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LOST AND FOUND: SUSAN WEIL AND ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG’S BLUEPRINTS

WRITING IN THESE PAGES IN 1972, the critic Leo Steinberg famously heralded the radical rupture instigated by ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG’s art. Rauschenberg’s “picture planes,” dense accumulations of things and images, dispensed with the transcendent weightlessness of modernist painting and instead evoked the quotidian material of studio floors and detritus, streams of data and imprinted information. As art historian Branden W. Joseph would later write, this is work that “views history in terms of an archive.”
 
And so scholar MICHAEL LOBEL’s recent discovery of a cache of photographic negatives from 1951 in the University of Illinois at Chicago library archive provides an apt sequel to the story: Published here in Artforum for the very first time, these images feature Rauschenberg and his then wife and collaborator, SUSAN WEIL, demonstrating their process of making the legendary blueprints—direct cyanotype impressions of bodies and things—on the floor of the one-room apartment they shared in New York. Lobel explores this seminal episode in the young artists’ lives and its striking implications for their future work, teasing a rich history out of the smallest details of these “lost”—and newly found—pictures.

Robert Rauschenberg holding a blueprint by Susan Weil and himself in their West Ninety-Fifth Street apartment, New York, 1951. Photo: Wallace Kirkland/Wallace Kirkland papers, [0062_0L11C_0004], Special Collections and University Archives, University of Illinois at Chicago. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. © Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

IT IS AN UNFORGETTABLE PORTRAIT of the artist as a young man: A tousle-haired Robert Rauschenberg, in rolled-up shirtsleeves and paint-spattered jeans, stands barefoot amid a body of work, selections from a group of blueprints—primitive photograms—that he and Susan Weil, then his wife, produced collaboratively from about 1949 to 1951. The photograph captures myriad details that speak to the couple’s creative process and ambitions in their early years living in New York and foreshadows artistic breakthroughs yet to come. Although the picture was taken more than six decades ago and appears to be an iconic image of the artist, this is in fact the first time it has ever been published. Until now it has sat undiscovered, along with several dozen other negatives, in an archive in Chicago.

The story goes something like this: In 1951, as Weil recounted to me, Rauschenberg—then

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