PRINT September 2008


Robert Rauschenberg, National Spinning/Red/Spring, 1971, cardboard and string, 100 x 98 1⁄2 x 8 1⁄2".

IT IS A MEASURE OF ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG’S ingenuity and inventiveness that, at the moment of his passing away, the art world is only just catching up to his output from the 1970s. The series from that time—the “Cardboards,” “Venetians,” “Early Egyptians,” “Hoarfrosts,” “Jammers,” and more—had never really been hidden. All had figured within the 1976 and 1997 retrospectives organized by Rauschenberg’s best and most dedicated curatorial champion, Walter Hopps.¹ Nevertheless, this era of the artist’s production had received little sustained focus until the 2007 exhibition at Houston’s Menil Collection, “Robert Rauschenberg: Cardboards and Related Pieces,” and its European augmentation originating at the Museu Serralves in Porto, Portugal, that same year, “Robert Rauschenberg: Travelling ’70–’76.” Although much of Rauschenberg’s work of the ’70s harks back to the (anti)compositional principles found in his “Elemental Sculptures” of the early ’50s and is in dialogue with everything from late Abstract Expressionism (particularly Barnett Newman) to Minimalism, post-Minimalism, and arte povera, its material simplicity and apparently casual construction had rendered critics and historians uncharacteristically mute.

Belated interest in this stage of Rauschenberg’s career may have been spurred, consciously or not, by a new generation of sculptors, recently highlighted in “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture” (2006) at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, and “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century” (2007) at the New Museum in New York. Indeed, many of Rauschenberg’s “Early Egyptians” and “Venetians” would not have seemed out of place amid the juxtapositions of Rachel Harrison, the fragile nature/culture combinations of Alexandra Bircken, the syntactical simplicity of Martin Boyce, and the delicate contingency of Gedi Sibony or Abraham Cruzvillegas. That Rauschenberg’s importance for this generation was both embraced (by Hirshhorn curator Anne Ellegood) and discounted (by New Museum curator Laura Hoptman) only testifies to the fact that his legacy has yet to be fully grasped.

With an indomitable vigor that persisted even after his health had begun to fail, Rauschenberg produced numerous series until the very end of his life: “Gluts,” 1986–93, “Anagrams,” 1995–96, “Scenarios,” 2002–2006, and so forth. Nevertheless, the 1976 retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, DC, which apotheosized Rauschenberg as the United States’ semiofficial bicentennial artist, marked the culmination of his most fecund period of artistic innovation. Speaking to Calvin Tomkins at the time about his attempt to evade “the trap of art,” Rauschenberg conceded, “I think the shadow of the escape has cut me off at the pass.”² Afterward, everything Rauschenberg produced was unequivocally and often quite beautifully “Art,” albeit within the terms in which he had irrevocably redefined the category.

Rauschenberg appeared to the New York art scene of the ’50s as a mirthful gadfly, a contemporary Till Eulenspiegel (as Leo Steinberg once called him, only to regret it ever after),³ whose production was so protean, resourceful, and diverse—from all-white and all-black paintings to canvases made of dirt, grass, clay, gold leaf, and tissue paper—that it could only be labeled a joke or with the soon-to-be-overused appellation “dada.” Despite Steinberg’s influential reconsideration of Rauschenberg in his “Other Criteria” essay (first published in 1972 by Artforum as “Reflections on the State of Criticism”), it would take Hopps’s exemplary exhibition “Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s,” which originated at the Menil Collection in 1991, to fully correct this initial impression of the artist’s earliest work and reveal the scrupulous intelligence behind pieces that had long been treated as curiosities.

Yet to this day, the precision and intelligence that inform even Rauschenberg’s best-known Combine paintings and Combines remain insufficiently recognized. Take, for instance, Charlene, 1954, in which a seemingly haphazard accumulation of materials actually contains a dizzying number of discrete and replicable formal operations: the panel as autonomous, modular pictorial component; the use of collage as texture; the nonhierarchical combination of hues that Rauschenberg referred to as “pedestrian color”; the iterability of the nonexpressive brushstroke; the interaction and equivalence of that brushstroke with bits of mechanically reproduced newspaper; appropriation (of famous artworks, as on the printed scarf once sold as a souvenir at the Metropolitan Museum in New York); the ideated reorientation of the support that Steinberg famously termed the “flatbed picture plane” (most evident in the T-shirt pressed flat against the bedrock canvas); a “pictorial nominalism” derived from Marcel Duchamp’s treatment of color as a readymade and evinced in the flattened umbrella–cum–color wheel; the “veiling” of translucent materials pasted atop the collage ground (most visible in Charlene’s lower left); the deployment of openings to incorporate the gallery wall and of reflections, in this case from a fun-house mirror, to assimilate the colors and movements of spectators; and even technology, in the rudimentary form of a single electric lightbulb—an interest that would build until Rauschenberg’s founding, in 1966, of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman, and Fred Waldhauer.

Other, equally deliberate strategies found throughout Rauschenberg’s Combines include indexicality; doubling (exemplified in Factum I and Factum II, both 1957); the foregrounding of shape and objecthood that Donald Judd would term a “preliminary” to the “specific object”;⁴ temporality, both implicit, as in the reflection of moving lights and shadows, and explicit, as in spinning motors, rotating fans, or flashing lights; centrifugal composition, which, in the artist’s words, “ignored simple-minded ideas of formal composition by just putting something of no consequence at dead center”;⁵ chance, as in using colors found in unlabeled cans of surplus paint; process, implicit everywhere but made explicit in the procedure of exchange and recording enacted in Black Market, 1961; and intermedia, also implicit in all of the Combines but taken further in works like Broadcast, 1959, which incorporated three blaring, manipulable radios. Far from being purely formal in nature, Rauschenberg’s work of the ’50s also explored a series of signifying procedures: direct reference (as in Trophy I [for Merce Cunningham], 1959); illustration (as in the Dante drawings, 1958–60); visual puns; scrapbook accumulations; textuality—from the “gray map of words”⁶ that newsprint gave as ground for many a “Black Painting” to accumulations of torn posters in works like Double Feature and Canyon, both 1959; and other operations which are even more complex and properly deconstructive.⁷

Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1954, oil, charcoal, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, plastic, mirror, and metal in four Homasote panels mounted on wood, 89 x 112".

Although perfectly evident on the surface of nearly every Combine, such strategies prove difficult to isolate because Rauschenberg concatenated them one upon the other in works literally overflowing with materials and color. The result is by no means simple or arbitrary chaos—and Rauschenberg was close enough to John Cage to know that Eastern philosophy and contemporary science treated chaos as neither simple nor arbitrary—but multiplicity, the copresence of numerous operations materially inflecting one another within the same system. “If you are dealing with multiplicity, variation and inclusion as your content,” Rauschenberg once explained, “then any feeling of complete consistency or sameness is a violation of that attitude. I had to try consciously to do a work that would imply the kind of richness and complexity I saw around me.”⁸

The inability to deal with Rauschenberg’s production, particularly on a formal basis—along with the paucity of writing by this severely dyslexic artist who often expressed himself in somewhat hermetic, not to say poetic, prose—has served to occlude just how exacting his artistic intelligence was. To this day, even with Rauschenberg’s near-universal celebration, art history tends to reward those who manifest consistency more overtly than they do heterogeneity.⁹ Jasper Johns, for example, demonstrates his intelligence by recursively turning back to his earlier procedures, appropriating and performing variations on them such that their intentionality is unquestionable even if their enigmatic character is retained and often heightened. Such a process directly opposes the deceptively offhand casualness with which Rauschenberg, as Johns famously stated, “invented the most since Picasso.”¹⁰ For instance, Yoicks, 1954, manifests an anticompositional strategy of alternating bands of color that Rauschenberg chose neither to define further nor to pursue in any other canvases. However, one need only take into account the ratio of Rauschenberg’s polka dots and stripes (approximately 4 to 3, or roughly that of one American flag stacked atop another) to surmise that they provided an impetus for the “Flag” paintings that Johns began later that year.

Johns’s work is only the most celebrated testament to Rauschenberg’s impact on his contemporaries. Allan Kaprow’s “Kiosk” formation of his Rearrangeable Panels, 1957–59, unmistakably takes after Charlene (adopting its surface texture, modular panels, rectangular mirror, and electric lightbulb, now multiplied into a row of lights punctuating the upper edge like crenellations). So, too, does the Combine-like construction in Carolee Schneemann’s photographic performance Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963. Dan Flavin’s icon III (blood) (the blood of a martyr), 1962–63, is a stripped-down version of one of Rauschenberg’s 1954 “Red Paintings,” both works similarly crested with a lightbulb and foregrounding their objecthood with extra-thick stretchers. Frank Stella, whose earliest stripe paintings also owe something to Yoicks, experimented with small Combine-like constructions in 1957. Even Richard Serra, early in his career, briefly created sculptures incorporating caged animals, both live and stuffed, in partial emulation of the Combines’ hens, roosters, goats, and eagles.¹¹

However, none of Rauschenberg’s contemporaries (with the possible exception of Bruce Conner, whose assemblages looked past Rauschenberg to Surrealism) would maintain the artist’s multiplicitous and inherently deconstructive interest in combining mediums (and media) into amalgams that would exist simultaneously within all of the media they straddled—and at the same time none. Kaprow’s Happenings, for instance, were both an extrapolation of Rauschenberg’s multiplicity (incorporating, for instance, all the senses) and a partial taming of Rauschenberg’s deconstructive impulse (in their implicit appeal to the fusion of the Gesamtkunstwerk and, at times, a renewed formal autonomy). Others, such as Stella, Flavin, and Serra, moved toward the unity of effect that would become known as Minimalism, which, like Pop art, had roots in Rauschenberg’s work as much as in Johns’s. That Rauschenberg saw his imprint as being equally on the Minimal side of the ’60s dialectic, while his silk screens had associated him almost exclusively with Pop, was manifest in his remaking of the White Paintings for exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1968.

As prolific as he was, Rauschenberg was not autogenerative. The silk-screen technique came from Andy Warhol; the blueprint process from his wife and fellow student, Susan Weil; and many an early Combine contains a scribble either by or in the style of Cy Twombly, for whom Rauschenberg left Weil while at Black Mountain College in the early ’50s. Throughout his career, Rauschenberg was most inventive when in intense, dialogic, and collaborative contexts, from Black Mountain to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (for which he provided sets, lighting, and costume design) to the Judson Dance Theater (which he lit and performed with) and beyond. Many of those from whom he benefited most were his lovers, including Weil, Johns, Twombly, Steve Paxton, and John Giorno. The depth of Rauschenberg’s personal attachment to his romantic companions is reflected in photographs, some still unpublished, that capture or coax out of their subjects an often heartrending beauty.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Early Egyptian), 1973, cardboard, fabric, sand, pillow, and Day-Glo paint, 78 x 28 x 181⁄2".

It was no doubt in large measure on account of its collaborative possibilities that Rauschenberg became so devoted to E.A.T., with its unruly collection of artists and engineers. As with nearly every aspect of his production, however, Rauschenberg’s technological interests were always combinatorial, a fact unfortunately obscured by the museological tendency to view “art and technology” as a separate category or genre. Rauschenberg’s most effective “technological” works were likely performances such as Map Room II, 1965, Spring Training, 1965, and Linoleum, 1966. While only partially “technological,” they put what the artist called “images”—hybrid machinic assemblages of human and object—into circulation more effectively than did the frequently malfunctioning disks of his “Revolvers,” 1967, or the noise-activated but often underwhelming corridor of lit-up silk-screened chairs in Soundings, 1968.

Rauschenberg’s late-’60s technology and performance pieces marked his most optimistic period and separated him most clearly from the direction taken by Minimalism, where an engagement with the phenomenology of viewing had given way to site-specificity and the beginnings of what became known as institutional critique. Yet, while more utopian, Rauschenberg’s project was no less radical. For a time, at least, his goal seemed to be nothing less than to break free—not only of the static condition of the art object as commodity and the equally static containment of the gallery space, but of the confinement of individual subjectivity itself. “I am mostly involved in changing what I am doing,” he once noted. “And sometimes it has been quite a strain. I got into both technology and theater . . . because I don’t like the single ego. . . . I just didn’t want to have one. It might be good for some other artist, but for me some kind of self-assurance would be death.”¹²

Rauschenberg ultimately hoped to present the audience with a situation as open-ended and multiplicitous as the inductive and collaborative process of production. His aim—as expressed in descriptions of a long-imagined-but-never-to-be-realized technological project—was to create an artwork that would be infinitely changeable, that would actualize its multiplicity differently for each and every viewer:

so delicately controlled by circumstance that two people viewing these forms will see something different from what is seen by either a crowd or one person. They will be responsive also to forces outside the jurisdiction of the viewer—to weather and passing traffic. Viewing of the work will not be completely dependent on seeing and the attention and desires of the viewer will be modified by circumstance.¹³

Such an ideal was nothing less than a microcosm of Rauschenberg’s own artistic goal to extend ever further into (as Tomkins described it) “the unfamiliar terrain of experiment and discovery.”¹⁴

“Growing up in a world where multiple distractions are the only constant,” Rauschenberg once conjectured, the viewer he wished to produce “would be able to cope with new situations.”¹⁵ Rauschenberg ultimately failed in his quest to create an artwork capable of perpetually evading the sedimentation of perceptual habits upon which, he seemed to feel, ideological reproduction was constructed. (Of course, he could not but fail in such an endeavor, one worthy of the great utopian avant-gardists of the early twentieth century.) Instead, and certainly despite his intentions, Rauschenberg succeeded in modeling what has been described as the predominant subject formation of the twenty-first century: the infinitely flexible worker of post-Fordism, that individual whose only habit is to have no habits, continually adaptable to contingent stimuli, ever in flux.¹⁶ This only goes to show how far from insignificant or out of touch with contemporary developments were even Rauschenberg’s most speculative endeavors.¹⁷ Complicity, however, would be the wrong term by which to conceive of this relationship, for Rauschenberg attempted to concretize and instigate those types of social and subjective transformation that became the very liberatory ethos of the ’60s, and which in the ’70s—precisely the moment in which he felt himself “cut off at the pass”—the forces of advanced capitalism would begin to capture and refunction, turning contingency and self-transformation into, as Paolo Virno puts it, a “job description.”¹⁸

Much the same anticipatory function can be found in the artist’s Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) project of 1984–91, wherein he and a team of assistants visited eleven countries, producing artworks in response to and in partial collaboration with the local context. What then seemed quixotic or even megalomaniacal now appears as a virtual one-artist biennial circuit that modeled, for better or worse, the multinational itineraries that have become every successful artist’s normal operating procedure today.

Based on these correlations with emergent social and historical formations, one can well imagine why Cage insisted on reading to Rauschenberg the writings of Marshall McLuhan. The oracular media theorist with whom Cage was enthralled maintained that artists acted as antennae for picking up and transmitting signals of imminent cultural transformations. However, given what we are only now beginning to grasp as the full complexity and inherently deconstructive multiplicity of Rauschenberg’s production, one can equally imagine why he quickly brushed aside Cage’s efforts with the response, “That’s an oversimplification.”¹⁹ Right up to the end of his life, Rauschenberg was never simple, even when he appeared that way.

Branden W. Joseph is an associate professor in the Department of Art history and Archaeology at Columbia University.


1. The 1997 exhibition was cocurated by another of Rauschenberg’s curatorial champions, Susan Davidson.

2. Rauschenberg, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (New York: Penguin, 1980), 301.

3. Leo Steinberg, “Month in Review,” Arts Magazine 30, no. 4 (January 1956): 46–47.

4. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8 (1965): 74.

5. Rauschenberg, quoted in Dorothy Gees Seckler, “The Artist Speaks: Robert Rauschenberg,” Art in America 54, no. 3 (May–June 1966): 81.

6. Robert Rauschenberg, “How Important Is the Surface to Design?” Print 13, no. 1 (January–February 1959): 31.

7. On the last, see my “Rauschenberg’s Refusal,” in Paul Schimmel, ed., Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), 257–83.

8. Rauschenberg, quoted in Seckler, “The Artist Speaks,” 81.

9. This holds equally true for an artist like Carolee Schneemann.

10. Quoted by Leo Steinberg in “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 90.

11. Rosalind Krauss, “Richard Serra: Sculpture,” in Richard Serra, ed. Hal Foster (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 105.

12. Rauschenberg, quoted in Barbaralee Diamonstein, Inside New York’s Art World (New York: Rizzoli, 1979), 311.

13. Rauschenberg, quoted in Seckler, “The Artist Speaks,” 84.

14. Tomkins, Off the Wall, 301.

15. Rauschenberg, quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, The Theatre of Mixed Means (New York: RK Editions, 1980), 94.

16. As Paolo Virno has described it, “habituation to uninterrupted and nonteleological change, reflexes tested by a chain of perceptive shocks, a strong sense of the contingent and the aleatory, a nondeterministic mentality, urban training in traversing the crossroads of differing opportunities. These are the qualities that have been elevated to an authentic productive force.” Paolo Virno, “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment,” in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 15.

17. Many of Rauschenberg’s endeavors were not speculative at all, such as supporting the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1965 and Earth Day in 1970, cofinancing the Artists’ Tower of Protest (1966), and establishing Change, Inc. (1971), a nonprofit organization to provide funds for artists’ health care costs and other emergencies.

18. Virno, “The Ambivalence of Disenchantment,” 15.

19. Rauschenberg, quoted in Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage, 1987), 34.