NEW YORK—With a survey of Robert Rauschenberg’s revolutionary “combines”—the term he gave to his hybrid paintings and sculptures—on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (through April 2), the art world has been reiterating the Jasper Johns observation that Rauschenberg is the artist who has invented the most since Pablo Picasso.
With the combines’ incorporation of everything from stuffed goats and rubber tires, neckties and parachutes, tennis balls, zippers and shirtsleeves, Rauschenberg (b. 1925) transformed Picasso’s 1912 invention of collage. From 1954-64 Rauschenberg created the avant-garde canvases constructed from found objects and images that project the media integration and kinetic sensibility now typically associated with MTV.
When the combines were first shown, they were “very inexpensive,” says Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery, New York. “There was a preoccupation with whether they were durable and a reluctance in accepting them aesthetically.”
But today they are nearly impossible to acquire. Comments Douglas Baxter, president of the PaceWildenstein gallery, which represents the artist: “People realize how important these works have been. Many are in museum collections already, and many of those that are in private collections are destined to go to museums.”
More than half the works included in the Met exhibition are owned by institutions that include: the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (which organized the show); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Whitney Museum of American Art, Manhattan; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Other works are in the private collections of Johns, Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum, Michael and Judy Ovitz, Bagley and Virginia Wright, and Stefan Edlis, among others.
Gallerist Ileana Sonnabend, who was formerly married to Rauschenberg’s late dealer Leo Castelli, owns six major combines in the exhibition, including Canyon, 1959, a work that features a stuffed bald eagle swooping above a pillow dangling from the edge of the canvas by a string. “People know she doesn’t want to sell,” says Homem.
Two high-profile private sales in the past year demonstrate how desirable Rauschenberg’s works—particularly the early combines—have become. MoMA paid about $35 million—the highest price known to have been paid for a work by the artist—last June to acquire Rebus, 1955, which juxtaposes comic strips, a 20th-century Cy Twombly drawing and a reproduction of Birth of Venus, by [Sandro] Botticelli (circa 1445-1510), among other images.
MoMA bought Rebus from French billionaire and Christie’s owner François Pinault, who had privately purchased it from British advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi had acquired the painting for $7.2 million at Sotheby’s in 1991. The painting was first sold at auction in 1988, along with other works from the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz—they bought Rebus from the artist in 1968—when Sotheby’s sold it for $6.3 million.
Recently the Met acquired Rauschenberg’s 1959 Winter Pool—two paintings conjoined by a standing ladder—for about $15 million from entertainment mogul David Geffen. The purchase was made with hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen, who has promised his 50 percent ownership to the museum. The work, also once owned by the Ganzes, had fetched $3.74 million at Sotheby’s in 1988.
While some combines easily garner eight-figure prices today, Baxter says, “ten years ago it was another story. There is a painting in the show that was bought for under a million dollars and is now worth millions.” He adds: “There is a small work in the show we couldn’t sell 15 years ago for $150,000 that is now worth a couple of million.”
Major combines rarely come up for auction. The $7.2 million Saatchi paid for Rebus in 1991 is still the record at auction for a work by the artist. Three years ago Sotheby’s tried but failed to auction Minutiae, 1954, a free-standing combine, conceived as a stage piece for a Merce Cunningham ballet, that was estimated to sell for $6/8 million. It is now owned by an anonymous private collector in Switzerland and is the opening work in the current survey.
Baxter says the Met exhibition is increasing demand across the board for Rauschenberg, whose new works range in price from $100,000 for unique works on paper to $1 million for a large painting.