Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

All the World’s a Combine: Robert Rauschenberg’s Photographs

Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949-1962

Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Relics, Rome, 1952. Gelatin silver print. Photo © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA

Robert Rauschenberg, Cy + Relics, Rome, 1952. Gelatin silver print. Photo © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA

Most of the exposures assembled in Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949-1962 were shot during the period in which Rauschenberg produced his “Combines”—his greatest artistic achievement, according to prevailing opinion. It is not difficult to discern echoes of those game-changing painting-sculpture hybrids in, for example, the book’s three dozen or so photos taken in North Africa and Europe in 1952 and ’53. In the open-air markets of Tangiers and Morocco and the streets of Venice and Rome, textures, patterns and images play off each other in a kind of inadvertent, walk-through assemblage. In works like Madrid Park (IV), 1953, Rauschenberg’s camera organizes the information in loosely geometric subdivisions that reiterate the picture plane.

The artist would later move to color photography, but even in black and white Rauschenberg, then in his mid-twenties, was already feeding the voracious visual appetite that resulted in such feats of pictorial reprocessing as the paint-spattered quilt that became Bed (1954) and the stuffed-goat-and-spare-tire-bedecked Monogram (1955-59). Photography was a natural medium for the idea, which composer John Cage promulgated, that art might be a re-presentation of the overlooked and undervalued (sound; visuality) in everyday life.

, 1953. Contact print 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 inches. Photo © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA”]Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [Merce (II)], 1953. Contact print 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 inches. Photo © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGAOther of these photos are rewarding for their documentary value, such as Untitled [Merce + David Tudor], 1953, in which choreographer Cunningham is seen putting himself through his paces, accompanied on piano by the Rainforest composer. Cy + Relics, Rome, 1952 shows painter Twombly contemplating an enormous antique hand—funny, considering the place of this artist’s “hand” in his graffiti-inflected canvases. In Jasper—N.Y.C. (I), 1954, a trenchcoat-wearing, twenty-four-year-old Jasper Johns, alert yet casual, lounges like a killer against an advertising kiosk.

There are still moments of clarity amid the clamor, reminders of the shift in paradigm, in Rauschenberg’s work of the early 1950’s, from the void to the net—from atmospheres to accretions. Untitled [Bathroom Window, Broadway studio], ca. 1961, depicting a pale, hazy expanse of dimpled, chicken-wired glass flecked with paint, looks back to the well-known “White Paintings” and Erased De Kooning Drawing of nearly a decade earlier.

Unmistakably, however, throughout the work of this period Rauschenberg valued process as much as product—his works’ becoming as much as their realization. This comes through in the near-autonomy of his works’ parts in relation to the whole. In the book’s last image, Untitled [elements for Oracle, Broadway studio], ca. 1962, remnants of duct work, auto parts, conduit and other mostly metallic street finds are arranged on the studio’s wood floor. At the ready, in the midst of the clutter, sit a sack of bolts and a power drill.

Robert Rauschenberg: Photographs 1949-1962. Edited by David White, Susan Davidson. Text by Nicholas Cullinan. (D.A.P./Schirmer/Mosel, 2011. 232 pgs / 136 duotone / 31 color. ISBN: 9781935202523. $75)

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled [Bathroom Window, Broadway studio], ca. 1961. Gelatin silver print. Photo © Estate of Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA

click to enlarge

  • Suzanne Silk

    Rauchenberg, an early mentor of mine during my NYU days during late 60’s. My work continues to be greatly informed by his aesthetic. I love the early B+W photographs, as they show his artistic eye in great form. As well, this book chronicle’s his everyday life + the people he hung out with. These images are most intimate + equally, most universal. A great book just for the pleasure of it + for a more in depth look at Rauschenberg’s “oeuvre”.