"I don't want a picture to look like something it isn't. I want it to look like something it is. And I think a picture is more like the real world when it's made out of the real world." (R. Rauschenberg quoted in S. Hapgood, Neo-Dada, Redefining Art 1958-1962, New York, 1994, p.18).
Clay Painting (For John Cage and Merce Cunningham) is a material painting that refers directly to the famous work Dirt Painting (For John Cage) that Rauschenberg made in 1953. This early work, which consisted solely of dirt in a wooden frame and mould growing over the dirt, was a self-defining, self-determining painting that drew on many of Rauschenberg and Cage's shared concerns at this time and in respect of this was both dedicated and given to Cage by the artist. In 1976 Rauschenberg borrowed this work from Cage for his retrospective but failed to return it. He subsequently promised to make a replacement for Cage but had only just started it at the time of Cage's death in 1992. On completion this unfired ceramic clay painting was presented to Cage's life-long partner Merce Cunningham in honour of his long-time friend and creative collaborator.
Rauschenberg's original dirt painting was created after his visit to Alberto Burri's studio in Rome. But while Rauschenberg has acknowledged Burri and his material aesthetic as a central influence on his later Combines, the original dirt painting, with its notion of growing mould defining the form and composition of the work, probably owes more to the influence of a work like Marcel Duchamp's Dust Breeding of 1920. Duchamp was an important presence behind the creative thinking of both Cage and Rauschenberg who, in 1953, collaborated on a number of projects, most notably perhaps their Automobile Tire Print -- a printed drawing made by Cage driving a truck with a painted tire over a series of paper pages laid down by Rauschenberg. In this later dirt painting, Rauschenberg has chosen to use unfired clay as the material for this newer version of his earlier self-defining painting. In this work which, like many of Cage and Rauschenberg's works is dependent on the passage of time for its resultant form, the cracks that have appeared in the dried clay this time recall more closely the later Cretti paintings made of earth that Burri was to make in the 1970s.