PRINT December 1974

Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image

HER REACTION SEVERAL YEARS AGO to the essay by Leo Steinberg had been, “Well, I know he may be right in several respects . . . but Rauschenberg?!” In her question, italics included, was the unspoken comparison between the course of Steinberg’s argument and the kind of misdirected zeal that led Baudelaire to present, as the exemplar of a painter who could capture the “heroism of modern life,” Constantin Guys. For Steinberg had been addressing what he saw as a radical change in the esthetic premises of contemporary art, a change that he called a “shift from nature to culture.” Focusing on the kind of orientation that a picture declares itself to have to the upright body of the man who views it, Steinberg had been pointing to something that had occurred in the art of the late 1950s and early 1960s, something that was most conspicuous and thorough-going in the art of Robert Rauschenberg.1

If pictures before that time, including abstract pictures, had conspired with the viewer’s vertical posture, opening up a space, no matter how transformed, that was an extension of his own visual field, and therefore of nature as he experienced it, the work of Rauschenberg countered this conventional orientation with something else. “These pictures,” Steinberg wrote, “no longer simulate vertical fields but opaque flatbed horizontals,” a condition that he went on to compare with table tops, studio floors, or “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion.” And, he asserted, this change in direction had made available to contemporary art an entirely new range of content.

The response of my colleague had not been to whether Steinberg’s appraisal of a certain situation was accurate or not, but to her sense that a change of major esthetic consequence must be proffered in the form of masterpieces, something which, in her eyes, Rauschenberg had not produced. I think of that now, in relation to Jasper Johns’ remark that Rauschenberg was the man who in this century had invented the most since Picasso.2

The tension between those two positions, between a sense of art’s relationship to invention and its status as embedded in the notion of the Masterpiece is a tension which is not merely circumstantially related to Rauschenberg’s work. For part of what informs the stance of that work, as it has come to seem familiar over the last 20 years, part of what is urged by its layered clutter and disarray, is, surely, that the masterpiece as conventionally conceived is a concept which is itself deeply compromised.

Rauschenberg’s art developed at precisely the same time that saw the rise of single-image painting as the dominant pictorial mode in this country. Grounded in the work of Jasper Johns and then in that of Frank Stella, the single-image identified itself so completely with the support which bore it that it took on the holistic nature of that support. It was assimilated into the mode of perception by which objects in the world are recognized as unitary, unbroken Gestalts. Rauschenberg himself had produced a pictorial object of this kind. In 1955, the same year that Johns made his first Flag, Rauschenberg created Bed, a work in which the richness of internal textural divisions and the blatant shifts in attack from one part of the work to another were completely absorbed—rendered nugatory—by the singleness of the work’s presence as an object. But in Rauschenberg’s career, Bed is a more or less isolated instance. In the face of the ascendancy of single-image art, Rauschenberg ran his own work, no matter what the medium, whether painting, printmaking, sculpture or performance, through the channel of collage. It was, as we shall see, a form of collage that was largely reinvented, such that in Rauschenberg’s hands the meaning and function of the collage elements bore little relation to their earlier use in the work of Schwitters or the Cubists. But it was collage nonetheless. And in so being, it forced on the viewer of Rauschenberg’s work an undeniable experience of syntax.

In the particular way that Rauschenberg enforced a part-by-part, image-by-image reading of his work, he guaranteed that the experience of it would share with language some of its character of discourse. The encounter with one image after another would, that is, demand an attention to a kind of temporal unfolding that was like that of hearing or reading a sentence. And though the syntactic connections between Rauschenberg’s images never presupposed the grammatical logic of a known language, they implied that the modality of discursiveness was one aspect of the artist’s medium. What Rauschenberg was insisting upon was a model for art that was not involved with what might be called the cognitive moment (as in single-image painting) but instead was tied to the durée—to the kind of extended temporality that is involved in experiences like memory, reflection, narration, proposition. In lodging his art there—within the durée—Rauschenberg went on, year after year, in good work and bad, infusing what he made with a certain stance about the function of art, a stance which at the present time has a special relevance and urgency.

Concern about the function of art, in those who deal with art at all, has largely been left to writers whose thinking has been shaped by Marxism. And whether we are talking about Walter Benjamin, Christopher Caudwell,3 or Jean-Paul Sartre, shared observations can be found in this literature about the relationship of modern art, as it developed in the 19th century, to consumer capitalism. This argument, briefly and unfortunately crudely summarized, runs as follows. The social structure imposed by advanced industrial capitalism acts to transform the relationship between men and men into the kind of proprietary transaction that obtains between men and things. Wage labor enters what is called “the labor market” and is bought and sold like so many objects. Or, in the phrase “goods and services,” there is an equation between both those terms which assumes that they are simply two brands of commodity. To this deformation of human relationships Marxism gives the name “commodity-fetishism.” And in describing the way this insinuates itself into the art of the 19th century, Benjamin speaks of the graphic fantasies of Grandville as having “transmitted commodity-character onto the universe. They modernized it. The ring of Saturn became a cast-iron balcony, upon which the inhabitants of Saturn take the air of an evening.”4

Relatedly, a preoccupation with fashion signals the way in which each individual within bourgeois society comes to view himself as a species of packaging: as a commodity-fetish.

Fashion prescribed the ritual by which the fetish Commodity wished to be worshipped, and Grandville extended the sway of fashion over the objects of daily use as much as over the cosmos. In pursuing it to its extremes, he revealed its nature. It stands in opposition to the organic. It prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world. In relation to the living it represents the rights of the corpse. Fetishism, which succumbs to the sex-appeal of the inorganic, is its vital nerve; and the cult of the commodity recruits this to its service.5

But Grandville is, of course, a kind of sidelight within the history of 19th-century art, the major event of which was the doctrine of l’art pour l’art.The Marxist assessment of estheticism or formalism is that it represents the artist exercising the bourgeois illusion of freedom, by an attempt to withdraw his art from the meretriciousness of commercial values.6 But in this attempt the artist is seen as “succumbing to the form of commodity-fetishism appropriate to his kind,”7 namely, the creation of the work as Object and the alliance of its function with that of the commodity: with that of something whose meaning is appropriately grasped in the process of acquisition, or collection. This view, which is harsh and unresponsive to the specific aims of various artists within the late 19th century, does seem increasingly applicable to certain forms of contemporary modernism. But if it is a view that is intensely critical of formalism, consciousness of that criticism is nowhere to be found in the belief that modernist art is most appropriately related to private collecting, a belief which William Rubin recently rehearsed in these pages. “The ideal place,” he said,

—even for a big Pollock—is in a private home. I think that’s what most modern painting, given its character, really wants. To me, museums are essentially compromises. They are neither like a really public place, nor are they private—like an apartment.8

Now if the analysis just summarized defines a situation which obtains rather markedly for certain works of modern art, it is because in these works esthetic content is tied to the function of the commodity; it is as if they are about the act of delectation and possession and nothing more. However, the stance of the early Abstract Expressionists was clearly a first wave in an attempt to renounce this function.9 And the second wave of this attempt is to be found in the work of Rauschenberg and Johns.

In the form that they introduced it and in which it has come to permeate the art of the generation(s) that followed them, this reversal in the function of art produced within bourgeois society depended on the capacity of the work of art to operate as Idea. That is, insofar as the work’s content was primarily directed toward a reorientation in thinking, insofar as its energies would have to be seen (on whatever level) as in some sense theoretical, the object’s relationship to its audience was that of a form of address. In the simplest sense, one could say that the experience of a Johns Target or Flag has everything to do with understanding it, “getting it,” seeing its point, and nothing to do with owning it.

On the level of simple production, this is part of what stands behind Johns’ choice to employ images devalued by their relation to mass production, and Rauschenberg’s use of common junk objects in the Combine paintings or the procedures of mass dissemination of images in the silkscreen paintings. But that decision to draw their imagery from a source that would theoretically undermine the work’s stature as a unique object of value, is only symptomatic of a more general effort to readjust the sense of art’s import. It was as if only by situating the work somehow within what could be seen, or had to be seen, as a kind of theoretical or discursive space, could the art object challenge its fate of being absorbed as a commodity only. (It is one of the peculiar ironies of recent art, that while much of Minimal and post-Minimalist work was directed toward internally establishing the primacy of conceptual value over commodity value, the most rarified versions of Conceptual art managed to render Idea itself into a kind of commodity.)

In relation to this whole question of the esthetic primacy of conception over commodity, Rauschenberg’s and Johns’ affinities with the work of Duchamp are entirely consistent. This is so even though the specific aspects of Duchamp’s art, toward which the two men established a relationship, differed as their own work developed in tangential directions.

The aspect of Duchamp’s production that seems most related to the visual quality of Rauschenberg’s art is contained in works like Glider Containing a Water Mill (in Neighboring Metals), To Be Looked at Close-to, for nearly an Hour, and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even—a genre of painting which Duchamp described as “a delay in glass.” In those works, Duchamp’s procedure is to sandwich and suspend the depicted image between two transparent panes, and to set those panes either at right angles to the wall or on stanchions which will support them as freestanding within the space of a room. The effect of this treatment is to materialize the image, to make a representation read as though it were a corporeal thing.

From the beginning Rauschenberg, too, had treated images as a species of material. In the upper left and lower right corners of Charlene (1954) is a swatch of “broderie anglaise” in which a peacock and flowered border are defined by the varying densities of the heavy lace. In the works of the next few years there is a consistent use of printed fabrics, paisleys, and embroideries, always enforcing the sense that the images of flowers, fruit, or whatever, are contained by, literally embedded in, a material substance. And consequently that images themselves, within the medium of Rauschenberg’s art are material substances. Clearly, when the ‘images’ are actual objects—socks, shirts, washcloths, umbrellas, street signs, and the like—the sense of identification between material objects and ‘images’ is heightened in every way.

The parallel I mentioned before between Rauschenberg’s technique and that of Duchamp in the glass paintings rests not simply on the material character which he gives to images, but also on the procedure that follows from their materiality: that they can be physically embedded within the pictorial medium, the way a nail can be driven into the surface of a wall. In the case of printed or embroidered material this quality of an embedded image is natural to the weave of the fabric itself. But Rauschenberg heightens the physical quality of even these images by sandwiching or layering swathes of sheer prints,one over another,as in the painting Knee Pad (1956) and Hymnal (1955). And in the case of fabrics into which an image is not already woven—as in the voluptuous passages of rust and peach colored silk-velvet that cover the major portions of Red Interior (1954)—images are embossed into the fabric by, in the case of Red Interior, ironing the velvet over a set of metal signs with raised letters, thereby imprinting the fabric with the impressions of material objects that appear to be submerged within it. Given another class of image—the shirts, socks, ties, etc.—these are still treated as if suspended within the pictorial field, as in the Duchamp works in glass. The items of clothing are embedded into the surface by covering them either by a coating of paint, or by a stretch of semitransparent scrim material so that they are implanted under the continuous spread of the surface like a splinter under the skin. This physical incorporation of the image extends to Rauschenberg’s treatment of images of a more conventionally cultural sort. So that snapshots, postcards, news photos, comic strips, or poster fragments are layered into the surface like so much material, suspended within the pictorial matrix like biological specimens floating in fluid under glass.

This practice of materializing images had entered Rauschenberg’s art through an earlier experience of materializing color. In the black paintings of 1952 and the first red paintings of 1953, a collage surface of various types of paper, including strips of newspaper, was impregnated with pigment—black in the first case and red in the other. The tonal and chromatic differences in the color across these surfaces became then a function of the material to which it was applied, or by which it was absorbed. So that the impression of color within what was a conventional picture-field was seen to be a function of the color of things. This attitude toward color prepared for the subsequent attitude toward the image. It was, itself, something that Rauschenberg did not pursue further, at least in terms of making it the subject of an entire work (although it obviously conditions his subsequent use of paint as a self-evidently colored material and his incorporation of spectral colors in the form of sequences of color swatches in both Rebus and Small Rebus [1955 and 1956]). It is clear that Johns took it up in his monochrome pictures, like Green Target and White Flag, where color appears as if sandwiched between a coagulated ground of newspaper strips on the one hand, and the waxy surface of encaustic on the other.

It is also clear that Stella has been involved with the whole issue of color as a declared function of material in his recent relief paintings.

But Rauschenberg’s impulse was to leave off an investigation into the stratified constituents of painting, like ‘color,’ and to concern himself with the materialization of images. In the course of this, the paint itself—both in terms of its color and its density, applied in smears, drips, squeezes—came to function within the works as its own kind of specialized ‘image.’10

In speaking of a materialized image, I hope it is clear that I am talking about something that is entirely original in Rauschenberg’s art, something that separates him off from any use of the surface-related image before him. Because the image, as we have previously known it, was always a case of mapping: of translating a three-dimensional thing onto a two-dimensional field (and doing so in terms of a set of traces which themselves, literally, physically, had no dimension). Aside from this change in dimension, the obvious features of this translation were apparent changes in scale from object to image, and in texture from the natural surface to the medium of depiction. But the image was more than just a translation of the object; it was a relocation of it. The image removed the object from the space of the world installing it in a space of an entirely different order. The new space was in the nature of a projection. And because it was irrevocably separated off from reality, it was understood (with varying degrees of idealization) to transcend reality.

The Cubist use of collage elements did nothing to suspend this situation, but merely to intensify it. By making the process of image formation more apparent, they made it seem more paradoxically magical. A bit of newspaper absorbed into the shape of a wine glass can identify itself as a piece of the real world only from within the depths of a whole network of ambiguity. Caught up in the process of mapping, it is on the way to being absorbed, it has already been absorbed, into the transformational mesh of the image. It is something that is constantly forced to “read as” something else. The texture of the fine print translates into the broken light of an atmospheric tone; so that it is caught up in the process of rendering the transparency of glass. Its real shape as paper fragment translates into the shape of the object it coincides with, so that it becomes the medium by which the image is drawn. And in every sense there is an absolute tension between the physical irritant of the collage piece and the totally aphysical nature of the image per se. Although in both Schwitters’ and Dubuffet’s case (I am thinking of the texturologies), the collage elements were not used to assist in the formation of images, they were employed in such a way as to suspend their materiality between their own identity as objects and a transformation into sheer pictorial design or tone.

In Rauschenberg’s work the image is not about an object transformed. It is a matter, rather, of an object transferred. An object is taken out of the space of the world and embedded into the surface of a painting, never at the sacrifice of its density as material. Rather it insists that images themselves are a species of material. And this is true whether the image in question is a shirt or a sock which operates as the image of a shirt or a sock while all the time remaining that thing, or whether the image is a section of cultural space—a postcard bought at the Louvre or a photo clipped from a newspaper—which joins the work as a materialization of the culture from which it sprang.

By never transcending the material world, the image is unambiguously identified with that material world—arising from within it rather than beyond it. Its relocation onto the conventional field of painting does not compromise this. Rather it situates the conventional picture’s space at a new angle to that of real space. Steinberg spoke about this new angulation as a reorienting of Rauschenberg’s pictorial surface: from that of a traditional vertical to that of a horizontal “flatbed.” And, although I am in complete agreement with his characterization, I would like to inflect it in a slightly different way.

The images that collect on those flatbed surfaces, like so much clutter or debris, have an extraordinary range in terms of the type of content they bear. A work like Small Rebus (1956), places, one next to another, such disparate types of images as magazine photos of sports events, a map section showing the north central United States, a snapshot of a family, postage stamps, a child’s drawing of a clock-face, and a reproduction of Titian’s Rape of Europa. Yet, because each image is given the same level of density as object, one is struck not by their multivalence as signs, but rather by their sameness as things. Within the space of Small Rebus, that is, they all seem to take on an equal degree of density. They share an equal thickness in terms of their presence to experience. Thus the viewer of the work is struck by the fact that the surface of this painting is a place, or locale, where this kind of equalization can happen. Further, he is struck by the sensation that this feat of leveling among images does not seem particularly odd.

There is, of course, another space, one to which we all have recourse, in which this kind of experience of leveling occurs. It is a space in which the image of a painting we have seen in a museum, and the image of an actual event we have witnessed, and the image of one we have merely fantasized or dreamed, all do possess an equal degree of density. This is the space of memory. For as one remembers experience, each memory image seems to function for recall in a way that is independent of whether it happened or not, or what degree of denseness it had when we experienced it. The image of a scene from a movie may be equally vivid for memory as the face of an absent friend.

This analogy that Small Rebus bears with the space of memory is possible because of the coming together of the various operations that Rauschenberg has performed on images. It is possible because by materializing them he has given them equal weight. Further it is possible because the act of embedding them or layering them into the surface gives to their juxtaposition an astonishing quality of plausibility. And this plausibility is certainly not to be explained by any kind of formal logic that might pertain to them as elements in a design, or any kind of obvious narrative connection between them. Finally it is possible because of the quality they have of being suspended in a medium—that thing that Duchamp called a “delay in glass.” What is most important here in Duchamp’s phrase is the term “delay.” For by giving to images the property of actual physical resistance that objects or actions have in our ordinary experience Rauschenberg endows them with a sense of having to be encountered through time. In this way they are returned to an experience that is fully durational, an experience which we said in the beginning, was like memory, reflection, narration, proposition. Rauschenberg speaks of the temporality of his work. “Listening happens in time,” he said. “Looking also had to happen in time.”11

In raising this analogy with memory, the question that might come to mind is this: Isn’t there something incompatible between a kind of surface in which each image-object remains a physical thing and is therefore an apparent extension of the real space of the external world, and the kind of internal, psychological space which memory presupposes? And also, isn’t there an important difference between the shared access that everyone might have to the common objects of everyday life and the very special access that each of us has to memory: to our own memories which reflect the uniqueness and ultimately the privacy of our own experience? So that ultimately wouldn’t the procedure of analogizing the two fields—the one of the picture and the one of memory—be enough to remove the picture surface from real space and set it up within the kind of transcendent space which I have been claiming Rauschenberg rejects?

The answer to this lies not in the power of the conventional image to transcend reality, but in the power of Rauschenberg’s use of images to transform the space of the convention. For it is exactly the notion of memory, or of any other private experience which paintings might have formerly expressed, that is redefined by these pictures. The field of memory itself is changed from something that is internal to something that is external; from something that is private to something that is collective insofar as it arises from the shared communality of culture. This is not culture with a capital C but rather a profusion of facts, some exalted but most banal, each of which leaves its imprint as it burrows into and forms experience.

On the picture field these physical traces of a set of temporal indexes must be held in simultaneous suspension. But by analogizing the fixed synchrony of the pictorial convention to the field of memory (where things may be synchronously stored but temporally reexperienced), Rauschenberg proposes several crucial reversals to the previous canon of painting. The first is that the nature of the passage of the object from real space to the space of the picture is not about absorbing the object into a different kind of present time from that of the real space of the observer (one that transcends it), but is rather about transferring the object into the simultaneity of past time. The second is that past time, like memory, should be reconceived: from something that is understood as an internal state to something that is felt as a condition of externals.

Rauschenberg’s extraordinary repertory of marking or registering the image on the surface, most of them a refusal to use the autographic mark of conventional drawing (because that kind of mark had become compromised as an extension outward of the private, internal space from which it was supposed that the hand was directed) is testimony to his insistence that it is the stuff of experience—the things one bumps into as one moves through the world—that forms experience. The business of ironing the raised lettering and shapes of the metal signs into the velvet of Red Interior is only one instance of this substitution of the deposited physical mark of the real thing for the kind of drawn mark that presupposes the pictorial field to be sealed off from the impress of objects. Rauschenberg’s endless inventiveness about finding ways of marking from real space onto pictorial space are an obvious precedent for Johns’ own use of this as a strategy.

Through the procedure of inventing ways of leaving marks, Rauschenberg stumbled on discoveries of a formal kind which he rarely, if ever, pursued. One of these, the Tire Print from 1951, was made by lining up sheets of paper over more than 22 feet of road and then directing John Cage to drive a car over them. It was certainly a way of making a mark. But beyond that it was also a way of finding an operational means of producing extension—of accounting procedurally for the way that one piece of the art space relates to the next. For Rauschenberg’s work this operational means of accounting for the extent of the work recurs only in the Rebus pictures where the assembly of the spectrum through a line-up of paint samples determines the width of the picture. But in the work of other, later, artists one is reminded—although I am not speaking of “influence”—of this device, for example, in Bochner’s use of counting to arrive at the same result.

The transfer drawings—made by taking a rubbing on paper from newsprint soaked with lighter fluid—are another phase in the development of Rauschenberg’s repertory of marking. Everything I have said about the earlier images—about their equal density (guaranteed by the equal process of their transfer) and the sense of their being embedded within the surface as a species of object—applies to these drawings. As does the sense that they are suspended within a temporal matrix for which the model might be that of personal history. In 1965 Rauschenberg said of this type of drawing which he was then making, “But everyday, by doing consistently what you do with the attitude you have, if you have strong feelings, those things are expressed over a period of time as opposed to, say, one Guernica.”12 Yet the personal history and the strong feelings are composed by images which are external to the artist. In most instances the badge of their externality is their extreme banality. Even when they are incorporated into the space of his art they remain external. By insisting on their own external character, they suggest that the nature of his feelings, and the space of his art, and his personal history, are the product of the material world.

At the same time, by being absorbed into his world, by being “delayed” there as an incorporated part of his experience, the objects themselves are registered as images. By being deposited onto the pictorial field of experience, they are redeemed from a fate of functioning solely as commodity. And the work, as Rauschenberg conceives it, shares in—by inventing—this redemption.

Rosalind Krauss



1. Leo Steinberg, “Reflections on the State of Criticism,” Artforum, March, 1972, pp. 37–49.

2. These are words Steinberg uses to transcribe Johns’ remark. Ibid., p. 49.

3. Caudwell’s most important book, Illusion and Reality, was published in 1937 in England. For a recent study of his work, see, Francis Mulhern, “The Marxist Aesthetics of Christopher Caudwell,” The New Left Review, May–June 1974, pp. 37–60.

4. Walter Benjamin, “Paris—Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” The New Left Review, March–April 1968, p. 82.

5. Ibid.

6. The sense in which the absorption in fashion, and the conscious attempt to withdraw the work of art from the commercial world of which fashion is a symptom, are two aspects of the same cultural situation is caught by Mallarmé. In his essay “Art for All” he cautions poets to preserve the mystery of their work by withdrawing it into the preserve of rare and expensive editions, thus saving it from the popular press and the mass audience. Yet at the same time he was editing and writing a review called The Latest Fashion dedicated to a discussion of dresses, jewels, furniture, even theater programs and dinner menus. As he wrote later to Verlaine, “The eight or ten numbers [of the review) which actually appeared still set me to dreaming whenever I get them out and dust them off.”

7. Mulhern, p. 50.

8. “Talking with William Rubin,” Artforum, October, 1974, p. 53.

9. Max Kozloff discusses this in an article which addresses the function of art. See, Kozloff, “American Painting During the Cold War,” Artforum, May, 1973, pp. 44–45.

10. The recent works made of corrugated cardboard and the Pyramid Series, 1974, involve a partial return to the Black and Red paintings, in that they involve the embedding or the finding (by tearing away the outer layer of the cardboard) of an image of a far less figurative kind than in the Combine or screen paintings. The image-content of those series works in a way that is closest to the attitude toward color in the earliest paintings. However, in my view, there is not an equal return to the level of quality of these earlier works.

11. In G. R. Swenson, “Rauschenberg Paints a Picture,” Art News, LXII, 1963, p. 45.

12. In Dorothy Seckler, “The Artist Speaks: Robert Rauschenberg,” Art in America, May, 1966, p. 84.