Progression of Art
White Painting (four panel)
The White Paintings were initially exhibited in the dining hall of Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952 as a backdrop for John Cage's untitled event (Theater Piece #1) - a multimedia performance combining poetry, dance, and music determined by chance processes. During the performance, four panels of the White Paintings were suspended from the ceiling with films and slides projected on them. Merce Cunningham danced through the audience, while others read poetry and played the piano. Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen, and Rauschenberg himself played wax cylinders of Edith Piaf records on an old Edison horn recorder.
Raushcenberg's White Paintings - there are five of them, each with a different number of panels - are challenging paintings that often elicit frustration and incredulity from viewers. Painted a flat white, there are no gestural traces of the artist's hand and no composition to speak of except the arrangement of the panels - there seems to be nothing to look at. What one realizes though, standing in front of the canvas, is that the surface of the paintings is not in fact blank. One sees shadows pass over it as people walk and stand in front of it. The White Paintings, then, act more like a screen than a painting. It is not the screen for slides as in its original installation, but a screen that displays the goings-on in the environment - the movement of people, the floating of dust motes, the lights of the gallery. With the simplest of means, Rauschenberg hearkened back to earlier modernist works like the monochromatic paintings of Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich but also created a viewer-centered art that highlighted the experiential nature of looking at art that would become increasingly prominent in the 1960s and beyond.
Oil on canvas - Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Erased de Kooning Drawing
In the early 1950s, Rauschenberg explored the boundaries and the definition of art, following the radical precedent set by Marcel Duchamp's readymades in the early 20th century. In this "drawing," Rauschenberg set out to discover if erasure, or the removal of a mark, constituted a work of art. He realized in order for the piece to succeed, he required an already notable work of art. Willem de Kooning was an established, leading figure in the New York art world when the young Rauschenberg asked him for a drawing that he could erase. De Kooning eventually acquiesced to Rauschenberg's request, albeit reluctantly. He intentionally made Rauschenberg's act of erasure difficult by deliberately choosing a heavily marked drawing filled with charcoal and pencil. Rauschenberg needed two months, and dozens of erasers, to complete the herculean task of erasing the drawing; even after he finished, traces of De Kooning's work were still present.
Through the erasure of De Kooning's drawing, Rauschenberg acknowledged his admiration for his predecessor, but also signaled a movement away from Abstract Expressionism. He framed the erased drawing within a simple, gilded frame, with a mat bearing an inscription typed by Jasper Johns that identified the significance of the seemingly empty paper. The absent drawing is presented as a important art, designating the act of erasure as belonging to the realm of fine art - a typically Neo-Dada act of questioning the definition and importance of the art object.
Traces of ink and crayon on paper, with mat and hand-lettered label in ink, in gold-leafed frame - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Automobile Tire Print
An early collaboration between Rauschenberg and John Cage, this print redefined the medium for the 20th century in a fatalistically Neo-Dada fashion. Rauschenberg glued together 20 sheets of typewriter paper into a continuous scroll and laid them out on an empty Fulton Street road in front of his studio. He poured black house paint in a pool in front of the rear tire of his Model A Ford and directed Cage to drive over the 23 feet of paper, with the front tire embossing the scroll and the rear imprinting the paper with a continuous black tire tread mark. While this work is categorized as a print, it is the product of a collaborative performance that explored process printing, the artist's mark, and serial imagery. While it was Rauschenberg's idea and direction that initiated the creation of the print, Cage acted as the printer and press. In the creation of this work, Rauschenberg effectively shifted the term "Action Painting" from the Abstract Expressionist active creation of the artist's mark with their own hands to the action of driving a car, part of his continued interest in the obfuscation of traditional notions of the artist and work of art.
The continuous nature of the print as a scroll also points to the importance of Zen ideas in the 1950s in the United States. Cage in particular was keenly interested in Eastern ideas of chance, continuity, and communion, ideas that also interested the young Rauschenberg.
Monoprint: house paint on 20 sheets of paper, mounted on fabric - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
One of Rauschenberg's first "combines," Bed transcends the line between painting and sculpture through its Dadaist assemblage of traditional materials and the detritus of everyday life. Rauschenberg coined the term combine to describe a series of works from the 1950s and 1960s that literally combine the media of painting and sculpture within a single, three-dimensional art object.
Apocryphal or not, the legend behind the combine states that one day Rauschenberg ran out of canvas and turned instead to his bed linens, first scribbling on the pillow, sheets, and quilt with pencil, then rapidly dripping and spilling paint on them. He then stretched the bed linens over a rectangular wooden support, in the place of a canvas, and attached the pillow and quilt in a way that made it appear as if the bed was made with only one corner un-tucked.
He applied the paint in a loose, dripped, gestural fashion that calls to mind the authorial marks of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. However, the brushstroke in the combine was no longer a mark indicative of the artist's psyche, but an appropriated symbol designating a shift towards the external world. The found objects present more of an accurate portrait of Rauschenberg than the dripped paint, as they were items that he owned and used in his daily life. Instead of gestural marks signifying the biography of the artist - the artist's inner life - Rauschenberg presents elements from his physical life as an art object, thus subverting romantic notions of artistic expression. Instead of abstracted or amorphous emotions, Rauschenberg declares that common, everyday things one uses or comes into contact with are worthy subjects for art.
Combine: oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet, mounted on wood support - Museum of Modern Art ,New York
One of Rauschenberg's most famous works, Monogram, pushed the art world's buttons by further merging painting and sculpture as the combine moved from the wall to the floor. While he began with traditional materials - an abstract painting executed in oil on stretched canvas - he abandoned tradition by adding an assemblage of found objects on top of the painting to create a three-dimensional combine. Rauschenberg often acquired materials for his artwork on his meanderings about New York City, allowing chance encounters with found objects to dictate his artistic output, and Monogram was no exception. In one of his wanderings in the early 1950s, Rauschenberg found and purchased a stuffed angora goat from an office supply store and later encircled it with a tire he encountered in street trash. He applied paint to the goat's snout in gestural brushstrokes that quoted Abstract Expressionism. On top of the canvas, Rauschenberg surrounded the goat with a pasture of more detritus strewn about its hooves - including a tennis ball, a wooden plank, and several found and reproduced images.
Similar to his earlier combine, Bed (1955), Monogram is a work that engages the viewer on multiple levels, as they look at, down, and around the interwoven elements of the work each vying for the viewer's attention at once. However, despite many varied interpretations, Rauschenberg refused to hint at any predetermined meaning of the different elements within the work, instead allowing viewers to create their own associations between the objects and images. Despite Rauschenberg's insistence against specific meanings of the work, often critics interpret the tire-ringed goat as a symbol of the artist's homosexuality, as well as his role within the art world, trampling over tradition with his own artistic monogram.
Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters - Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
Among Rauschenberg's most iconic and controversial combines, Canyon features among its mixed media: pieces of wood, a pillow, a mirror, and a stuffed bald eagle. The eagle appears to emerge directly from the canvas, perched on top of a cardboard box and peering down on a pillow dangling below the assemblage. A photograph of Rauschenberg's son emerges from the incongruous cacophony of objects, boldly outlined with black above a mint green patch of paint so that it stands out amidst the fragments of printed matter.
Rauschenberg acquired the taxidermied eagle from fellow artist Sari Dienes, who retrieved the bird from a pile of trash outside of Carnegie Hall. While Rauschenberg submitted a notarized letter in 1988 that the bird was killed well before the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act went into effect, the stuffed eagle still became the source of recent governmental ire. In 2007, the estate of the former owner - gallerist Ileana Sonnabend - declared that Canyon had zero monetary value because it could not be sold without violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act; however, in 2011, the U.S. government appraised the work at 15 million dollars, and also levied a penalty for an undervaluation at Sonnabend's heirs. In the end, the U.S. government dropped the 40 million plus dollar claim against Sonnabend's estate after the work was donated to the Museum of Modern Art. While the eagle became the source of immense bureaucratic drama, it is also the most potent image within the work. Critics cite references ranging from nationalism in the guise of McCarthyism to the Greek Ganymede myth associated within the taxidermied bird, yet Rauschenberg again left the interpretation open to the viewer.
Combine: oil, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed paper, printed reproductions, photograph, wood, paint tube, and mirror on canvas with oil on bald eagle, string, and pillow - Museum of Modern Art, New York
While Rauschenberg was no stranger to collage and usage of found imagery, the silkscreen technique reinvigorated his artistic practice in the early 1960s. After Andy Warhol introduced him to the photo-silkscreen technique, Rauschenberg created a series of silkscreen paintings that allowed for an open-ended association of meanings through his appropriation and arrangement of mass media imagery. In Skyway, Rauschenberg wanted to communicate the frenetic pace of American culture encapsulated in the early half of the decade, particularly as represented on television and in magazines. He stated, "I was bombarded with television sets and magazines, by the excess of the world. I thought an honest work should incorporate all of those elements." He created the work in the year following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a potent symbol for change, even though he was struck down only halfway through his first term as president.
The image of Kennedy appears twice in the upper half of the painting surrounded by images that illustrate the ideals of American progress in the second half of the 20th century, including an astronaut, the bald eagle, and a large, mechanical crane surrounded by a demolished building. The lower half of the canvas contains a repeated image of Venus at Her Toilet (1608) by Peter Paul Rubens. The mirror within the painting expands the image into the viewer's space, mirroring the world around them. While the appropriated images can be read as politically and socially laden, Rauschenberg claimed he aimed to encapsulate the contemporary climate rather than comment on it, using "simple images" to "neutralize the calamities that were going on in the outside world."
By many accounts, Rauschenberg and Neo-Dada anticipated the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, and with Skyway and his other silkscreens, Rauschenberg fully embraces what was born from his own work. Having learned the silkscreening process from Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg's compositions also recall the paintings of James Rosenquist with their combination of popular figures and mass media imagery, but they also often incorporate Rauschenberg's own photographs, which add a more personal element to the photomontages. It is with these works that art historian Leo Steinberg formulated his notion of the "flatbed picture plane." He wrote, "Rauschenberg's picture plane had to become a surface to which anything reachable-thinkable would adhere. It had to be whatever a billboard or dashboard is, and everything a projection screen is, with further affinities for anything that is flat and worked over - palimpsest, canceled plate, printer's proof, trial blank, chart, map, aerial view." In other words, with his Pop Art aesthetic, Rauschenberg disrupts traditional notions of the picture plane as a sort of window into another world and presents the viewer a surface accumulation of imagery.
Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas - Dallas Museum of Art
Sky Garden (Stoned Moon)
While the space race was still in its infancy when Rauschenberg included astronauts in his 1964 silkscreen paintings, by 1969, space flight was a reality that inspired Rauschenberg and many Americans with the potential for collaboration between man and technology. In July of 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invited Rauschenberg to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to witness the launch of the momentous Apollo 11 mission and granted him unrestricted access to the launch site, allowing him to explore the facilities and meet with scientists as well as utilize official photographs and technical documents. The visit instilled a renewed sense of optimism in Rauschenberg, and regarding NASA's missions, he said, "The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time that was not concerned with war and destruction." His Stoned Moon series (1969-70) is a testament to that sense of hope, particularly poignant in the tumultuous context of the late 1960s, defined by the civil rights movement and anti-war protests against the Vietnam War.
To create the prints, Rauschenberg collaged together transferred photographs supplied by NASA. He discovered in the early 1960s that if he soaked reproductions from magazines in lighter fluid he could transfer them on to paper by rubbing the back with a dry pen nib. The imagery juxtaposes the technology of the booster rocket in red with the natural surroundings of Cape Canaveral in blue and green, echoing the sensory overload experienced as one witnessed the Apollo 11 launch. Sky Garden is one of the largest lithographs in the series, at an astonishing 89 inches in height and was the largest hand-pulled lithograph ever created when it was printed in 1969.
Lithograph and screenprint, from an edition of 35 - Published by Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles
After the turmoil of the 1960s had come to a close, Rauschenberg created this collage summarizing the upheaval of the decade. While the lower left corner anchored the piece with the exhilaration and optimism of the 1969 moon landing embodied in the image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Rauschenberg surrounded this figure with a constellation of figures that symbolized the turmoil of the preceding decade as well. The surrounding images of John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, who were both assassinated in 1968, highlighted the destruction of the political optimism during the 1960s. The image of Janis Joplin - a fellow native of Port Arthur, Texas - at the top right emphasized the loss of young talent in the music industry as rock stars partied themselves to death, Joplin having died of an overdose in October of 1970 right before Rauschenberg created the print. Other images surrounding the astronaut portray urban violence, the Vietnam War, and a peace vigil - all descriptions of the tumult of the 1960s. The collage structure and all-over composition further visually enhance and reflect the chaos of this period.
Screenprint, from an edition of 250 - Published by Castelli Graphics, produced by Styria Studio, New York