PRINT September 2008


IN MID-SEPTEMBER 1962, Bob Rauschenberg paid a visit to Andy Warhol’s studio. Met curator and Warhol confidante Henry Geldzahler had arranged the meeting, which also included the Paris dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who was then setting out to make Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns into household names in Europe.1

In that she would within a few years be doing the same for Warhol, the encounter could be described as auspicious. But a more immediate exchange that took place between the two artists casts a particular light on Rauschenberg’s catalyzing role in much of the best art of the past half century. Warhol was then only in the first months of his career-defining commitment to the photo silk screen as a representational device. His studio visitors would have seen the first wave of Marilyn Monroe canvases, along with some earlier celebrity likenesses, to which Warhol proposed adding a few Rauschenberg family portraits.

Sometime shortly afterward, the private photographs were duly provided, and Warhol responded with a series of no fewer than eleven powerful paintings that stand apart from the film stars and anonymous victims who populate the bulk of his early production. The one now dated as the earliest is also the most ambitious. An imposing panel, nearly seven feet square, it deploys all the photographs that Rauschenberg supplied in something like a reversed sedimentation of history. A contemporary, somewhat formal frontal portrait of Rauschenberg (in style and self-presentation looking rather like an up-and-coming Hollywood leading man) repeats itself horizontally across the two lower registers. The top three layers of the canvas present vintage prints, one to a row, depicting Rauschenberg family members—alone, paired, and as a large group—in rural settings from the late 1920s and early ’30s. These images are printed in a sepia tone that accentuates their connotations of a remoter past.

As a passage between past and present (printed in the same black ink as the two contemporary layers), Warhol put to use what is perhaps the most startling of Rauschenberg’s offerings, a double portrait from 1951 of his sister, Janet, with his ex-wife and early artistic collaborator, Susan Weil. A column separates the photo’s bust-length subjects, Weil posed in hieratic profile with her back to the full face of the irrepressible Janet, who looks into the camera. And here Warhol performed his most conspicuous manipulation of the source, cropping and isolating the figure of Janet Rauschenberg to the far left of the canvas (four times in a row) and including both subjects to the right of that (six times), with one further repeat of Weil’s pale visage emerging from the darkness at the far right. By means of overlapping and repetition, he reversed the somewhat alienated character of the original image, transforming the pillars from two adjacent images into a repeating frame around the two figures, so that Weil now appears to face her sister-in-law.

The encounter with Rauschenberg prodded Warhol into a far greater degree of complexity and nuance than he had attempted before in his use of borrowed images; indeed, such a combination of five different images in one composition is all but unique in his work (at least before the Kennedy assassination series), as is its bearing a correspondingly resonant literary title: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1962. That great Depression-era document of rural poverty in the American South, pairing the prose of James Agee with the photography of Walker Evans, had recently been republished, and Warhol seems to have been eager to test the powers of his technique against an enduring standard of historical and personal testimony. In another and equally important sense, however, the phrase represents the sentiment of an unabashed fan suddenly ushered into the inner circle of his object of emulation.

Rauschenberg, alongside Johns, had represented for Warhol a somewhat distant and unapproachable touchstone for his late-blooming aspirations as a fine artist. And there had been suspicion that Warhol’s overtly commercial career had touched a sensitive nerve in the pair over their own commercial ventures as the pseudonymous Matson Jones. But the exchange that resulted in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can be viewed as putting an end to any such wariness on Rauschenberg’s part. What is more, shortly afterward he in turn rendered tribute to Warhol by adding the photo-silk-screen technique to his own repertoire. The direct use of collaged photographs, as well as the solvent-transfer techniques on view in his drawings after Dante’s Inferno, 1958–60, had limited his options to the actual size of the found material. Silk-screen transfer put the scale of each borrowed image under the artist’s control, and it came to dominate Rauschenberg’s own output of the mid-’60s, remaining a signature device until the end of his career.

Such complex give-and-take recapitulates a pattern that typified Rauschenberg’s career from its beginning, as Warhol’s canvas seems to recognize. Susan Weil, the wealthy Easterner born to privilege and experience a world away from her husband’s Port Arthur, Texas, upbringing, had been his equal partner in the first of his claims to artistic precedence, the one that offered the most vivid precedent for Warhol’s own innovation. The life-size prints on blueprint paper that the newlyweds fashioned in 1950 and 1951 had constituted a startlingly economical bridge between the aspirational character of the New York School painters and the apparently contrary claims of ordinary industrial and commercial reality.

Compared with Rauschenberg’s paintings of the same moment, the collaborative blueprints were by far the more prescient and challenging response to the reigning mode: Even Jackson Pollock’s admirers had yet to articulate the radical implications of lowering the canvas from easel to floor, while Rauschenberg and Weil were already carrying that breakthrough procedure into new territory, recovering the monumental human figure without the least interruption in their seamless, allover procedure. How labored, by comparison, appear Willem de Kooning’s efforts in his “Woman” series, 1950–53, to accomplish that feat using the same gestural idiom by which he had achieved his earlier dispersal of the figure into an abstract, allover field of pigment.

Not that the achievement of the young couple could be recognized as such at the time, the talismanic importance of oil paint on canvas still eclipsing every other parameter of art. But in a true harbinger of the coming universe, the first authority figure to recognize the power of the blueprints was Gene Moore, director of window displays at Bonwit Teller, the same design impresario who would later employ both “Matson Jones” and Warhol to lend an avant-garde bite to his upscale salesmanship. Moore felt enthusiastic enough to blanket the store’s entire street exposure with the Rauschenberg-Weil prints early in 1951. That display in turn attracted the interest of Life magazine, which published a pictorial in its April 9, 1951, issue documenting the artists making yet more prints—now lost—in the cramped confines of their West Ninety-sixth Street apartment. Only after that ascent through the commercial marketplace was Edward Steichen (no less) moved to include one of their blueprints in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art devoted to “Abstraction in Photography.”

It would be more than a decade before Alfred Barr followed suit on behalf of MOMA’s department of painting and sculpture. But that decade of eclipse bore no relation to Rauschenberg’s own strong sympathy for the art of his elders or to his desire to be accepted as a young aspirant among them. He made himself a useful listener and welcome companion at the Cedar Tavern. He sought out Betty Parsons as his first dealer because of her prominent sponsorship of Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still: “I just wanted to know if there was something I was doing that was remotely related to what they were doing.”2

To his great surprise, Parsons promptly gave him a show of his own and, with it, the opportunity to demonstrate as best he could the extent of that affinity. His evident goodwill in this regard found an echo in Warhol’s homage of 1962 even if his own generous reciprocity on that occasion had little precedent in the responses he later encountered among his revered elders. His great provocation in their eyes lay in the uninflected surfaces of his White Paintings of 1951, in which a housepainter’s roller supplanted the febrile brush of the Abstract Expressionist. Parsons this time declined his entreaties to support “the plastic fullness of nothing.”3 As he later put it with some delicacy, “There was confusion and unrest over my point of view with some of the other Betty Parsons artists.”4

But Rauschenberg’s coming to terms with the resistance to his work was inspired, enlisting as he did the cooperation—and thus the complicity—of the acknowledged leader among the abstract painters. His notorious act in 1953 of erasing a drawing solicited from de Kooning did not go so far as to obliterate its object; instead, with the faint ghost of the heavy original marks still visible after weeks of labor—and with another drawing showing from the other side of the sheet—he found that point where his White Paintings and an autograph work by de Kooning arrived at some common ground. He emulates his elder’s layered, gestural markings by retracing them in reverse, while de Kooning’s unmistakable manner comes to register as lightly on the eye as the ambient shadows that Rauschenberg and John Cage imagined as figures against the ground of the White Paintings.

To mention the composer is to signal the degree to which Rauschenberg had by then gravitated to another, more sympathetic circle of mentoring outside the narrowing territory, both aesthetic and emotional, occupied by the New York painters. Cage, initially, and then Merce Cunningham, occupied the center of an outwardly freer but inwardly more exacting informal academy, in which Rauschenberg could test himself in an atmosphere where reciprocity was welcomed—indeed, expected. Nor of course was he the only young artist to benefit. First Cy Twombly and later Jasper Johns formed with him their own intense mutual conversation, one that readily stands comparison to the storied collaboration between Picasso and Braque in the formation of Cubism. From his supplicant status around 1950, Rauschenberg arrived at the confident assumption (as he later recalled) “that my friends and I were inventing art.”5 The nature of their dialogue altered the landscape for artists who followed them in both America and Europe, preparing the ground for the widespread embrace of found, vernacular material, for the ubiquity of assemblage techniques, and for a new cognitive frame around the autograph gesture in paint.

The loss of Rauschenberg from the living reality of this trio, however, prompts thoughts as to what constituted his particular contribution to its collaborative enterprise. In judging the worth of an artistic idea, one useful rule of thumb, to this day, is to ask oneself whether Rauschenberg had already thought of it. This is not to say that he preempted the field or reduced later artists to derivative stature; it means, rather, that his restless capacity for invention and improvisatory insight drew a map for an extraordinary portion of what would matter in the art of the last half century. For all the impact exerted by Twombly and Johns, it would be difficult to make the same case for their more concentrated and self-contained trajectories. Rauschenberg, on the other hand, picked up and put down a plethora of devices that came to be elaborated by others.

When Ileana Sonnabend (backed by partner and ex-husband Leo Castelli) began her strategic promotion of American artists across Europe in the early ’60s, it was Rauschenberg’s work that struck the strongest chord with European artists. And that dissemination had begun even earlier via other avenues of artistic communication.6 Yves Klein, to cite one prominent example, elaborated certain premises of the White Paintings in his extensive series of monochrome panels; he also resurrected the idea of surfaces encrusted with gold leaf, while his notorious Anthropométries—performances with nude female models being used as living brushes—shadowed in their results on canvas Rauschenberg and Weil’s blueprint traces of the nude from the beginning of the decade—to a degree that, when Klein had his first New York show in 1961, the normally openhanded Rauschenberg is said to have found the resemblances irritatingly close.7 In Italy, Piero Manzoni’s white Achrome reliefs carried a self-evident pedigree, while his encased paper rolls bearing lines of enormous length sounded an echo of the Automobile Tire Print, effected with the help of John Cage and a Model A Ford on Fulton Street in New York in 1953. Manzoni may have, unlike them, hidden his linear inscriptions from view, but in the process he was performing an operation cognate to that of the Erased de Kooning Drawing. The global ramifications of the montage devices pioneered in Rauschenberg’s Combines are too far-reaching to summarize.

For what it is worth, a poll taken among one hundred French intellectuals in June 1965 named Rauschenberg—over an otherwise entirely European list of nominees—the most important artist to have emerged since the Second World War.8 His Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale the year before had been no fluke. But that individual renown was still subtended by the extension of his practice and persona into networks beyond the confines of object making and market success. His close collaborator of the ’60s, the dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton, recalls with a kind of awe their time together in the Cunningham company:

As his painting star was rising, Rauschenberg worked backstage for a funky but honorable dance company on tour around most of the United States and to other parts of the world. . . . [He was] responsible for unloading into the theater and organizing everyone, for clearing and cleaning the stage and backstage, for hanging curtains and adjusting wings, and for designing and often hanging the lights. Things had to be ready for dress rehearsal early in the afternoon following our arrival . . . and then an evening performance. During all this, Rauschenberg was responsible for the tone of communication between the stage professionals and the company personnel. He kept it light and positive, which seemed to come naturally to him.9

There is a photograph, taken in 1962, that brings to life the solidarity and spirit that Paxton evokes. The Cunningham company poses in front of the Volkswagen microbus that conveyed all nine of them, with their props and costumes (Cage driving), from engagement to engagement. On this occasion it had carried them as far from New York as Lafayette, Louisiana, where they pulled in to visit Rauschenberg’s mother. In sun-dappled shade, they smile for the camera, the artist just visible behind David Tudor bookending the group on the left, while Rauschenberg’s sister, Janet, does the same on the right; Dora Rauschenberg stands regally erect above a kneeling Paxton in the center.

To witness some of the greatest artists of their time, at the height of their collective powers, accepting such voluntary poverty—and with such good grace—in pursuit of a shared aesthetic, makes this photograph seem as remote and exotic in relation to our own era as a document of the Depression. Just a few months later, Warhol would work hard to capture in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men what this casual image radiates with so little apparent effort: that Rauschenberg’s enduring project cannot be comprehended apart from its depth in a social time and its extension in a social space.

While the rigors of the 1964 world tour would lead to a break between Rauschenberg and Cunningham, the former had already forged an equivalent bond with the younger choreographers, performers, and musicians of the Judson Dance Theater, which was to guide his activities until 1967, by which time another sort of uneconomic collaboration with Billy Klüver and a band of engineers took over for the remainder of the decade. Rather than calling Rauschenberg’s almost frenetic level of activity uneconomic, however, it would make more sense to regard him and his associates as improvising, somewhere beyond the cash nexus, a gift/scrounge/make-do economy (which never precluded his turning up in a white Jaguar when it suited the occasion).10 When Rauschenberg returned to a somewhat more conventional mode of object making in the early ’70s, he countered the industrial acumen of Minimalism with the poise and unlikely elegance of his distressed “Cardboards,” 1971–72. The haunting moments of presence, not to say beauty, he conjured in the succeeding series “Early Egyptian,” 1973–74, “Hoarfrost,” 1974–76, and “Jammer,” 1975–76, kept faith with the humble and discarded. Critical attention to these phases in his work has been slight, owing perhaps to a sense that they look too easy. But their plainness and apparent simplicity point to networks of association beyond themselves, from which they seem to have emerged as friendly apparitions.

Thomas Crow is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.


1. See George Frei and Neil Printz, The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1: Paintings and Sculpture 1961–1963 (London: Phaidon, 2002), 257. The usage of “Bob” is favored here in that this, not Robert, was his chosen substitute for his given name Milton.

2. Rauschenberg, quoted in Barbara Rose, An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Vintage, 1987), 44.

3. Rauschenberg, letter to Betty Parsons, October 18, 1951, Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, accession no. 87-037; quoted in Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg: Art and Life (New York: Abrams, 1990), 78.

4. Rauschenberg, quoted in Rose, An Interview, 46.

5. Rauschenberg, quoted in Rose, An Interview, 49.

6. Nancy Spector, “Rauschenberg and Performance, 1963–1967: A ‘Poetry of Infinite Possibilities,’” in Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997), 239. Spector points out that a photograph of Rauschenberg’s Monogram, 1955–59, was published in the Italian avant-garde journal Azimuth, edited by Piero Manzoni and Enrico Castellani, within a few months of its first exhibition by Leo Castelli in New York.

7. See Sidra Stich, Yves Klein (Stuttgart: Cantz, 1994), 235–36, 275–76.

8. The results were published in the French weekly Arts (June 23, 1965); see Joan Young and Susan Davidson, “Chronology,” in Hopps and Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, 550–87.

9. Steve Paxton, “Rauschenberg for Cunningham and Three of His Own,” in Hopps and Davidson, eds., Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, 260–67; 267, 261.

10. See the diary entry from May 15, 1960, by the collector Richard Brown Baker, published as Baker, “My Dinner with Jasper Johns (and Robert Rauschenberg, Leo Castelli, Robert and Ethel Scull, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Lots More),” Paris Review 39, no. 143 (Summer 1997): 212–13; 214.