While networks of highways fueled industrialization and built the US economy, they also led to a significant decline in the use of mass transportation for both people and goods. With this shift to individualized transit came an overwhelming increase in the demand for fuel. In Twentysix Gasoline Stations (3rd edition, 1969; first published 1963), Ed Ruscha collects a compendium of photographs of the stations that provide this valuable resource. Each photo features a single service station that, like the paper of the page, is made entirely of thin surfaces, all decorated by text in the form of advertisement and information. In Ruscha’s photos, however, the camera angle is typically low to the ground, foregrounding the pavement so that it constitutes half of the image and placing the otherwise insubstantial, paper-thin stations in an extreme perspective. In this viewing angle, the stations are granted a monumental stature, one that is appropriate to a building holding what are, arguably, the most sought-after liquids in the world.

The oil that is refined to create gasoline and, ultimately, burned in an internal combustion engine to generate propulsion and forward motion, creates a host of complications. Chief among them is environmental degradation due to rampant pollution. Transportation is a primary cause of the global climate crisis and is exacerbated by inefficient modes of transit like automobiles. Vehicle pollution is responsible for the early deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year, and extracting fuel by building pipeline infrastructure is damaging to ecosystems. All these losses are invisibly subsidized in their disconnection from the cost at the pump.

Larry Stark’s screen print, May 16th, 1970 (1970), depicts in its foreground an Enco gas station sign, in its middle-ground the top of a tree line, and in its background a smokestack. The entire image is black and white except the red, white, and blue Enco sign, emphasizing the logo’s graphic quality and priority in the picture. At the time this print was made, Enco, Esso, and Humble stations were only two years away from undergoing an extensive rebranding as Exxon. The sign operates as a tombstone of a now-dead icon, marking the waste that accumulates in the constant renovations of advertising. Its subjects—trees, smokestack, and gasoline station—make an implicit observation of the consequences of automobiles and industry on the environment.

Ron Kleemann’s Gas Line (1979) situates the viewer just behind a New York City yellow cab in a line of cars that wind around an urban lot. Drivers wait to fill up at the austere white gas station, decorated only with the green letters spelling “Hess Gasoline.” Fittingly, the artist depicts the consumer luxury of the car with exacting precision and attention to its shine—emphasizing the glossy reflectivity of chrome, glass, and automobile paint—that it is akin to a gilded icon. The economic hold of automobiles extends beyond their body to the liquid gold petroleum upon which they rely. The print documents one of the effects of the 1979 worldwide oil crisis resulting from the Iranian Revolution. While the global oil supply decreased only slightly, there was widespread panic that drove consumers to the pump, increased prices, and resulted in economic recessions in the US and many other countries.

Kleeman’s work captures one of many historic crises emerging from American and global dependence on oil. In our energy-centric world, control over oil and gas equates to geopolitical power for some countries and economic vulnerability for others. Countries dependent on energy imports rely on those with surpluses, often leading to external involvement in exporters’ internal conflicts to prevent supply disruptions. The desire for resource control leaves the world vulnerable to economic crises, military entanglements, and wars that cause untold numbers of innocent casualties.

Image credits:
Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937), Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 3rd edition, 1969 (first published 1963). Artist’s book: offset printed, 7 1/8 x 5 1/2 x 1/4″. Published by the Cunningham Press, Alhambra, CA. Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library, Washington University in St. Louis. © Edward J. Ruscha IV.

Larry Stark (American, b. 1940), May 16th, 1970, 1970. Screen print, 4/25, 23 1/8 x 32″. Gift of Nancy Singer, 1976.

Ron Kleeman (American, b. 1937), Gas Line, from the portfolio City-Scapes, 1979. Screen print, 247/250, 22 x 30″. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Harold J. Joseph, 1980.