What is the difference between language and a picture of a thing? That riddle has occupied artist Ed Ruscha for a lifetime. Years before Tom Wolfe’s cranky, hipster-bashing book ruined a perfectly good phrase, the L.A. painter had resolved to address an intractable paradox—the painted word.
More than any other artist since René Magritte, Ruscha has dramatized the visual and rhetorical potential of language in multiple drawings, prints, photographs, film and other media. Yet, as great as these are, they are no match for his word and image paintings. And, among Ruscha’s linguistically-minded masterpieces, none more directly portrays the tenuous relationship between language and the objects it grasps than Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western (1963).
I wish I’d kept some of my better known works. I weep over that.
Presently in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, this oil-on-canvas painting also happens to be Ruscha’s own favorite work. “I wish I’d kept some of my better known works. I weep over that… I consider [this painting] my best one… It embodies the aesthetic of all my work,” he laments on the label next to the work.
First exhibited 54 years ago at Los Angeles’ legendary Ferus Gallery among other single-word paintings, including Smash (1963) and Oof (1962, reworked 1963), the six-foot-tall canvas juxtaposes several unlikely elements onto the edges of a deep blue field.
On the left and right of the painting the artist has placed one-to-one photorealistic representations of two items included in the title: a freshly sharpened yellow pencil and a broken pencil. A paperback western novel is collaged at the bottom. At the top, Ruscha has added the word “NOISE” in expanding 3-D commercial lettering.
A work of art that literalizes the imaginary tension of a pencil breaking with comic book effects, Ruscha’s painting mines the gap between the truth and fiction that exists in all images, metaphors and similes. It also serves as a manifesto for a career spent querying the way meanings are conveyed or frustrated by symbols.
Ruscha’s message is simple but never banal: the thing depicted, whether a pencil or breaking sound, is not really the thing in question. Words and images can never fully engage on each other’s terms.