Then and Now: Untitled (After Rauschenberg)

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus, 1955.


The retrospective “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends” that appeared earlier this year at Tate Modern, in London, and is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through September 17 led us to explore in the pages of ARTnews how Rauschenberg spread his collaborative fervor. We trace the observations of critics and artists over the years and note how his assemblages, which often include appropriated photographs, influenced a host of artists, among them Paul Ramírez Jonas, Ryan Trecartin, David Hammons, and Rachel Harrison. Our own retrospective begins with a review of Rauschenberg’s 1958 show at Castelli gallery by poet John Ashbery, who notes that the artist’s junk-covered canvases “look like walls in a house inhabited by very bad children.” In 1971, performance artist David Antin wrote about Rauschenberg’s E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), noting his “idea of using a human being as a power source and/or switch.”

March 1958

The junk that collects on New York City streets is used by Robert Rauschenberg to compose large canvases that sometimes look like walls in a house inhabited by very bad children. One painting in his latest show, at Castelli [March 3–22], The Bed, is a real bed whose quilt and pillow are caked with flung enamel, scribbled over with a pencil. Rebus is an enormous composition using a horizontal row of magazine photographs underlined by paint samples. It does not have the “Step along, please” feeling of a Schwitters collage; it is perfectly all right if you want to look at and chuckle over the tabloid elements: that is entirely up to you. You also have the artist’s permission to get nothing out of looking at his paintings other than the marginal pleasure of being alive. But it is nevertheless impossible not to enjoy them and respond to them.

—“Five shows out of the ordinary: Robert Rauschenberg,” by John Ashbery


Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955.


May 1963

In many Rauschenberg Combines, especially the big ones, between ’54 and ’60, the choices look as random as picking up whatever you might stumble over in a cluttered room. Anything became possible, and it becomes clear [. . .] that Rauschenberg is a pivotal figure in the latest freedom to use any environmental object in a paint-construction. [. . .] In his most recent work the artist has brought his images back to a black surface. And his love of photographs (for their matter-of-factness, their poetic and associative potential) is exploited in a new, more exclusive way, with the silk screen method. Barge is a mural size (30 foot) black and white work of great complexity and delicacy in the handling of diverse images. There are clouds, key, umbrella, truck, helicopter, action shots of a fireman, football players, a cage with parrots, an aerial view of a highway, seven levels of a construction job with works and more—all integrated on a massive scale; the images tilted, held straight, enlarged or reduced in size, black or white, clear or obscure depending on the placement or interference: a panoramic painting of “everything.”

—“Reviews and previews,” by Jill Johnston


Robert Rauschenberg, Barge, 1962–63. (Click to enlarge.)


September 1971

There is a sense in which all art is technological. For ultimately no matter what refinements of definition we employ, technology is nothing more nor less than the ability to get something from here to there. So we have always had art-and-technology. Stonehenge was art-and-technology, vase painting was art-and-technology, even oil painting and bronze sculpture were art-and-technology, of a sort. [. . .]

Consider what “Participating Artist” Rauschenberg has to say in this context: “It is an existing fact that the world is interdependent. The idea of art often tends to illustrate some solitary independent concern recognized as isolation. It celebrated most often a kind of withdrawal or self-concern; and it’s unrealistic.” [. . .]

The idea of using a human being as a power source and/or switch, which is about all that Rauschenberg is doing, is if considered seriously possibly humiliating. But the part of the art world from which Rauschenberg comes hardly considers anything seriously anymore. [. . .] The ideas are too potent and too equivocal in their consequences. In this context it is interesting to observe that interactive art is not inherently or necessarily technological.

—“Art and the Corporations,” by David Antin


February 1977

For Rauschenberg, the solitary creative act is a matter of stepping outside of himself—of allowing his consciousness to be suspended and diverted.

“I have various tricks for myself to actually reach that point of solitary creativity. One of them is pretending that I have an idea. But that trick doesn’t survive very long, because I don’t really trust ideas—especially good ones. Rather, I put my trust in my materials that confront me, because they put me in touch with the unknown. It’s then that I begin to work . . . when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and creativity. Sometimes Jack Daniels helps too.”

—“Robert Rauschenberg: An audience of one,” by John Gruen


Robert Rauschenberg, Pull (Hoarfrost Edition), 1974, collage including a diver image after a photograph by Morton Beebe.


January 1981

Rauschenberg had incorporated [Morton] Beebe’s photograph into a print named Pull. [ . . . ] Beebe was particularly upset by this unauthorized use of his copyrighted image because he knew that Rauschenberg was a leader in the artists’ rights movement who had devoted time and effort to bringing the needs of artists to the attention of legislators, the media and the public. [ . . . ] “Have used collage in my work since 1949,” Rauschenberg wrote, “I have never felt that I was infringing on one’s rights as I have consistently transformed these images sympathetically with the use of solvent transfer, collage and reversal as ingredients in the compositions which are dependent on reportage of current events and elements in our current environment, hopefully to give the work the possibility of being reconsidered and viewed in a totally new context.”

—“When Artists Use Photographs: Is it fair use, legitimate transformation or rip-off?” by Gay Morris


Sherrie Levine, After Claude Monet (detail), 1983.


May 1986

Since 1980, [Sherrie Levine] had produced nothing but exacting copies—what have come to be called appropriations—of famous examples of modern art. [ . . . ] And when she talked about the work she was doing, she made it clear that piracy, with its overtones of infringement and lack of authorization, was the point. Her appropriations were not to be perceived as some mousy homage. Nor was she putting herself through the cult-kook exercise in self-abnegation. By literally taking the pictures she did, and then showing them as hers, she wanted it understood that she was flatly questioning—no, flatly undermining—those most hallowed principles of art in the modern era: originality, intention, expression.

—“Art in the (Re)Making,” by Gerald Marzorati


March 1991

Titled Whose Ice Is Colder?, [David Hammons’s] installation pointed to problems of patronage and power in the African-American community. In the second part of the show, Hammons displayed a flat-tired bicycle with a tape player strapped to its seat. Jumbled black clothes are slung on a road sign running through the bike. It would be easy to let these artifacts deteriorate into pathos, but Hammons sharply avoids sentiment. The cassette blared jazz by John Coltrane with abandon, loading the piece with human presence. It is that very humanness that makes Hammons’ critique so unusual. Although he implicates the whole of our culture in problems of racism, greed, poverty, and neglect, Hammons also reminds us that this social fabric is made from individual threads of great beauty.

—“Reviews,” by Frances De Vuono


David Hammons, Whose Ice Is Colder?, 1990.


September 1999

Recently, [Rachel] Harrison created freestanding sculptures and wall works incorporating photographs, some of which were in “New Photography 14” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A haphazard effect is evident in Oil of Olay, consisting of a broken-down sculpture of wood, a container of water, and photos of an old man crossing a street. Here, the loping gait of the man echoes the lopsided shape of the wood construction. Jacob’s Arm, first shown at New York’s Andrea Rosen Gallery in 1997, is a column of white Styrofoam bricks adorned with a few unassuming photographs. “At the opening, a woman put her fancy shopping bag right next to it,” says Harrison with delight, “and I thought, ‘This is working—she doesn’t even know it’s art.’ ”

—“Garbage Fan,” by Sarah Schmerler


Rachel Harrison, Jacob’s Arm (detail), 1997.


December 2007

Is it a coincidence or a movement? Call it neo-deconstructivism, nonmonumentalism, the junk esthetic—or simply new realism. A rash of rough and unruly sculptures and installations has been infiltrating museums, galleries, and disused galleries worldwide. [ . . . ]

At New York’s Elizabeth Dee gallery, young artist Ryan Trecartin had a show last fall aptly, though enigmatically, titled “I-Be Area.” The multimedia enterprise captured many aspects of today’s deconstructive spirit. Videos of mock-horror dramas played in the gallery amid smashed-up furniture that was seen intact in the videos. Here life and art, fantasy and reality, violence and domesticity, high tech and no tech, clean and dirty, all came together in the form of a capsule.

—“Object Overruled,” by Barbara A. MacAdam


Summer 2008

My work is changing again, and I am rediscovering Rauschenberg once again. In my own practice I am thinking about the idealistic and ethical ambitions of his international collaborative pieces. I am sure that soon I will forget Rauschenberg one more time, only to reencounter him later as if for the first time. I don’t know why this is, but I suspect that some artists open up territory only to occupy it completely. In contrast, Rauschenberg opened up new territory and made room for others. As an artist, you say, “Thanks,” and then you step through and get to work, soon forgetting how you got there.

—Paul Ramírez Jonas in “Poet, Explorer, Innovator, Scavenger, Jester,” as told to Ann Landi


Paul Ramírez Jonas, The Commons, 2011, installation view.


Summer 2016

[Rauschenberg’s] Short Circuit was created for an exhibition in early 1955, which makes the flag painting in it not just the first flag painting [Jasper] Johns showed, but likely the first flag painting he made. The flag embedded in this Combine is one of the most important paintings in contemporary art history, and also one of the most valuable. It upends the commonly understood story of how Johns and Rauschenberg worked together and influenced each other, and of how Johns conceived his most significant work.

Or it would, if it were still there. Johns’s flag was stolen out of Short Circuit in 1965 and has never been recovered. Rauschenberg eventually replaced it with another painting, titled Johns Flag, a copy by his close friend and collaborator Elaine Sturtevant. [ . . . ]

Rauschenberg’s Combines are very much products of his life and surroundings at the time of their making. The early ones especially, and Short Circuit most definitely, are loaded with personal, autobiographical, and even private esoteric references, which critic Yve-Alain Bois derided as “semantic traps,” good for little more than “keeping art historians busy for generations to come.” And here we are.

“American Beauty,” by Greg Allen


A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 134 under the title “Untitled (After Rauschenberg).”

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