Typical of works from this series, Broken Glass features the signature Ruscha gradient but dispenses with words in favor of everyday objects. Hovering uncannily at the center of the composition, the titular glass appears frozen in the split second of impact; the fractured shards are captured just as they have been blasted from the whole by some explosive force, appearing to float freely and eerily in space. Pictured alone, the glass appears to have broken spontaneously or of its own will, adding to the surreal aura of the painting. Testifying to the sensory capacity of Ruscha's paintings, be they words or objects, one can almost hear the crack of the glass and exploding shards, as one can hear the snap of a broken pencil. Evincing the artist’s skillful draftsmanship, the cup is depicted precisely to scale and in realistic detail, yet it is removed from any context and placed against a shadowy ground that remains resolutely unreadable. The ombré backdrop creates a moody atmosphere that resembles a Martian desert, adhering to Ruscha’s formula for an airless, enigmatic composition while negating his trademark text. Against this majestic setting, the glass becomes a regal object – a reverential, if slightly absurd, shrine to the banal.
Drawing a visual parallel to such Surrealist iconography as the floating objects of René Magritte or the metaphysical landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, Ruscha elevates his subject from a discarded item to a vessel of poetic resonance. Ruscha explores through his compositions the enigmatic liminal space of the imagination in which such recognizable images cease to bear meaning. Unlike his Surrealist forebears, however, Ruscha pulls his images not from the realm of dreams or the subconscious, but from the everyday world of common objects, as in the work of his idol Marcel Duchamp. As Anne Livet notes: "Ruscha's relationship with the Surrealists is more fraternal than filial. Both artistic strategies derive from the Symbolist tradition, but whereas the iconography of the Surrealists derives from the language of the subconscious, Ruscha's iconography arises from the intersection of cultural and autobiographical metaphor." (Exh. Cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Works of Ed Ruscha, 1982, p. 17) With Broken Glass, Ruscha, like Duchamp, makes us reevaluate the anticipated meaning of an ordinary object and question the very nature of art.
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