PRINT September 1997

Early Lead

FOR YEARS I SAID to students and friends that Jasper Johns was an American Braque (though I did not realize how true that was; the final confirmation came with John Golding’s recent show of Braque’s late work and David Sylvester’s account of it). I always added that he was a Braque without a Picasso by his side. But, that was before Walter Hopps’ breathtaking exhibition six years ago of Rauschenberg’s early pieces. I was late in coming to Rauschenberg’s work, but since Hopps’ show I’ve been convinced that, in the relationship between the two artists, a relationship about which there has been so much gossip but so little scholarship, Rauschenberg had acted as the Picasso of the pair—and I hope one day someone will lay out the degree of his artistic precedence. Johns, for example, incessantly receives credit for his investigation of indexical signs (from the reduplication of flat figurative patterns to the row of numbers; from the “representation” of brushstrokes to the sheer imprints of his skin on paper), but most of the time Rauschenberg’s earlier examples are forgotten (the numbers in 22 The Lily White and the map in Mother of God, ca. 1950; the large blueprint paper “photograms” of 1949, the footprint of Should Love Come First?, 1951, and the Automobile Tire Print, 1951; the particles of tarred newspaper of the black paintings, to which a lush sensuousness is added shortly after in the red monochromes, both series exhibiting an atomization of the mark as analytical as any Johns brushstroke). Then there is the conceptualism of the very first work shown in Hopps’ survey (This is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time., ca. 1949), of the Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, and so on. I realized that if no one (to my knowledge) had seriously investigated the effect of these extraordinary works on Johns’ beginnings, it was probably because Rauschenberg was already launching his “combines” when the artists met, which indeed seem quite removed from Johns’ concerns in the ’50s.

Beyond the Braque-Picasso paradigm, however, one might muse about Rauschenberg’s “Picassoisms” in their own right: the artist’s bold, unexpected moves; his vast productivity and casual relationship to its outcome; his constant struggle against his own talent (I’m thinking of his destruction of the screens used to make the silk-screen paintings that earned him the prize at the Venice Biennale in 19641); his capacity to return to previous modes, his optimism. Of course, there are many non-Picassoid traits of Rauschenberg—above all his lack of egotism, his desire to efface his own self in his work—but to appreciate them all one would have to know intimately a body of work notable (again like Picasso’s) for its magnitude.

For those of us who do not know Rauschenberg’s work as well as we might wish (I for one have yet to see a full retrospective), the forthcoming Guggenheim exhibition will likely contain quite a few spectacular surprises. I have experienced three such surprises (besides the Hopps show) in the past few years. One: in a small lateral gallery adjoining the 1991 exhibition of Rauschenberg’s large transcultural ROCI project, at the National Gallery of Art, I discovered his photographs and found them stunning. There is a strange sense of loss in them, or rather foreignness, that immediately appealed to my own exiled status. (Is that because they almost always denote absence? Humans appear rarely, and only through ostensible signs of past actions or else as blurry ghosts. In one particularly beautiful shot of a telephone booth with some kind of grainy glass walls, the standing figure inside functions as a vague reminiscence of the human form, while the foot sticking out of the booth is perfectly focused but orphaned.) Also striking is their snapshot randomness, the fact that they seem to lack editing. Rauschenberg once stated that he had initially rejected photography, when he was a student of Albers, because the only way he could envision taking it up was by shooting the whole expanse of the US, square inch by square inch. Somehow his photographs convey this sense of endlessness.

Two: I was terribly moved by the nostalgic, faded, modest tone of the recent works exhibited at the PaceWildenstein gallery last season. They do refer to past works, even more so in fact than Rauschenberg’s ROCI productions (perhaps because of their limited scale?). Yet this does not totally explain their melancholy connotations. Perhaps it is because the medium of transfer is vegetable dye (and thus very different from the vivid colors of the silk-screen paintings), an old-fashioned pigment, used by an artist whose “combine” principle has long been cannibalized by the electronic media, that seems so utterly adequate to the contrast between high-tech and ancient economies put forth in the juxtaposition of the images themselves (which include shots of China and agricultural societies undergoing radical upheaval).

Three: above all, I was awestruck to discover, lined up in Rauschenberg’s studio in order to be photographed for the catalogue of the Guggenheim show, several works from his “Pyramid” series of 1974: the delicacy of the silky rag pressed from behind onto the luxurious paper and hanging below the sheet, their whiteness, contrasting with the rough brick surface of the wall. That someone always associated with the noise of Pop or the irony of neo-Dada could have produced works as quiet, as precious, as murmuring as Vermeer’s or Morandi’s! The range of Rauschenberg’s moods is something I look forward to learning more about at the Guggenheim this fall.


1. Information conveyed by Roni Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings 1962–64, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art and Bulfinch Press, 1990, p. 21.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University. He was most recently cocurator, with Rosalind E. Krauss, of 1996’s “L’Informe: Mode d’emploi,” at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the catalogue to which will appear in English this fall as Formless: A User's Guide (New York: Zone Books).