RECYCLED GASOLINE STATIONS, Tabuchi photographed twenty-six abandoned gasoline stations (others than those he had previously photographed) which had since been turned over to other forms of business. With such recycling itself coming across as a form of reappropriation.


… While in THIRTYSIX FIRE STATIONS Sérandour had effected a sort of crossover, as they say in the parlance of comic books and TV series, by mixing TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS and VARIOUS SMALL FIRES, his project consisting in photographing all the fire stations currently operational in Montreal on 19 December 2001. This was done with the greatest rigour: face-on shots, in black and white, and duly captioned as required, all of which Ruscha’s photos only partly respected —in his quest for what was rather an absence of style— not so much as documentary photos as such, in the sense of what

following Walker Evans who was himself interested in vernacular architecture, with no intrinsic style (as was also the case for Le Corbusier, or at least for storage architectures, of the kind to be photographed by the Bechers, while his own interest was based on what he saw as being the perfect symbiosis between form and function), but who often respected all this only imperfectly himself

… Olivier Lugon has called, in the absence of any documentary function for the photographs (just like, as opposed to Le Corbusier, Ruscha who took no interest in the functions of the buildings he photographed), the “documentary style”[17]: once more the transformation of the absence of style into a style, even though frontality seems far less informative, and thus documentary, than a three-quarter angle.


This accordingly explains why Sérandour obtained a list of thirty-six addresses from the local authorities in advance. But when he took his photos on the appointed date, he had to face the fact that the numbers did not add up, with one fire-station closed for renovation, another having moved and a third in ruins in preparation for being transferred. This meant that he could take only thirty-three photos of the thirty-six he had planned, and his book, entitled THIRTYSIX FIRE STATIONS, thus includes just thirty-three photos without there being, in his case, as opposed to the situation with Ruscha and Pichler, anything arbitrary or nonchalant going on, which tends to banalise what, in Ruscha as in Pichler, seems non-banal, as being incongruous… with pages left blank, except for the addresses indicating the locations of the fire-stations from the missing photos. While in the end he was able to take these photos later on (and in colour this time), on 17 December 2005, which he then published as three colour post-cards as an appendix to his book.


At the same time as the ongoing mutations, not just of the sites being photographed, but of photography itself, with its move to the digital, and with the arrival of its own crisis (while also being promised an unprecedented progress) from this change, in which it has lost some of its particular autonomy, no matter how relative this might seem, and is now being increasingly mingled, not just with printers, but with cell-phones, computers, or the Internet… At the same time this shift to the digital has also provided a new reach to appropriationist practices, in particular favouring the appropriation of books, while also putting books themselves into a crisis situation. As André Gunthert says, “in the context of the globalized economy of attention, appropriability appears not only as the fundamental characteristic of digital content, it is also recognizes as the new paradigm of post-industrial culture.”[18] Thus it is that Zschiegner for his appropriation of THIRTYFOUR PARKING LOTS which he entitled THIRTYFOUR PARKING LOTS ON GOOGLE EARTH, did not go to Los Angeles, or anywhere else, and took no new photos, but simply searched Google Earth for existing photos,

although since 2006, the year when he produced his book, the photos have been replaced by Google Earth by more recent ones, and continue to be so replaced,

which are, thus, in colour, of the places chosen and duly captioned by Ruscha, while reframing them to bring them as close as possible to the framings selected by Ruscha (furthermore, for the cover, he simply appropriated the photo of the cover of a Ruscha book available on Google Images).


Just like Joachim Schmid, in his appropriation of the compilation of some of Ruscha’s books, united in a single volume, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Thirtyfour Parking Lots, Nine Swimming Pools, A Few Palm Trees, No Small Fires, who travelled neither to the United States, nor elsewhere, neither left his studio in Berlin, nor even used a camera, but instead adopted amateur photos he had found,

not in the street, as he had done for his previous work, during which he appropriated various photos and negatives that had been thrown away or lost, and which he collected during his peregrinations but, digital photography leading to not only an overproduction of amateur photos until no one knows what to do with them anymore, and a diminishing of the attention paid to them —which, according to the “new attention economy”, which seems to be becoming, given the inflation of the visual offer, a recently rare resource— and of the developed films or print-outs of amateur photos, and in particular of those that are abandoned in public places

… on Google, or sites for the sharing of images among other things. Whereas, however, Pichler, in new york garbage flag profile, while pointing out the ever-growing abundance of iconic motifs —starting, in New York, with the American flag (which has itself been appropriated in so many ways), either from patriotism or from a rejection of patriotism— on packaging and other waste thrown away after use (as after a catastrophe such as 9/11) in public places, in order to appropriate them, did not limit himself to just collecting them, but instead photographed them, though not after being gathered, ex situ, but in situ, before being gathered, just as he photographed the sites after gathering (in a site/nonsite dialectic, as with sight/nonsight for Smithson) while precisely taking down the place, date, time, the nature of the found object, the number of stars on it, as well as that of the red or white stripes and any texts written on it.


… While Pichler, for his own version of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS, in the absence of any idea of a road movie or rephotography, and in the absence of any concerted itinerary, has limited himself to photographing gasoline stations owned by the multinational Total corporation, spread out across the entire territory of not the USA but the former GDR, which means that, as opposed to Ruscha’s book, the captions in Pichler’s book do not feature the name of the brand, which is always the same. But here, rather than being a Ruscha-style pun on the (contestable) notion of total art (thus not to be confused with generic art), Pichler has set out above all to transpose Ruscha’s book, not only to a different region in the world, but also into the modern world, in the grips of globalisation. Having swallowed up Elf Aquitaine, initially a French state-owned company which was privatised in 1994, and which had previously taken over all of the gasoline stations belonging to Minol, the GDR’s old public oil company, when it was privatised after the disappearance of the GDR, it set about refitting its stations according to a standard (and still current) model devised by an architecture’s office based in Hanover, thus reducing the intrinsic identity of each station as much as possible, while strengthening the identity — of at least the regional identity— of the brand. In his photos, Pichler has tried to show this as much as possible, and even to heighten it further (by strengthening the impression of architectural unity given out by the gasoline stations photographed by Ruscha, characterised by their dominant fronts, which also emerges from the typical Dutch houses photographed by Ruscha in DUTCH DETAILS, no matter how different the photographic technique used was), in what Fredric Jameson has observed: “tendential identification of the commodity with its image (or brand name or logo)”[19].


As such, although they are “works” of an architect’s office and not figurative, the stations acquire an immediately recognisable generic identity, comparable to those of the covers of most of Ruscha’s books (and thus those of Pichler and others’ too) just as much as to the “ducks” on the Las Vegas Strip, aka Route 91, which connects the airport to the town centre, and duly listed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in their manifesto against modernist architecture LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS[20] which makes of them the very archetype of the main shopping strip, and see, in an intentionally provocative way, the architecture depreciated by the  professional nature of Las Vegas, generally viewed as a temple of easy money and criminality, as a source of inspiration capable of saving architecture from modernism. The iconographic content of this book having been seen in relationship with EVERY BUILDING ON THE SUNSET STRIP (in Los Angeles) by Ruscha, at least in a documentary, if not artistic way. This relationship between Learning from Las Vegas and Ruscha was tentatively explored by an exhibition set up in 2004 by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal: Learning from... Ruscha and Venturi Scott Brown, 19621977, even though this relationship has since been contested by Kenneth Frampton in a controversy, published by the Italian architectural review Casabella Continuità, which opposed him to Scott Brown.[21] According to Frampton, LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS in fact proceeds neither from Ruscha nor from the pop art to which Scott Brown had previously devoted an article,[22] but rather from an oxymoronic mixture of populism and elitism, in a sort of camp attitude as characterised by Susan Sontag,[23] who was later to become far more severe on this subject,[24] this attitude being assimilated by her to a form of modern Dandyism, “in the age of mass culture,” consisting, in a still-elitist way, of the top-down appropriation of a given isolated element from a culture, which is not so much popular as mass, while de-banalising it in its own way, and using it in an outrageous way by exaggerating its poor taste, while pretending, with an irony pushed as far as cynicism, to laud it

as certain homosexuals have done themselves in terms of what they call “straight” culture, even if, in this case, the appropriation is less top-down than bottom-up as in the appropriation of colonisers by the colonised in a “ravishing”, in the sense highlighted by Jacques Soulillou in opposition to “highjacking”[25], in the situationist sense, too.

Thus, while Scott Brown could praise the character, which is, according to her, (rather than non-aesthetic) “nonjudgemental” (both in aesthetic and social terms) of Ruscha’s work, on the hand LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS thus, far from eliminating any prejudices, turns out to be, in Frampton's words, stuck full of value judgements (both in aesthetic and social terms).


.… According to Jameson himself, such “populist rhetoric”, in the case of LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS, still has “the merit of drawing our attention to one fundamental feature of all the postmodernisms”, “fascinated precisely by this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch”: “namely, the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture”[26]. An effacement (both bottom-up and top-down) in terms of which Jameson is extremely critical, even though Theodor W. Adorno, the main modernist theorist of the first half of the twentieth century, already aimed at putting into question the opposition between “high” and “low” culture, even if this was through his own personal elitism, so as to reject one, then the other, and so reject “culture” in all of its forms, in the name of art.


… Which, from Pichler’s viewpoint, can be seen in his will to adapt himself —or the will to “adapt” Ruscha's book— to ongoing evolutions. Or else the will to “update” Ruscha’s book. Hence, too, his own use of colour instead of black and white, colour having become the photographic norm, and the use of a paper that was different from Ruscha’s, doubtlessly to allow colour printing.


… An appropriation is neither a copy nor a fake, but a particular case of exemplification as identified by Goodman[27] which, as such, and as with all forms of exemplification, does not exemplify all of the “properties” of the “original”, beginning with the intention which the latter is supposed to have proceeded from; for an appropriation does not appropriate the supposed “origin” of the “original” work. An appropriation does not aim, like Pierre Menard, the hero of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story[28], to get under the skin of an author. As stipulated by Sérandour, second or even third-hand appropriations of Ruscha’s books quite clearly answer to intentions that are different from those of Ruscha, limiting themselves to “using a pre-existing form or system to present an independent artistic project”[29], even though Ruscha might already be practising appropriation himself and, above all, as Pichler himself has pointed out: “Maybe the belief that an appropriation is always a conscious strategic decision made by an author is just as naive as believing in an ‘original’ author in the first place”[30], no work being in any case entirely determined by the intention it proceeds from, but always remaining capable of drifting away from it.


But appropriation is not just exemplification. It is a play of resemblances and of differences. An appropriation always turns out to be more or less “poorly made”, to adopt the category added by Robert Filliou in his principle of equivalences to the usual (as per Lawrence Weiner) categories of what is “well” and “poorly” made: for an appropriation to be “well made”, it must be “poorly made” or “imperfect”, otherwise there is no appropriation; an appropriation which is “too well made” is the equivalent of a “poorly made” appropriation, or even of an “unmade” appropriation.


Far from being pure and simple repetition, appropriation reintroduces variation and implies a play of “expectations” and “disappointments” of the sort already theorised by Jauss.

Where Norman Bryson forms the hypothesis of what he calls the “conceptual turn” of photography[31], which he sees as being embodied paradigmatically by the Bechers

(in what John Roberts instead calls “photoconceptualism”, in opposition to the more language-based “analytical conceptualism”[32], which is thus tributary to the “linguistic turn” of art, even though, in Bryson’s words, the true medium was not so much photography as the very attention of the spectators, with attention here not being seen as a resource, as in the economy of attention, but as a medium)

… in fact consisted in displaying not a single, unique image (nor, of course, a concept) but a series of images requiring from the spectators a doubling of their attention or, more exactly, of what he calls “negative attention”

(distinct both from habitual contemplation and from what Walter Benjamin, when it came to photography and the cinema, but also to architecture for those who inhabit it —in opposition here not so much to architects as to tourists who quite simply visit a monument—, called distracted perception, which he identified both with usual-perception, which he intended to re-valorise, and with perception as much visual as it was tactile),[33]

which is sensitive, all the same, not so much to a presence which is usually valorised by aesthetics (a presence which is lacking from photography, because of its reproducibility, and, even more, from printed photographs) but rather to the differences between images in the same series (in the case of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS these differences being at once between the photographed photographic stations and between the photographs themselves), with what he calls their “counter-presence”

… the appropriations of artist’s books thus double up the readers’s negative attention by inciting them to pay attention to the resemblances and differences, not just between the images in the very book that they are looking at, while flicking through it with their hands

(including, often, for Ruscha, “unusual” photos, which are unusual while still being just as banal, or “one-offs”, such as intentionally made mistakes in the round bars of wood by André Cadere, and which well-informed viewers attempt to identify)

or between books in the same “series” of books, as in the case of Ruscha’s books, but instead between the appropriation and the appropriated book, even though readers do not usually have a copy of it to hand, both in terms of its images as for the book per se (all form of appropriation presupposing a certain knowledge, in the audience, of the object in question)… as well as —as in this case— between the different appropriations of the same book, which themselves involve expectations and disappointments.


As in the thought of Gilles Deleuze, appropriation makes for a repetition, if repetition there is, not so much of the Same as of the Other, in a repetition of difference.[34] It is not that appropriation is opposed to originality, but rather, as Pichler suggests, that there is “as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing”.[35] Appropriation comes across as a constraint and the art of appropriation as an art of constraint (hence the project Sonnet(s), also including Twentysix Gasoline Sonnets included), in which the constraint can itself become a source of invention, even if this is only through its transgression. Inventiveness in appropriation is that of amateurs in their fan-clubbing, in a fan attitude that Pichler himself claims for karaoke[36]. The character of an appropriation can as much be a homage as a criticism, or at once a homage and a criticism, the prefix “after” keeping up the same ambivalence as the prefix “post”


… To start with the criticism of originality itself —or at least of originality sought after for its own sake, as an end in itself, or a refuge-value— just as it has been conducted, in the context of a critical movement of modernity, by postmodernism itself. Or at least with “critical postmodernism”, as in the review October and the Picture Generation, itself practising an appropriation of what Hal Foster, before joining the Jamesonian criticism of all postmodernisms[37], long tried to oppose to the historicising pastiches of trans-avant-gardist “neoconservative postmodernism”, void as they are of any critical character, and which, according to him, despite their supposed populism do not at all hide their recourse to an elitist set of coded references, whereas appropriations of “critical postmodernism”, while highlighting the critical aspect, are not themselves devoid of any form of homage[38]. Even if, as Benjamin Buchloh quickly saw[39], the appropriation that pertains to critical postmodernism very soon mutated both into a genre and into an aesthetic category, that of parody, which can, according to Gérard Genette[40], just like pastiches, be detached from any critical character, while critical postmodernism, with its acknowledgement of post-structuralism, intended “initially” to adopt for itself criticisms of origins as made by Jacques Derrida, for whom it is actually repetition that lies at the origin[41]. Iteration, as Derrida himself said[42], always alters what it seems to reproduce, working on it to make it say something else, to produce something new (even if deconstruction still tends to deconstruct, or even to efface, the opposition between “high” and “low” culture).


But thus it is that we should not be fetishistic about Ruscha, and not see Ruscha himself, and in particular TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS, usually considered to be the first artist's book, as the absolute origin, which explains the reference of Pichler to Hokusai and his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, but without making this into an absolute origin either, for the choice of an original on a time axis turns about to be arbitrary: and so, without deriving from Hokusai a single line of descendants, but instead divergent channels that can lead just as well to Ruscha as to Henri Rivière’s album of thirty-six lithographs (with four based on photos), itself entitled Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower.


… A criticism, in the wake of Roland Barthes[43] and Michel Foucault[44], of the very notion of the author, or of the author’s “authority”, even if the term “artist’s book” still unfortunately alludes to an author, and has given rise to a plethora of pseudo-genres (artist's flip-books, artist’s films, artist’s T-shirts, artist’s records, artist’s postage stamps, artist’s badges, artist’s rubber-stamps, artist’s tattoos, artist’s condoms etc. etc.), all irritatingly characterised (in opposition to the notion of the ready-made) by the fact that they are supposed to have been produced by an artist… A criticism which, far from now being “outdated”, corresponds on the contrary increasingly to the crisis of intellectual and artistic property created by the parallel development of the digital world and the so-called immaterial economy, which Yann Moulier Boutang has said “disqualifies models based on the perception of earnings [still] based on the sales of a material product”[45].


As Pichler has pointed out, in a text which is in fact made up for the most part of quotations (which was, according to Adorno, Benjamin’s initial idea for Passages): “It appears to me, that the signature of the author, be it an artist, cineast or poet, seems to be the beginning of the system of lies, that all poets, all artists try to establish, to defend themselves”[46]. If the ontological question “what is an appropriation?”, as Pichler himself has said, is impossible to answer[47], or at least not univocally, the notion of appropriation being at the very least an open concept, to use Morris Weitz’s term…[48] then we may repose this question in a Goodmanian phrasing as “when is there appropriation?”, and the answer, for Pichler, would tend to be not that it all depends on the context, but rather that there is always appropriation, more or less. As Deleuze said: “Who speaks and who acts? There is always a multiplicity, even in the person who speaks or who acts”[49]. And as Mikhail Bakhtin has emphasised, the author is in fact always collective; all works are woven together —whether it be in a form that remains based on composition or in a form based on collage or montage— of quotations and appropriations from other works.

(quotation being, as opposed to appropriation, perfectly definable as such, as has been pointed out by Louis Marin,[50] it being the product of a twofold operation, firstly an operation of cutting-up and fragmentation, followed by an operation of collage or montage);

all works, whatever the signature on the cover, deriving from a collaboration and a crossing between different authors (even though they do not necessarily have any intention of so doing). Julia Kristeva has spoken of intertextuality.[51] But Genette favours the term “hypertextuality”, even though he defines it too restrictively according to a relationship between a “hypertext” and a “hypotext,” without leaving any room for appropriation as such.[52] And, furthermore, we should not limit ourselves to the poststructuralist notion of text, but rather take into consideration the relationships between books and not just between texts.


… A homage and criticism, here, as is only right, of Ruscha himself. A criticism, from Pichler, of what may seem, in Ruscha, a lack of rigour, or a rigour which has not been pushed to its conclusion. Even though Pichler, without leaving behind all forms of nonchalance à la Ruscha, has set out to push this rigour “farther” in a uniformity of layouts and framings (or even lighting conditions), which still incites the spectators to be attentive to the residual differences inside the book itself. And Pichler also observes, more than Ruscha, and more even than Evans, the canons of the documentary style, and above all frontality (whereas Frank Eye, for example, in TWENTY-FOUR FORMER FILLING STATIONS, does not respect the layout of TWENTYSIX GASOLINE STATIONS, and adds to its strictly documentary content by specifying, for each of the forty-six photos of abandoned gasoline stations that make up his book, the date and time when the photo was taken, just as Pichler himself did in new york garbage flag profile).


In which can be seen a “radicalisation” of Ruscha’s enterprise (there where Ruscha himself held artist’s books to be the most radical part of his work[53]), just as LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS positioned itself as a radicalisation of Architecture Without Architects, the exhibition organised at the MoMA in 1964 by Bernard Rudofsky

which, as opposed to orthodox histories of architecture, was focused on vernacular architecture, supporting the view that there was a lot to learn from buildings constructed outside of architectural tenders, but it unfortunately took into account only vernacular architectures which are distant in either time or space,

while Colin Ward tried once again to radicalise LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS by going so far as to make an apology for squats.[54] But the radicalisation of Ruscha, which Pichler has undertaken, has not gone so far as that of radical Italian architecture (Archizoom, Superstudio…) when it comes to modernist architecture itself, becoming absurd in its extravagance (in an over-affirmation, in the sense of Jean Baudrillard), for when it comes to his view of Ruscha’s work, the homage aspect (without excess) here dominates the critical aspect.





[1] Henry Man Barendse, “Ed Ruscha: An Interview,” Afterimage 8 (February 1981), 8–10.

[2] Michalis Pichler, “Appropriation” (May, 2009), online at, accessed August 10, 2014.

[3] Yann Sérandour, “Serial Readers. Fortune et infortunes des livres d’Edward Ruscha,” Nouvelle revue d'esthétique 2 (2008), 51–56.

[4] Edward Ruscha, “The Information Man” (1975), reprinted in Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, vol. 2: 1971–1982, ed. Robert Dean (Göttingen: Steidl, New York: Gagosian Gallery, 2005), 421.

[5] Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[6] Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).

[7] Philippe Boudon, Lived-In Architecture. Le Corbusier's Pessac Revisited (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972).

[8] Douglas M. David, “Wide, Wide World Of Book: From Common Scenes, Mr. Ruscha Evokes Art,” The National Observer, July 28, 1969, 17.

[9] “I had a vision that I was being a great reporter when I did the gas stations,” Ed Ruscha in David Bourdon, “Ruscha as Publisher [or All booked up],” Artnews 71 (April 1972), 32–36, 33.

[10] John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[11] Alois Riegl, “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin,” Oppositions 25 (Fall 1982), 21–56.

[12] Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” in Ibid., Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 3–45.

[13] Walead Beshty, “City Without Qualities. Photography, Cinema, and the Post-Apocalyptic Ruin,” Influence 1 (October 2003).

[14] Edward Ruscha, “L.A. Suggested by the Art of Ed Ruscha,” in Leave Any Information at the Signal, ed. Alexandra Schwartz (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 220–224.

[15] Edward Lucie-Smith, American Art Now (Oxford: Phaidon, 1985).

[16] Mike Davis, City of Quartz. Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London, New York: Verso, 1990).

[17] Olivier Lugon, Le Style documentaire. D'August Sander à Walker Evans, 1920–1945 (Paris: Macula, 2001).

[18]André Gunthert, “The work of art in the age of digital sound appropriability,” Les Carnets du BAL 2 (October 2011), 136–149, online at, accessed August 10, 2014.

[19] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

[20] Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS. The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971).

[21] Kenneth Frampton, “America 1960-1970: Notes on Urban Images and Theory” and Denise Scott Brown, “Reply to Frampton,” Casabella Continuità 359/360 (December 1971), 24–38 and 39–46.

[22] Denise Scott Brown, “On Pop Art, Permissiveness, and Planning,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35 (May 1969), 184–186.

[23] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” Partisan Review (Winter 1964), 515–530.

[24] Cf. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism, 1975,” in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), 73–105.

[25] Jacques Soulillou, “Esthétiques du ravissement,” in Présence Panchounette, Œuvres choisies, vol. 2 (Labège-Innopole: Centre régional d’art contemporain Midi-Pyrénées, Calais: Musée des beaux-arts, 1987).

[26] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism.

[27] Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art. An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).

[28] Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Ibid., Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1962).

[29] Yann Sérandour, “Serial Readers”.

[30] Michalis Pichler, “Statements on Appropriation,” Fillip 11 (2010), 44–47, online at, accessed November 9, 2014.

[31] Norman Bryson, “From Form to Flux,” in Sharon Lockhart, Dominic Molon and Norman Bryson, Sharon Lockhart (Chicago, Ill.: Museum of Contemporary Art, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2001), 79–100.

[32] John Roberts, “Photography, Iconophobia and the Ruins of Conceptual Art,” in The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966–1976, ed. John Roberts (London: Camerawork, 1997), 7–45.

[33] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Ibid., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 217–251.

[34] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[35] Michalis Pichler, “Statements”.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).

[38] Hal Foster, Recodings. Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1985).

[39] Benjamin Buchloh, “Parody and Appropriation in Francis Picabia, Pop, and Sigmar Polke,” Artforum 20 (7) (1982), 28–34.

[40] Gérard Genette, Palimpsests. Literature in the Second Degree (Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

[41] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

[42] Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc. abc … (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

[43] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Aspen Magazine 5–6 (1967), n.p.

[44] Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 113–138.

[45] Yann Moulier-Boutang, “Droits de propriété intellectuelle, terra nullius et capitalisme cognitif,” Multitudes 41 (2010), 66–72.

[46] Michalis Pichler, “Statements”.

[47] Michalis Pichler, “Appropriation”.

[48] Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15 (1956), 27–35.

[49] Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and Power,” in Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 205–217.

[50] Louis Marin, “De la citation. Notes à partir de quelques œuvres de Jasper Johns,” Artstudio 12 (1989), 120–133.

[51] Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980).

[52] Gérard Genette, Palimpsests.

[53] Edward Ruscha, “Conversation with Bernard Blistène,” in Edward Ruscha. Paintings (Rotterdam: Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1989), 126–142.

[54] Colin Ward, Housing. An Anarchist Approach (London: Freedom Press, 1976) and Cotters and Squatter. Housing’s Hidden History (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2002).