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Today is the birthday of Robert Rauschenberg, an artist who played a pivotal role in the development of American art after WWII. This blog post, written by Museum President Don Bacigalupi, is excerpted from Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection catalog, Celebrating the American Spirit: Masterworks from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The art world of the late 1940s and early 1950s had been dominated by the grand gestures and larger-than-life personas of the abstract expressionists. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning created images in which their bold, expressive marks were understood to be records of their inner lives—painting as revelation. Younger artists like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns attacked the cult of personality promulgated by the New York School. Juxtaposing the highly lauded gestural brushstroke with modes of representation drawn from mass culture, they challenged viewers to assess which manner of image making more effectively conveyed meaning. Rauschenberg and Johns are credited with both reviving an interest in dada and surrealism and with paving the way for the development of pop art in the 1960s.
Rauschenberg spent the 1950s experimenting with novel ways to narrow the gap between art and life, bringing commonplace images and materials into his work through methods including collage, assemblage, and transfer drawing. In 1962, he began to silkscreen photographic images into his compositions. The following year he produced Untitled, a painting dominated by an anonymous photograph of a contemporary urban street scene. Unlike Rauschenberg’s earlier assemblages and “combines,” in which the artist assembled multiple small images and objects into larger, fragmentary wholes, here a single black-and-white candid shot occupies the entire canvas. In contrast to Rauschenberg’s earlier picture-making techniques, silkscreen allowed the artist to render any given image in any given scale.
In Untitled, the enlarged, silkscreened snapshot serves as the ground onto which Rauschenberg applied additional layers of signification, including discrete passages of dripping paint, scumbled washes, stenciled letters of various sizes, and some apparent rubbings or erasures. Photographic and hand-drawn images become nearly indistinguishable. A “one way” street sign that is part of the photograph points at and is balanced by an upside-down cruciform shape drawn in graphite across the painted surface. A rectangular Coca-Cola sign in the upper right of the photograph is mirrored at left by an array of applied uppercase letters that suggest words (“Strange” or “X-change” or even “Sex Change”).
Confronted with the large, sign-filled photograph and hints of readable language, the viewer cannot help but search for narrative meaning. Yet the sheer number and diversity of marks and signs in the picture frustrate this enterprise, leading the viewer down a series of interpretive dead ends. A restless and prolific image maker, Rauschenberg created pleasingly composed and visually enticing works that rarely cohere into a traditional meaning or story. Ultimately, Rauschenberg succeeded in focusing his viewers’ attention on the complex interplay between art and life, opening up myriad possibilities for future generations of artists.