Organized by Paul Schimmel
Metropolitan Museum of Art
December 20, 2005–April 2, 2006
In 1962 Andy Warhol made a portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. To make it, he used photographs supplied by Rauschenberg, of himself and his family, including a family group shot in which a young woman holds the infant Rauschenberg in her arms, soon after his birth in 1925. Both the title and the vintage source photo conjure up the 1939 book by James Agee and Walker Evans about Alabama tenant farmers during the last Great Depression. It is only after seeing the magnificent exhibition of the Combines and related works that Rauschenberg made between 1954 and 1964 that I realize how brilliant Warhol’s portrait of the older artist is in its linking of his achievement of this time to his origins in the dirt-poor working-class South of the 1930s.
Rauschenberg’s family lived in Port Arthur, Texas, where his father was a power-company lineman and his mother handy with a needle. “We were ordinary working people,” his mother Dora told an interviewer. “Art was not in our world.” As a boy, Rauschenberg was whipped for drawing and painting all over the walls and furniture in his room. But he said later that he “learned collage” from his mother’s placement of paper patterns on a piece of fabric when she made clothes. They didn’t call it art, and of course it wasn’t that, but Rauschenberg had learned enough about what he liked by his teens to drop his plans to become a fundamentalist preacher when it was clear that his local brand of Christianity forbade the dancing to which he was devoted (and which he continued to do, though in different forms, in later years).
Knowing that as a child he built a structure of crates filled with jars and boxes of found objects to divide the room he shared with his sister, it’s hard to believe Dora wasn’t one of the many women of her generation who used whatever was at hand to decorate their homes, and that Rauschenberg didn’t move in domestic spaces like the home of the Ricketts family Agee wrote about, with (to excerpt from a 2-page description) its wall “crusted deep with attractive pieces of paper into the intricate splendor of a wedding cake or the fan of a white peacock: calendars of snowbound and staghunting scenes pressed into bas-relief out of white pulp and glittering with a sand of red and blue and green and gold tinsel, and delicately tinted; fullblown blondes in luminous frocks leaning back in swings, accepting cigarettes from young men in white monkey-coats; adolescent girls, adolescent boys in school frocks, school suits, first-party dresses, first long suits overlaid with words and phrases and names such as Mazola, Railroad Age, Maxwell House, They Satisfy, et cetera.” A 1953 photograph Rauschenberg took of his Fulton Street studio could nearly be an illustration of these words, but above all they suggest the effect of the assemblages, called Combines, he made in 1954-55.
On the way to these works, Rauschenberg tried out a number of approaches to art. Although his early work could be included with Abstract Expressionist painting in the Ninth Street Show in 1951, he made a clear move in search of a direction of his own when he made the White Paintings of the same year, whose flat blankness differed sharply from current conventions of self-expression. He swung immediately to an opposite extreme of color and texture, using black paint to cover newspaper glued onto canvas to make a crusted surface. In 1952, traveling in Europe, he made a number of “personal boxes,” three-dimensional collages containing such things as fabric, twine, feathers, pebbles, and printed reproductions. Back in New York in 1953, he made paintings out of substances as varied as gold and dirt, returning to paint to work, this time, primarily in red on canvas enriched with fabric swatches, newspaper, and bits of wood. With this move, something definitive happened; these pictures led by way of expansion of materials, scale, and dimensions directly to the Combines.
This change in work followed on a major change in the artist’s life. His marriage with the artist Susan Weil, with whom he had a son, broke up. He became involved with Cy Twombly, with whom he visited the South and then Europe, but then lived with Jasper Johns—like Twombly a fellow Southerner. Although still unsuccessful in selling his art, Rauschenberg by this time was part of a lively circle of artists in various media, notably John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Whether in reaction to the insecurities of his new situation, or (more likely) in a flush of strength drawn from a new comfort in a reworked identity, Rauschenberg was able to combine New York painting of the fifties with the fabric and newspaper-picture collage of his boyhood environment to make something new and lasting.
The Met installation opened with Minutiae, a piece that Rauschenberg producd in 1954 as the set for a Cunningham-Cage dance performance. It consists of two surfaces set far enough apart for dancers to move between them, one containing an area formed by sewn cloths hanging loosely so that someone could pass under it. If not a return to his mother’s world without art, it represents a reworking of the premodern objects, like Christian altarpieces, that we now find in museums but were originally intended for use as staging elements of religious performances. Rauschenberg had used his White Paintings earlier in this way, in the set for a Cage theater piece during which the shadows of performers passed on them, along with slide and film projections. With Minutiae he makes his own work as rich as the performance, covering it with the materials and textures of his life, from the funny pages to oil paint.
Many of the ‘54 works have an altarpiece flavor, with doors that look as if they’ve opened to reveal a painting; Collection has the tripartite structure of a grand cathedral picture, with clunky baroque woodwork fragments atop the center panel and a little reproduction of a baroque sculpture at the right hand edge. Like all the works of this period, Collection is held together, across its material disunity and the variety of materials out of which it is constructed, by a grid structure derived from the modernist tradition in which Rauschenberg was trained by Josef Albers, by the drips, stains and thick brush marks that create an over-all surface, and by the similarity of value shared by its range of colors.
The famous Bed of 1955 speaks directly to the joining of a rural Southern childhood to a man’s life in New York: the quilt tucked into the narrow child’s bed rewrites the Albersian grid as mother-sewn Southern comfort; at the top the white pillow carries Twombly-like scribbles; paint, dripping and brushed on with de Kooningesque gesture, links the two realms. The bed is open enough to suggest entry; it is, as Rauschenberg once said, “one of the friendliest pictures” of his career. Open, in fact, is the key word for all Rauschenberg’s works of this time. The artist seems able to find interest in anything he encounters. Psychologically, he embraces his social origins and his current life. Formally, his work achieves an expansion of painting, both by the incorporation of domestic materials and by moving into 3D, while keeping a sense of surface intact.
An untitled tall altar-like construction of 1954, featuring a stuffed chicken and some man’s shoes along with paint, photographs, bits of cloth, and newspaper clippings, is perhaps the most dimensionally complex of this incorporative type of work. It combines a photograph of a vintage Southern dandy stepping out in a white suit, reflected Narcissus-like in a mirror-pool at his feet, with a deeply touching letter from Rauschenberg’s son Christopher hoping his daddy still loves him. Around the corner, the empty pair of white shoes and socks show that the dandy has moved on; photos of such subjects as a riding accident and a grounded parachute suggest the risks of flying high on one’s own, while the strutting chicken is both comical and pleasantly at home in its yard.
In succeeding years the surfaces of the Combines become less crammed full of material incident and they breathe more freely and quietly. As with the works done in ’54, these surfaces—thanks to the combination of faded fabrics, torn paper, dripped paint, and low value contrast and related hues, look old, like the stucco walls of Italian palaces, achieving the effect of a sealed-in continuity between past and present. This look is a counterpart to the references increasingly made, by means of art reproductions or the use of words, to classical topics like the rapes of Europa (in Small Rebus, 1955) and Ganymede (e.g. in 1959’s Canyon). Rauschenberg knows about Europe, he makes it clear, but his Antiquity is Texas. Old Europe, in fact, is part of his new world. The beautiful Hymnal of 1955 features a worn paisley fabric covering the whole canvas. At top center, a hole cut in the surface is occupied by Rauschenberg’s replacement for the Bible of his youth: the telephone directory.
A striking feature running throughout the Combine period is an interest in doubling: in Minutiae, for instance, one blue-striped yellow and red checkerboard oblong is matched by another just below it; in Monk, 1955, a little reproduction of a lake scene features reflected foliage while the bottom edge carries a row of frames from a Chaplin film, followed by the same images reversed. The highest development of this interest is in the celebrated pair of “identical” paintings, Factum I and II, famous both for mocking the idea of artistic uniqueness and for demonstrating that one can’t in fact make the same painting twice. Beyond these aesthetic issues, however (or, perhaps, including them) such image pairs evoke the sameness and difference of one person’s past and present, as well as those inherent in a relationship between two men—and in particular two painters—like that Rauschenberg shared with Johns at this time.
After 1958, Rauschenberg’s painting moved towards larger, clearer units and more conventional modes of abstraction. In the process, the Combines, to my eyes at least, came to lose concentration and to carry less power and conviction. By the 1960’s Summer Rental series he was combining such standard effects as AbEx brushwork and text elements, and trying to make up for a relative lack of steam in the work by throwing in such things as clocks, paired table fans, or assorted metal junk. At about the same time, however, exploration of a new medium—the solvent transfer of newspaper images to paper, combined with drawing and paint—was producing the deeply moving illustrations to Dante’s Inferno that would lead to new directions in Rauschenberg’s large-scale work. The Combines were the product of a specific time, when Rauschenberg matured as an artist by incorporating his past into a dynamic present. After this time, he was no longer a Southern boy finding his way in New York. By 1965, when he was the first non-European to win the Grand Prize of the Venice Biennale, he had turned into an international star as a representative of American art; he had become a famous man.
PAUL MATTICK'S book, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion, 2011) is based on articles written for the Rail.