New York

Robert Rauschenberg

With the development of his combine-paintings in the first decade of his career, Robert Rauschenberg permanently extended the parameters of the medium to include all classes and combinations of materials, declaring that “A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil and fabric.”

By 1961, he had wired a painting to accommodate an electric clock mounted on its surface, adhered a stuffed goat to a collaged wooden platform, and explored the use of chemical solvents to transfer printed media images; John Cage described Rauschenberg’s working method as “a poetry of infinite possibilities.” In 1962, just when it seemed as if Rauschenberg had done everything one could do in painting, he harnessed the industrial screen-printing process in the service of this traditional fine art.

Screen printing offered Rauschenberg the technical freedom to bypass the limitations he confronted in the other mediums and to synthesize the characteristics of his earlier innovations within a single graphic medium. The photomechanical process enabled images to be easily repeated and their size endlessly varied, and the gestural quality of pure painting could also be retained by varying the pressure used to transfer the ink through the screen.

In Crocus, 1962, one of Rauschenberg’s earliest paintings to use the process, a broad gestural X amid watery tones of grey and off-white is juxtaposed with such disparate elements as a military transport vehicle, Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, 1648, a photographic detail of a football, and a swarm of mosquitoes. In this work, the object (image) is reduced to pure paint, just as paint is turned into an object (the X). The combination of screen printing and painting underscores a dialectical relationship between the manual and the mechanical production of images.

No longer restricted by the engineering constraints of scale, Rauschenberg created Barge, 1963, a modern-day history painting of oceanic proportions, constructed like a neoclassical frieze. Images, largely referring to industrial subjects, are freely repeated along a lateral axis, as well as recycled from other paintings such as Crocus; the same screen of the mosquitoes and military truck recur in a new context. Here, Rauschenberg has arrived at a particularly American hybrid in which the large scale Abstract Expressionist painted fields of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman meld with the scale and social commentary of WPA wall murals.

In 1963, Rauschenberg began employing complicated multiple screens for color separation, yet the images drawn from the media, such as the face of John F. Kennedy or the Gemini space capsule, are presented in chemically synthetic hues associated with print media rather than the richer tones of traditional oil paint. The work Persimmon, 1964, combining Rubens’, The Toilet of Venus, 1613–1615, sweeping gestural brushwork, and transferred brushstrokes through a screen, exemplifies Rauschenberg’s mastery of this fluid medium. He integrates diverse layers of image, color, and mark, all framed by the single medium of paint on canvas. In this way, the traditional artistic media becomes a vehicle to combine synthetically his earlier innovations. With screen print, Rauschenberg radicalized painting.

This innovation not only represents a technical and conceptual turning point in Rauschenberg’s own work but has had an irrevocable impact upon new generations of artists who have followed. Although Rauschenberg initially used the process manually to make unique works of art, it has subsequently become emblematic of mechanization. The impact of this technical innovation has been so great that it is probably the impetus that prompted Clement Greenberg to lament in 1970 that “Abstract Expressionism collapsed very suddenly back in the Spring of 1962.”

Kirby Gookin

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