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Ed Ruscha’s stunning Sunset Strip art project lets you tour its full length, east to west — and back in time

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…

The “12 Sunsets” website, which digitized 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 specializing in data visualization 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.

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 honors a ceaselessly changing street that may forever be associated with a global fantasy factory but also happens to be a neighborhood, a thoroughfare, a place to make ends meet.