'I don't want a picture to look like something it isn't. I want it to look like what it is. And I think that a picture is more like the real world when it is made out of the real world' (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in C. Tomkins, Off the Wall, Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 87).
Untitled is one of Robert Rauschenberg's first "Combine-paintings" - the radical and groundbreaking series of assemblage works that the artist began to make in 1954. Part painting, part collage, part sculpture, part object, these now legendary works, operating in the famous 'gap' between art and life that Rauschenberg both exposed and explored, rank among the most important and influential works of the twentieth century. A dramatic reintroduction of "the real" - of both the subject and the object - into what was at the time, the predominantly abstract and intellectual realm of painting, it was Rauschenberg's Combines that, as Roy Lichtenstein was later to point out, effectively signified the end of Abstract Expressionism. Similarly, it was these works that, in introducing real elements from the artist's own life and even later, the element of time into the concept of painting, ultimately opened the door to an art that operated in a far wider arena of activity and possibility, laying the foundations for much of the art, happenings and performances of Nouveau Realism, Pop, Fluxus, and even Arte Povera, that followed.
Rauschenberg's Combines evolved almost unconsciously out of the series of near monochrome "Red Paintings" that he made in 1953. These paintings, which themselves followed on from a series of monochrome "Black Paintings" made on an assortment of collaged surfaces had come about largely because a series of cans of paint that Rauschenberg bought at a discount price all turned out to be red. The color proved to be such a challenge that he branched out into using different shades of red, even using fingernail polish as a variety. Alongside this increased painterly variation in tone and application of paint, Rauschenberg also began to open the painted surface of these works to reveal more and more of the collaged elements that made up the surface of their ground, along with newsprint from the funny papers, or fabric printed with famous artworks including Renoir's Girl with Watering Can. Rauschenberg dissolved the hierarchy between "high" and "low" art, by placing a Renoir reproduction in the same plane as the Katzenjammer Kids. By 1954, as Untitled, with its material appendages and in particular its clump of dried grass affixed to the surface reveals, Rauschenberg was beginning to experiment with the attachment of external three-dimensional objects drawn from the real world of his immediate environment appended onto and into the aesthetic logic of his paintings. The introduction of such elements was a direct way of incorporating reality into his work without needing to imitate of approximate it. As Calvin Tomkins has written of this radical and simple approach, its significance lay in that its, "method of juxtaposition, of setting one thing beside another" was not, "connective" and thereby it seemed to, "reflect the breakdown of linear, sequential, cause-and-effect thinking in modern science, and in modern thought in general. Collage was all-at-once, like the front page of the New York Times (or) Marshall McLuhan's 'information brushing information'" (Ibid, p. 87).
Drawing on elements found in his immediate environment, Rauschenberg began to create works that, spontaneously he hoped, would "evolve" themselves into existence before his eyes. It was at this time that he began to think of himself collaborating with his materials in a partnership in which they used him to assert themselves and bring themselves into being. Influenced by his friend John Cage's embracing of chance as an irrational ordering force, Rauschenberg sought to create autonomous "randomly ordered" works in which all elements were equal and nothing was filtered through the distortive lens of conventional aesthetics or the artist's own taste. 'It sounds so simple-minded,' he once observed of his practice, 'but it happens quite often that I think what the painting needs is a little red right over there and by the time I get the red on the brush and back to the picture I can't remember where I thought it was to go. But there I am with red and there's the picture and I put it down. And then that's much more interesting for me than sort of building a picture as one might build anything. I prefer the attitude of the picture just evolving rather than working towards some kind of conclusion. I think the largest consideration is that you don't let any single element dominate the picture. So that nothing becomes subservient' (R. Rauschenberg, "Interview with David Sylvester," August 1964, in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001, p. 137). As a result of this approach, Rauschenberg's Combines increasingly came to reflect their unique and often, at this time, quite personal relationship within the life of the artist. Distinguished by the stark authenticity, powerful vitality and personal intimacy of many of the elements that went into making them, several early Combines took on a kind of autobiographical quality. Responding to this tendency for a while, Rauschenberg began to include family photographs, news clippings about his relatives and images and objects of importance to him, even, some critics have suggested, camouflaging intimate personal messages into these works. In addition, as in Untitled, Rauschenberg also began to append and include distinctly domestic items, especially fabrics, wall coverings, and other textiles indicative of a kind-of childlike nostalgia yearning for the concept of home. Although caught up in his close relationship with Jasper Johns at this time, Rauschenberg, was often homesick for Texas and greatly missed the presence of his young son Christopher. With its extensive use of comic strips and different brightly colored fabrics brilliantly collated into a vivid composition and child's bedroom-like fabric portrait of a little girl placed prominently at its center, Untitled is a Combine that is particularly evocative of such domestic sentiment. Intimate in scale and yet assertive and radiant in its brilliant red and colorful invocation of a cornucopia of contemporary domestic décor, Untitled is an intense and powerful memento - an assemblage as personal and mysterious in its imagery as it is open, bold and radical in the manner and style of its execution.