Rauschenberg: The Art of Collaboration, Construction and Performance

Rauschenberg was and has been associated with neo-dada in the 50s and the 60s, in large part because he sets out to annihilate the oedipal “father” –by denying the authenticity of the artist, he seems to be saying, he is denying the legacy of abstract expressionism.  In less psychoanalytic terms, Robert Rauschenberg is usually thought of as: Of the artists who emerge in the 1950s, Rauschenberg's similarities to the work of John Cage have to do with the ways he calls into question the distinctions between reality and realism and between representation and the actual, and through his inclusive orientation to the environment.  If Cage seemed to be annihilating the composer as the author of what we listen to in a concert, then it may be that Rauschenberg annihilates the idea of the artist or person as having a fixed and invariable core. Without that core, the self must reinvent itself in response to the environment.  This idea of continual reinvention of the self leads in the same direction as Cage's chance compositions lead: but it is more complex than simply calling it openness to the environment, than calling the artist the nexus of environmental events. It is an attitude toward art which centralizes contingency, or the role of chance and unexpected events, without the abandonment of control. Pollock sought the representation of the unconscious, which was the meaning of his statement that he paints out of the unconscious. Rauschenberg constructed chance, making chance into an actuality in his art.  It might be equally possible to say that he constructed contingency, in large part through the centralization of the actively engaged spectator.

Early work:

Rauschenberg and Susan Weil: untitled, 1950  (exposed blueprint paper, more than 6' in length)  Rauschenberg: White Painting (4 panels), 1951 Rauschenberg: untitled (glossy, 4-paneled black painting), ca 1951

Red paintings

In the mid-50s, Rauschenberg makes a series of paintings which are often referred to as the red paintings. For the most part, the red period consists of works which are somewhat chaotic assemblages of fabrics, objects, pieces of newspapers, things that might be found in a kitchen drawer, and in one or two cases, such as Charlene, a photograph placed at or near the center–a face which seems to become a guardian spirit or icon.  The materials remain difficult to read during this period, but the obfuscation of the surface and identity of the objects decreases rather quickly.
Charlene, 1953-4  (4 panels, multiple materials, 7'5 x 9'4) Collection, 1954

As he increasingly reveals more of the substances and materials incorporated in the surface of the painting, the work seems less like paintings and more like a combination of painting and assemblage.  In Charlene  and Collection, the elements increasingly maintain their identity not only as material substances but as subject matter: autobiography, references to art history and references to other media.  The "combines" take this assertion of identity much further.

Rauschenberg's combine-paintings

Monogram, 1955-9 The Bed, 1955

Rauschenberg worked on Monogram for four years, trying to find the right placement for the goat (given to him by a friend).  Eventually, he arrives at the arrangement of making the painting into an environment for the goat, which means that the space of the painting is forced to accommodate the goat as a 3-dimensional reality.  Rauschenberg said that his goal was to make a picture out of the real world, rather than to make the picture look like the real world, to capture reality as a collage of details which maintains the identity of the original objects and materials.  Monogram would appear to be a major step in that direction.

The Bed falls in the same period as Monogram although he completed it much more quickly.  Interpretations of the Bed have been influenced by sociocultural changes and expectations of art, and associations with the idea and image of the bed:

Several elements of the bed act to suggest a relationship to Rauschenberg's body.  His early blueprints of the body revealed an interest in the full-length portrait format.  Although his blueprint exposures were made with a prone figure, he exhibited them vertically.  This interest remains in his work long after he made the Bed: in 1967, Booster  continues this interest in the full-length body imprint, although Booster, made of x-rays, rather than a blueprint exposure, reveals the interior of the body.
Rauschenberg and Weil, untitled (Sue), 1950  Rauschenberg: Booster, 1966-7 Cy Twombly: School of Athens, 1961

The quilt in the bed may be a double reference: to Josef Albers' paintings of squares and to his own mother who made much of his clothing when he was younger.  The stains on the pillow appear to be a reference to the work of Cy Twombly, an artist who occasionally worked in Rauschenberg's studio and whose work Rauschenberg described as an accumulation of "erotic paint."
The image of a bed itself has associations with domesticity, with women, with the site of birth; this bed has associations with violence as well.  Any bed, of course, has the potential to evoke multiple messages, just as this one does.  Since so many of those meanings have to do with passages or transformations of some sort, it is tempting to see Rauschenberg's Bed as marking the site of his own transformation: a new passage from one stage of his life in his art making to another and one stage of his awareness and acknowledgment of his sexual identity to another.

"Flat" combines

Dante's Inferno (1958-60) (solvent transfer on paper with pencil, gouache, and watercolor)
Canto XXXI: The Central Pit of Malebolge, the Giants Canto XXXIV: Circle Nine, Cocytus, Compound Fraud: Round 4, Judecca, Treacherous to their Masters

He began to work with transfer techniques in the fifties, using them to take real images and incorporate them in his work.  From the first, he chose to leave signs of the process in his work, preferring the look of the handmade to the finished and refined look of printing.  Yet these are combines, although they remain in the realm of the two-dimensional: collaged works in which the separation of media is not visible.  Shortly after he began to use transfer techniques, he added silkscreening as a means of enlarging scale and reusing images. Barge, a work which is one canvas, 32 feet in length, might be seen as almost an index or lexicon of his vocabulary.  Water towers refer to the urban environment, athletes of various types can be found, indications of space exploration, and allusions to art history–the elements in this monumental painting had either appeared already in his combines or will appear in his silkscreens, stage sets, and technological pieces.

Barge, 1962-3 (oil and silkscreened ink on canvas, 6'7 x 32'2)

Whereas Barge and Dante's Inferno are monochromatic, his next ventures into silkscreened works used color.  These works are noted for their recurring imagery which is a combination of his own drawings and found images, and the large scale.  He uses images from newspaper archives, and popular images from the media, leading many critics to associate him with pop art.  In fact, he is a precedent for pop, but he departs from pop in a significant way: he does not favor the cool, detached look that is the preferred mode of most pop artists.  Instead, he continues to favor the appearance of mistakes and irregularities.

Retroactive I, 1964 Skyway, 1964

Technological Combines: Rauschenberg and E.A.T.

(EAT: Experiments in Art and Technology)

Implicit in his stage designs for Merce Cunningham, lighting design for Paul Taylor's dance theater, and his own involvement on stage in performances and dance was his search for the creation of an art form which would be, in his words, “truly concrete”–the painting, he said, was an elusive work of art by which he seems to mean that the painting, although its materials make it concrete, is open-ended in terms of the interaction it has with the viewer.  Dance, in contrast, required an immediate and fluid interaction between the performer and the audience and was therefore a truly concrete work of art.

In addition to performance and collaboration, another ongoing interest for Rauschenberg was technology.  His extensive work using technology has not been as well known as the rest of his work largely because of the problems related to display and maintenance, on one hand, and the fact that much of the technology used in the earlier works is outmoded today and simply can’t be maintained.  But we can trace this interest of his back to the early fifties, with the use of electric light in combines such as Charlene and the use of three hidden radios in a work called Broadcast (1959).  Another early and elementary use of technology appeared in his time paintings which incorporated clocks that documented the time spent making the piece.  By 1962 Rauschenberg had begun collaborating with Billy Kluver, a research scientist at Bell Laboratories; together they formed E.A.T.: Experiments in Art and Technology–a group of artists and scientists who came together regularly for the purpose of uniting technological concepts with art.  For the remainder of the sixties, he used motion, light and sound in an attempt to created total environments.  In Soundings (1968), sounds made by viewers activated hidden lighting which then illuminated the images of chairs mirrored behind layers of plexiglass.  In Solstice, of the same year, the silkscreened sliding doors, on a lit platform, create changing images in what is essentially a transparent room.  Rauschenberg continues to work with varied forms of technology today, creating both interactive and non-interactive works.

EAT: Soundings, 1968  (part of a 38-foot-long work) EAT: Solstice, 1968

Ultimately, Rauschenberg's art, despite the fact that it does not demand the presence of actors or performer, is an art of performance and of allegory because of its centralization of the following characteristics:

Rauschenberg, Johns, Cage and Merce Cunningham, all associates in the early 1950s and part of the 60s, despite what seem, in the end, to be very individualized concerns, do share an openness and receptiveness to the external world that, with the exception of dadaism in the first half of the 20th century, probably had no parallel.  And for all their differences with abstract expressionism, in the end they have not rejected it so much as they have redefined it.