When we think of Robert Rauschenberg’s collaborators, we think of Jasper Johns, John Cage, Trisha Brown, and so on. What we don’t think of are his materials. “When an object you’re using does not stand out but yields its presence to what you’re doing, it collaborates, so to speak—it implies a kind of harmony,” Rauschenberg told ARTnews more than 50 years ago. He controlled his objects, but his objects also controlled him. There was a symbiosis between the artist and his work, and his current Museum of Modern Art show, “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” attests to that.
With that show in mind, reprinted here is “Robert Rauschenberg Paints a Picture,” from the April 1963 issue of ARTnews. In it, Gene R. Swenson (here writing under the byline G. R. Swenson) follows Rauschenberg as he creates—and, at times, partially destroys—a painting titled Crocus (1962). The process is tumultuous, spontaneous, and, for Swenson, endearingly difficult. The article follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“Rauschenberg paints a picture”
By G. R. Swenson
Robert Rauschenberg is usually identified with the second generation of New York School painters, but if he is too sympathetic in general to New American painters to be excluded from the group, he is too different to exemplify their aims and too original to represent a legatee. Many of his critics and even some of his followers seem to have misunderstood his work, by overemphasis on either its similarities to, or differences from, Abstract-Expressionism. Rauschenberg’s works cannot be forced to fit theories; his art is not didactic; it presents, simply and gracefully, a point of view.
He had his first one-man show in New York in 1951 while he was still a student at the Art Students League. The paintings were white canvases with what one critic called a “wispy calligraphy.” These followed a notorious series of white unpainted canvases (“that was something I wanted to see”) and all-black pictures in which the paint was applied over a surface of torn newspapers. None were sold; very few of the black and white paintings still exist. Nor do the boxes and objects that were shown in Florence in 1953; an Italian reviewer suggested that the artist throw them in the river—and Rauschenberg took his advice. In his next group of paintings he experimented with red. “White began to connote some form purity, which it had never meant to me, and black some negative way of dealing with painting. I picked what was the most difficult color for me at that time to work with—the one I considered for me the most aggressive.” He began to use a wider variety of objects in his collages. In 1955 he painted the controversial Bed which was censored out of the Spoleto Festival. “I didn’t have any money to buy canvas, and I wanted to paint. I was looking around for something to paint on. I wasn’t using the quilt, so I put it on a stretcher. It looked stranger without a pillow, so I added the pillow. It wasn’t a preconceived idea.” He began to use more and more objects; and he named his works “combine-paintings.”
In 1959 he used three radios in a painting called Broadcast. I asked him how this had come about.
“The previous summer I had been involved in a theater project which would have used them as part of the costumes; it didn’t materialize, but I kept thinking about the effects of using radios. In Broadcast I was interested, academically, in the relation sound would have to looking.”
He had set out to use radios in one project, then abandoned them and later took them up, making different use of them, in another project. There had been an interplay of ideas over time; perhaps it was a partial clue to his method of painting pictures. His answer to a further question on the development of Broadcast presented a more concrete example of the unpretentious and and often unconscious dialectic he carries on with objects, words and ideas.
“I assumed that, because the picture would have a voice, it would have to be bright and loud.” At first he used large letters and strongly contrasting colors, but when he finally inserted and used the radios he found that the whole painting flattened, “like a poster,” and that “loud” lost its double meaning. Something visually loud and empathetic, “which you could see from across the room,” had an opposite effect with regard to noise. “The painting went dead. All of the boldness looked superficial; it implied merely static strength. I realized that the details should not be taken in at one glance, that you should be able to look from place to place without feeling the bigger image. I had to make a surface which invited a constant change of focus and an examination of detail. Listening happens in time. Looking also had to happen in time.”
Ace is a recent painting (early 1962) which uses very few materials of an assemblage character. Its interplay is between antithetical elements—large objects extending outward from the canvas in one case and a very few objects on the surface of the canvas in the other. We shall see this process lead Rauschenberg first away from, and ultimately back to, pictures with very flat surfaces. We shall follow him as he works simultaneously on a large five-piece sculpture and a small combine-painting; the first is still not finished and the second is finished, but not very successful. Crocus, the climactic painting toward which this essay moves, developed quickly and was finished with ease, but it would be misleading to see it as an isolated event. (Rauschenberg has said of Crocus that “it began with Ace.”)
When I first met him, in January 1962, Robert Rauschenberg had just returned from an electronics laboratory in New Jersey. In his studio stood five large, tall white canvas panels, leaning against the longest wall of his newly painted white loft. He had been making arrangements at the laboratory for a system of radio loud speakers, one to go behind each panel, which would operate by remote control from a central cabinet. But the five panels which he had intended to use in the radio project were instead used for the quiet and majestic Ace, finished a few weeks later.
There had been several large metal objects in the corner of his studio the day he returned from the electronics laboratory. They began to occupy more and more of his interest, and over a period of time they were moved to his central working area. There were five pieces and he planned to put a radio into each of them; he also played with the idea of using running water, and eventually one of the pieces of the “concert project” became a fountain.
One of the pieces for that project was a car door. The stages of response which changes in and around the door gradually evoked led to a better understanding of one aspect of Rauschenberg’s work—the way he “transforms” objects. He does not use them as pure form and color, destroying our sense of origin—which is what is usually meant by “transformation.” Rather he seeks to retain or reinstate some quality the object possessed in the original environment. The door of a car is not noticeably distinguished from the frame of the car; it is seldom noticed, even when we use it. If we were to encounter such an object alone on the street, however, we would probably begin to notice the form of the door itself. When we see such an object in an artist’s studio, we see a mere form with overtones of an automobile. Such a transformation had already taken place when I first saw the car door. What surprised me most was the way it gradually lost its quality of being a “transformed” object. It was re-integrated into a situation—given an environment in which it was both in place, as originally, and yet not smothered as pure form. Between the first time I saw it and the last, it had acquired literacy and an ability to communicate. I once mentioned that his objects often assert themselves so strongly that only time can integrate them for me. He said, “I don’t like to take advantage of an object that can’t defend itself.”
“When an object you’re using does not stand out but yields its presence to what you’re doing, it collaborates, so to speak—it implies a kind of harmony.” The object blends indistinguishably into the pure colors and forms of the painting. “It ceases to be a simple tonality, but is part of a harmony in which no note can really be heard because the over-all vibrations are so unified. I like the idea of one sound but I really don’t like that it is none of its components.” He would not achieve a large harmonic structure at the expense of its components. “I would like my pictures to be able to be taken apart as easily as they’re put together—so you can recognize an object when you’re looking at it. Oil paint really does look like oil paint even in the most photographic painting.”
Several months after he finished Ace and started to work on the “concert” project, he began the piece whose progress was to be photographed and reported. Rauschenberg intended to do a small and simple combine-painting; the initial focus for the painting was a small wooden door. During the following months he worked intermittently on both this piece and the concert-radio project. His alternations reflected in part difficulties arising form being observed as well as from felt responsibilities not connected with the work itself. “I became too interested in the radio piece. The only honest thing to do was let that be the object if attention. Then I became embarrassed because it was taking shape so slowly and I was holding up the article. I decided to abandon the sculpture and only focus on the combine. I did, but paid for it by not working well.”
His initial intention in the combine was to develop a visual situation which would call attention to the relationship between “inside” and “outside”—although intentions, he added, frequently get lost and a painting takes on an interest and character of its own.
He made one sketch, after the work had already begun to materialize. At this stage the combine-painting consisted of a board hung on a wall with extensions on either side at the top, a mirror attached in the lower left quarter and four projecting boards around the mirror which formed an open box. The sketch was a crude diagrammatic reduction of what he had done so far—a doodle as much as anything else.
“I only sketch if there is some mechanical problem. If I go to put five or six objects together that are different sizes, I record the measurements and see what general shape that thing will take—but I don’t think I’ve ever executed them as I’ve drawn them. Whatever sketching is about, it is never about the esthetics of the work, only the physical difficulties.”
Hanging on his wall beside several paintings were several sketches. All the sketches—which, like the paintings, were by other artists—aim at solutions to mechanical problems: how to construct an unusually shaped canvas (Frank Stella), for example, or how to connect one object to another (Jean Tinguely). One sketch consists of multiplied, added and divided numbers—calculations of proportions and sizes for an image in a painting (Jasper Johns’ first alphabet painting).
They hang in the alcove of the studio-loft, which is in an old building on Broadway, south of Fourteenth Street. An old freight elevator takes you to the top floor; it opens into a dazzling white room, unusually large and long. The room seems longer and whiter for its bareness; only at the side in two alcoves are there for a few chairs, a desk and some kitchen facilities.
Rauschenberg himself moves about the room at once awkwardly and deliberately, like an actor; his constant movements seem natural, not nervous—the necessary result of making orange juice or coffee, finding a photograph, answering the phone.
Work on the small “simple” combine progressed slowly and painfully through the spring and summer months. For weeks nothing would seem to change; then, in a few days, the area facing the mirror would be repainted and objects would be added or removed or replaced.
Rauschenberg fussed over the details, such as the painting inside the box, for the first version of the work; it was painted on the wall of the box opposite the mirror. “It’s a picture you can’t imagine—its being enclosed, the double depth of its reflection, which is all you see. It is impossible to imagine the reverse image. I thought the larger areas, reflected, would look even stronger but it’s really the nuances that seem to support the interest and give it a real ‘inside’ look.”
Once, early in the summer, standing in front of the combine, he said, “It looks like a box attached to the painting—too Joseph Cornell. The box ought to look as if it had to be there.” A detail might lead him to an over-all re-examination of the piece and a change in his center of interest. “Up there the mirror image is conventional—just your head and shoulders.” He took the piece off the wall and put it on the floor. “Yes, kneeling, we see a more complicated image of ourselves.” Several weeks later a hole was cut in the mirror and a rusty tin can hung in that space, which had contained the viewer’s reflection. On the floor, the bulk of the box looked “as if it had to be there” to support the construction; the combine-painting had become, in effect, a piece of sculpture.
Two commissions also occupied him during the spring and summer of 1962. The first was a portrait (of Mrs. Robert C. Scull) which he did in the general style of his well known series of Dante drawings; he transferred photographs and magazine illustrations to his drawing paper by coating them with turpentine and then rubbing the reverse side with pencils. The other was a commission by a large hotel firm for a lithograph; he had not worked in this medium before and had to solve a number of technical problems. He did several other drawings and finished a number of lithographs during the summer, including one collaboration with James Dine and Jean Tinguely. These were, in fact, the only works he had began and finished during the late spring and early summer.
His major concern, nevertheless, during this period was with unconventional painter’s materials (such as doors and mirrors) and fully three-dimensional objects—very little with paint or color. By mid-summer he had finished neither the small combine nor the concert-radio project, although he had made a commitment to go to Amsterdam in August to construct one of the rooms or “environments” in the exhibition Dylaby (Dynamic Laboratory) at the Stedelijk Museum. A little over a week before he was to leave, he called and said that the combine-painting had been finished. A few days earlier, he said, he had tried to put an upside-down wooden chair back on the top edge of the piece. “I hated it. I can make a real mess. You can be satisfied with something because you’ve seen how awful it can be.”
He called it Novice. “I couldn’t have finished it without knowing what if was about.” The name had, he thought at the time, finally pulled things together for him. A few days later when I saw the piece again he had added a crumpled aluminum chair frame to the same top edge, and made some additional changes. I received a call from a friend of his who had seen him off at the airport. Rauschenberg had decided to destroy the piece.
While in Amsterdam he made four sculptures (one with running water and sound) and a painting. “I was forced to begin and finish the project in a short time. What I did was certainly tied to not being able to finish the concert-radio project, which had just started at the time to go so well. The whole experience in Amsterdam was concentrated, rich and Baroque; and it dealt, as I have had been doing in the concert project, with materials.” The trip proved to be the end of a difficult and relatively unproductive year.
Rauschenberg has a reputation for being an iconoclast. This is implied when his work is termed “Neo-Dada.” To many, however, his work has never seemed “shocking.” Rauschenberg’s own attitude is quite simple. “People and taste have to change, and people change their minds about what shocks them. That’s why I don’t consider shock as a possible ingredient in art.”
In an interview published in the Paris newspaper Arts in May 1961, he said in response to the interviewer’s question that he thought the presidencies of the United States and of General Motors were good jobs and that if they were offered to hi he would consider them seriously. “They are one means of expression,” he said. The interview was luridly headlined, “Un ‘misfit’ de la peinture new-yorkaise se confesse.“
Rauschenberg’s view of the artist’s role seems to be: Painting is what I do, it is my job. He once said to me, “If I thought I could do anything better I would be doing it.” A fuller expression of his attitude came out in a discussion of Action Painting.
“Painters showed that making a painting wasn’t a logical process of will gradually moving toward an ideal conclusion. An artist throws his arms around and is many times fairly uncomfortable; and he is forced to admit that he tries many things which he isn’t sure he can do. I think that’s always been the case before in art—artists crawling around on scaffolding or grinding—their own pigments or accepting commissions that interrupt their immediate concerns.
“It is physical, the whole activity; you don’t begin with some divine image and end up with some divine image—to say you do is part of the popular illusion built around art. When you finish a picture and people like it they say, ‘It’s just perfect,’ or, ‘It couldn’t be any different,’ or, ‘That’s the way a real artist sees it.’ I think that’s a lot of bull because it could, it obviously could, be some other way. By the time it starts drying, it doesn’t look the same as when it’s still wet. That’s one reason I made four versions of Summer Rental; all four are made up of exactly the same ingredients except for a small amount of paint I used at the end to finish them.”
Rauschenberg’s candid attitude toward painting came to mind when Erwin Panofsky gave this capsule philological lesson in a recent lecture: at one time only God “created”; later certain painters of genius were said to have the ability to create; today even Helena Rubinstein brings you her newest creation almost daily. Rauschenberg prefers to think of the painter straightforwardly as one who makes pictures.
I did not see Rauschenberg immediately after his return from Amsterdam. He had not, after all, destroyed Novice; I first saw the finished piece at his gallery, Castelli, with its title gone as well as its top and part of its side. It gave the over-all impression of a musical chord, “in which no note can really be heard”; visually it seemed too tightly organized and, like the final painting inside the box, overworked. Even the over-all impression was unpleasant; the wheels and the piece jutting out at the side were awkward. The box itself lacked grace. Rauschenberg, in his discussion of Action Painting, had also said that an artist has to admit that he does not have a positive form of dealing with pictures; his aim is beauty, but he always wonders, by whose standards? “If I do something to a picture and then think it’s awful, I’d better give it a second thought. It may be best there. Standards change from yesterday to today because people change.” An artist takes risks with his standards because, if he didn’t, they might become stagnant; but the box at the Castelli gallery was a risk which, in my opinion, did not pay off—although I am glad Rauschenberg did not destroy it.
On first seeing him after his return, I asked him why he had decided, before he left, to abandon the combine. He said, “I kept trying to come to terms with it and I finished it as well as I could—did everything I could think of to it. Then I saw that it was up to me to take them apart. I didn’t want to just throw it away as it then was.” Recalling his initial interest between “inside” and “outside”—and possibly the topsy-turvy career of the combine—he finally decided to call it Inside-Out.
He had just then returned from the electronics laboratory in New Jersey where he had been making some further inquiries for the possible use of radios in his concert-radio sculpture. That project, however, seemed dormant; the pieces had once again been put in a corner of the studio. There in his central working area stood five or six middle-sized canvases, including the one called Crocus they were leaning against the long wall of his studio. It was the beginning of a new and major series of silk-screened images. Crocus is one of the best of the series. (It was named as it was because of the white X emerges from a grey area in a rather dark painting, “like a new season.”) As Rauschenberg explained, Crocus “began with Ace, a desire to use very few materials of an unorthodox nature and simply to use paints. The present work also grew out of curiosity—could I deal with images in an oil painting as I had dealt with them in the transfer drawings and the lithographs? I had been working so extensively on sculpture that I was ready to try substituting the image—by means of photographic silk-screen—for objects.”
The use of silk-screens permits certain variations in scale and also makes possible a different use of color and of white. Very often in the past few years he has used white to curb an unwanted sharpness of hue. With the transfer drawings, he used pastel coloring in a new and unforeseen manner. (“It was not a matter of choice but the result of the technique.”) The present works have none of the chest-thumping quality of much of the black and white painting of the ‘fifties; they aim, rather, as Kline did in some of his later pictures, at a subtlety and nuance of color. Such nuances are produced in pictures like Crocus in part by the chiaroscuro variations possible with silk-screening.
Rauschenberg has brought together the spaces which the images occupy with great subtlety: the army truck emerging from a solid dark area like a phantom, the wiry mosquitoes in a formally unsubstantial and varying area (its relative whiteness contrasting with the solid painted areas of the white X above), Velazquez’ Venus in a constructed and painted space (with the Cupid of that painting repeated with a different light intensity in the lower right corner), and a fragment of a newspaper photograph with a circled football (the static circle imposed on the photograph contrasting with the image of the football suspended in mid-flight). It is a deceptively relaxed composition, comparable, perhaps, to the “random” spatial arrangements of Degas. The white X with its dripping edges indicates that it is a painting also interested in the interplay between pure paint and abstract forms, and silk-screened paint and the images which result from that process.
“I don’t think,” Rauschenberg has said, “that you should slop around with painting and emote. Painting used to be for painters to brag about how they thought the world ought to be—openly brag about it; but that’s not the way I want to use it.” His paintings are, as one critic has said, “particular rather than archetypical . . . autobiographical.” Rauschenberg himself has said that he thinks of paintings “as reporting, as a vehicle that will report what you did and what happened to you.” In his art Rauschenberg reports the present state of what he sees, his present attitude toward painting, his point of view.