THE WASHINGTON POST – Of all the online offerings brought to the surface this year in an earnest, if largely unsatisfying, attempt to make up for the loss of in-person encounters with art, none has enthralled me as much as 12 Sunsets, an interactive website so cool it hardly knows what to do with itself. Which, of course, only reinforces its cool.
12 Sunsets, which was recently launched by the Getty Research Institute, allows you to explore photographs of the Sunset Strip across time and space. The photographs of both sides of the Strip – a two-and-and-a-half mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles – were taken by the celebrated Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha at shifting intervals over more than 40 years.
The project began in 1966, when Ruscha (pronounced rew-shay) mounted a motorised camera in the bed of a Datsun pickup truck. The camera was pointed at right angles to the road and fitted with a reel of film allowing for thousands of frames in a single, continuous session. The truck proceeded slowly. Ruscha clicked continuously.
His project anticipated what Google Street View would do on a much bigger scale in the 2000s. But where Google worked with 360-degree cameras, producing digital files, Ruscha used a conventional camera and actual film. He published the first crop of photographs in a photobook titled Every Building on the Sunset Strip.
Over the following decades, even as he photographed other parts of Los Angeles, Ruscha and his collaborators, prominent among them his younger brother Paul, performed the same feat on the Strip again and again, occasionally adjusting their technique but keeping to the same principle. In the early years, according to the Getty Research Institute’s deputy director Andrew Perchuk, Ruscha would choose a quiet time – 5am on a Sunday morning worked well. The traffic got worse in later years. He worked with a team. He used colour film for the first time in 2007. He experimented with digital once, but didn’t like the results.
The 12 Sunsets website, which digitised Ruscha’s photographs from negatives and contact sheets, allows users to “drive” up and down Sunset Boulevard in 12 different years between the mid-1960s and 2007. The interactive site was built by Stamen Design, a company specialiaing in data visualiaation and mapping, working with Getty Digital.
First, choose your ride: red pickup, blue Volkswagen bus or red Beetle. To drive west, you press the left arrow on your keyboard; to go east, press the right arrow. To go forward in time you use the up arrow; back is the down arrow.
It’s that simple. And it’s completely absorbing.
Typing in keywords like “billboard”, “limousine”, “Latino” or “atmospheric phenomenon”, you can use the site to search, sort and compare over 65,000 photographs the Getty has so far digitised.
Perched three floors up in my East Coast apartment this winter, I’ve found Ruscha’s photographs of single-story, flat-roofed record stores, insurance agencies, empty lots and palm trees, all stretched out along a mesmerising horizontal continuum, as evocative of Los Angeles as the Hollywood sign. They’re also as weirdly poetic as Humbert Humbert’s deadpan list of the locations where he and Lolita had their quarrels in Nabokov’s great novel; the photographic equivalent of “on Third Street, Los Angeles, because the tickets to some studio or other were sold out”.
Now 83, Ruscha is the unofficial artist laureate of Los Angeles, a foundational – and bridging – figure of both pop and conceptual art. He represented the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, and is admired by former president Barack Obama, who borrowed a Ruscha painting from the National Gallery to hang in his White House quarters and gave editions of a Ruscha print to the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom.
Born in Nebraska and raised in Oklahoma, Ruscha was 18 when he moved to Los Angeles and began his art studies at the Chouinard Art Institute (later CalArts). As a new arrival, he was enthralled by the romance of Hollywood, and alive to its manifestations in the city around him.
But he was conscious, too, of his own belatedness. Many things that had made the Sunset Strip famous had already vanished or changed irrevocably, including Hollywood High School (which Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Carol Burnett attended); the Beverly Hills Hotel (whose denizens included WC Fields and Will Rogers); Poverty Row, the neighbourhood of studios specialising in low-budget films; Gower Gulch, the street corner where cowboys loitered, hoping for roles in Westerns; and Alla Nazimova’s Garden of Alla.
Stars like Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe had lived on or near the Sunset Strip, but they were now dead. Ruscha had missed, too, the arrival of mobsters like ‘Bugsy’ Siegel in the 1940s, and, in the 1950s, the production of the movie Sunset Boulevard and the television series 77 Sunset Strip.
After travelling in Europe, Ruscha returned to Los Angeles and found work as a layout artist for the Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency. He soon became known on the Los Angeles art scene for typographical sign paintings (Smash, Oof, Hollywood) and for deadpan, cheaply produced photobooks.
Sunset Strip, with its real but fraying connections to the entertainment industry, was a perfect subject for Ruscha. Its ever-changing, unremarkable countenance constituted a drone note of local, adhesive texture and grip beneath the frictionless melody coming out of the Hollywood dream factory. Ruscha had first tried photographing it on foot with his friend, Jerry McMillan, in 1965. The results weren’t right. He settled on the more mechanical, laconic look produced by the rolling truck.
From the 1950s on, many of America’s best artists took to treating “hot” subject matter with deadpan cool. At first, the new sensibility seemed borrowed from the movies. But it also functioned as a critical, ironic or simply mirroring response to semantic inflation in America’s booming, advertising-saturated economy. (I could replace that last sentence with ‘Andy Warhol’ to convey the same meaning more efficiently.) But as the 1960s dragged on and the country was convulsed by assassinations, war and social upheaval, the new “cool” in art began to resemble a form of denial or post-traumatic numbness.
In 1966, even as Ruscha rolled down the boulevard clicking his camera like an old-time flâneur, those convulsions were rocking the Sunset Strip. Fallout from the Watts Uprising the previous summer was still being felt. At Pandora’s Box, a coffeehouse on the Strip frequented by Sonny and Cher, protests that had broken out against 10pm curfews imposed by the police soon turned to rioting.
That same year, the war in Vietnam inspired the first significant antiwar protests led by artists. In an empty lot on Sunset near La Cienega Boulevard, a 60-foot structure by the sculptor Mark di Suvero was covered in artworks by a group of artists that included Judy Chicago and Melvin Edwards. Susan Sontag and Donald Duncan, a Green Beret who had just quit the military in disgust, spoke at its inauguration. For the three months that it stood, the Peace Tower, as it was dubbed, became a centre of anti-war activity.
Of course, protests, riots and happenings can produce their own form of unreality. Ruscha was interested in something more prosaic, something more tethered to the real. He took photographs of parking lots and palm trees.
Through the 1970s, much of the focus on the Strip shifted to music, as huge rock bands like Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Who and the Rolling Stones used the Continental Riot House as an informal – and generally anarchic – home base. And in the 1980s, the Strip became a centre of the hair metal scene, with bands like Guns N’ Roses, Poison and Mötley Crüe taking over some of the most popular venues.
Ruscha kept returning, carefully recording every building, every empty lot, always taking meticulous notes as he went. The traffic got thicker. One by one, the video stores and record stores disappeared. Filthy McNasty’s, where the stuntman Evel Knievel had been a regular, became the Viper Room, where actor River Phoenix died. But Ruscha’s camera gave that building no more importance than Lee’s Automatic Laundry or Discos Latinos, a Latin record store.
You can explore it on this remarkable website, which somehow dissolves feelings of belatedness and nostalgia into a perpetual present that is banal, gorgeous and – always – heavily sign-posted.
A website implies a desire for utility, but the deeper purposes of 12 Sunsets may never become clear. We know already that Every Building on the Sunset Strip helped inspire one of the most influential architectural texts of the 20th Century: Learning from Las Vegas by Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour. That 1972 book, which celebrated advertising and apparently arbitrary decoration as legitimately expressive parts of architecture, thereby leading the way into postmodernism, grew, in part, out of a seminar held in Ruscha’s studio.
Going forward, it’s easy to see 12 Sunsets inspiring a new generation of West Coast artists or minimalist composers. I could see it being used as the conceptual motor powering a novel by Don DeLillo, or featuring in an intricate plot by some latter-day Elmore Leonard. Of course, it could also be enthusiastically taken up at the annual meeting of the National Society of Professional Surveyors or find itself the subject of a poorly attended afternoon session on the final day of a crushingly dull real estate conference. Anything is possible.
But in the end, 12 Sunsets feels like a tribute not only to Ruscha, but to all Angelenos. It honours a ceaselessly changing street that may forever be associated with a global fantasy factory but also happens to be a neighbourhood, a thoroughfare, a place to make ends meet.