Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western, painted in 1963, is an eclectic and unusual juxtaposition of text and photo-realistically rendered objects set against an expansive deep indigo background, conveying both action and a semiotic representation of sound. Hovering horizontally at the center of the dominating, vast composition, pointing outward and abutted against the extreme left and right edges are representations of two life-sized, yellow No. 2 pencils, the left one freshly sharpened and intact and the right one snapped into two parts.
In preparation for Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western the artist produced the present work, Broken Pencil (1963), along with two other paintings on paper of the same scale and subject, the diptych Pencil, Broken Pencil (1963). A fully realized and extraordinarily executed painting in itself, the materiality of the subject of Broken Pencil, precisely centered within the picture plane and meticulously reproduced in its true scale, is made veritable through the artist’s use of generous, still-life spotlighting, accentuating the contours of the object. The striking contrast of the canary yellow object and the uniform, rich ultramarine background provides a sense of depth and implied spatial presence. “Many of Ruscha’s drawings implicitly pose the question of the difference between the illusion of a thing and a word.” (Daniel Baird, “Ed Ruscha,” Brooklyn Rail, July 1, 2004) This is especially apparent with Broken Pencil, in which “...the pencil, a classic object on which to act out writerly frustration, precedes but also somehow contains the word ‘pencil.’ The drawing [is], however, often more materially concrete and emotionally potent than the closely related paintings executed at the same time....Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western works by its elliptical and even surreal juxtapositions. In the drawings, by contrast, both words and objects remain themselves, functional but stripped of overt associations.” (Ibid.)
The pencil, an artist’s most basic instrument, is an important recurring object appearing within the imagery of Ruscha’s works at this early stage in his career, present in several of the drawings and canvases made between 1963 and 1971. Not only was this pencil depicted twice within the aforementioned painting Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western, but also the invitation to the 1963 exhibition prominently features a photorealistic rendering of a single sharpened pencil among the text. Other works incorporating a pencil within the composition include Talk About Space (1963), Bull, Pencil (1964) and many of the ‘birds, fish and offspring’ paintings of the mid-1960s. Here the artist is pointing “explicitly, and often reflexively, to the means and methods of drawing…This moment witnessed, in short, a mounting self-referentiality in Ruscha’s works on paper, one that attended what might be interpreted as an increasing awareness of his own creative persona.” (Lisa Turvey, Ed., Edward Ruscha: Catalogue Raisonné of the Works on Paper, Volume One: 1956-1976, New York 2014, p. 20) In viewing the object as the artist making reference to himself, Broken Pencil, is shown split and splintered, revealing a deeper, emotional interpretation to the very simple composition and perhaps signifies a moment of despair, anger or doubt for Ruscha.
Broken Pencil stands out among the critical oil on paper studies of the early 1960s linked to the realized paintings that were fundamental contributions to the Pop Art movement and laid the foundation for the visual language that both established and solidified Ruscha as one of the most influential artists of his generation. These works offer important insight into Ruscha’s working process and the refined and “finished quality of many of them bears out Ruscha’s claim that his art is entirely premeditated.” (Ibid, p. 17) In Broken Pencil, the implied noise associated with the shattering of the object provides us with a striking visual equivalent of sound—all the while exhibiting evidence of a young Ruscha in the process of formulating the ideas that would ignite a revolution in artmaking.
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