turning back to Ed Ruscha

Though it is well known that the early conceptual artists used photography in ways that went far beyond its modernist definitions as a medium – and succeeded thereby in breaking down the boundaries of all mediums in modernist art--- there is still an  absence in art history discourse that evaluates the  known conceptual photography in Australia. What liitle writing there is--eg., Anne Marsh in Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980--suggests that it is a turn to  the dumb aesthetic of amateur images and  street photography  to undermine a modernist aesthetic. 

To gain an understanding  on conceptual art and photography (photoconceptual activity) we can turn back to America in 1962, where  the California painter Ed Ruscha used the principle of statement and performance  to create the book Twentysix Gasoline Stations. According to the art historians Ruscha first came up with the title, then proceeded to photograph the subject on one of his road trips from Oklahoma City (his hometown) to Los Angeles, his adopted city.

The work of art was to be the book itself, simply but carefully designed, whereas the photographs inside showed no traces of aesthetic decision making at all, as if the artist had merely pointed the camera out the car window in order to fulfill the requirements of the textual phrase.

Ruscha's book was  inextricably tied to its status as an article in a mass-produced and circulated publication. This idea of attaching the work of art directly to the channels of distribution and publicity that constituted its inevitable fate as a commodity transgressed the presentation of the single photography on the white walls of the art gallery. 

Ruscha produced sixteen books from the early 1960s to th late 1970s and some the  books in this instructional and perfomative  mode based around repetition  included Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967)  and Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968). The conceptual basis of these works---following a rule or instruction in the spirit of experimentation-- is an alternative to the  anti-aesthetic interpretation  that is based on  the mimicing of non-autonomous photography, such as amateur snapshots or  photojournalism.

It  enables us to  link Ruscha's work back to the radical impulse in the European avant garde, that had been excluded by the Greenbergian canon;  and to see it  as a pathway that reconfigures photography away from the ontology of  high formalist modernism, which was secured by  the medium specific characteristics as outlined by Clement Greenberg, John Szarkowski and Michael Fried.   

This formalist modernism insisted on a division between high and low art, made a distinction between the popular vernacular and the avant-garde and highlighted the differences between a radical  avant-garde and the conservative fine art tradition.  It is what is currently defended by cultural conservatives in order to defuse the critical edge of art.