Robert Rauschenberg’s Untitled belongs to a select group of silkscreen paintings created between the Fall of 1962 and late Spring of 1964. These paintings developed the ideas laid out in Rauschenberg’s transfer drawings, in which he applied newspaper and magazine imagery directly onto the paper surface. Painted in 1963, Untitled depicts several important recurring motifs—a photographer’s strobe light umbrella, the New York Hilton Hotel under construction and three circular discs that recall car headlights—that are silkscreened in black ink amidst lush passages of vigorously brushed paint. These seemingly random images are in fact deeply personal, layered with multiple meanings and autobiographical references. Interwoven in a palimpsest-like arrangement and punctuated by gestural strokes of luminous pigment, the images encoded in Untitled provide a concise lexicon of Rauschenberg’s iconography at the time. They recur throughout the series, in different combinations and arrangements, most notably in the artist’s monumental Barge of 1962-1963 (jointly owned by Guggenheim Bilbao and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).
Rauschenberg most likely painted Untitled in his studio at 809 Broadway, in the long and narrow fifth floor loft that was a hub of creative activity at that time. The predominantly black-and-white palette of Untitled mimics the look of Rauschenberg’s source imagery and imparts an atmospheric, archival quality to the painting. Starting in 1963, Rauschenberg gradually introduced color to the series, and Untitled displays the pale washes of soft pigment that typify these delicate forays back into the world of color. The largest and most predominant image—the photographer’s strobe light umbrella—has been applied in four different screenings, so that it appears at once upside-down, right-side-up and slightly tilted at a forty-five-degree angle. Left of center, a black-and-white image of the partially-constructed New York Hilton Hotel is visible, though slightly obscured by tender drips of black paint that run down the canvas surface. In the lower right, several images have been laid down while still wet, then washed out and gone over again, probably in alternating layers of turpentine, silkscreen ink and oil paint. A rather dream-like quality emerges as the viewer attempts to puzzle out the images’ meaning, making the overall effect of Rauschenberg’s canvas both delicate and startling; the imagery is familiar, yet deliberately obscured in order to elude our grasp.
Rauschenberg produced Untitled during an intensely creative period that saw a flourishing of activity across a wide spectrum of media. On May 9, 1963, Rauschenberg’s Pelican premiered at the Pop Festival in Washington, D.C.— the first of eleven performance-based works that he would choreograph and design between 1963 and 1968. Earlier that year, Rauschenberg’s first retrospective opened to much acclaim at the Jewish Museum in New York, where critics hailed him as “one of the most fascinating artists around.” For his performance in Pelican, Rauschenberg wore roller-skates and a combination umbrella/parachute strapped to his back, and indeed, the umbrella is one of Rauschenberg’s most recurrent motifs. It appears throughout his oeuvre across a variety of media. In the Combines series, the umbrella is included as a real-world object, as in the paintings Allegory of 1959-1960 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) and Charlene of 1954 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), or crowning the top of a sculpture, as in The Tower of 1957 (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville).
In the present work, Rauschenberg depicts a specific kind of umbrella used by photographers to control and regulate light in their work, which can be easily opened and closed, rotated and transported from location to location. He repeats the image multiple times in Untitled, as well as across the series as a whole. It appears in at least three other paintings of the 1960’s—Barge, 1963 (Guggenheim Bilbao and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), Scanning, 1963 and Autobiography, 1968 (both San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Other types of umbrellas populate the series too, from the beach umbrellas of picture-postcards to the innovative “balloon/parachute” pioneered by NASA for their Gemini spacecraft. Indeed, the umbrella trope is a highly personal recurring motif and it is tempting to conclude that Rauschenberg considered the umbrella as an autobiographical symbol, as a stand-in for the artist himself. James Lawrence writes “Common sense tells us what Rauschenberg knew: that an umbrella is many things at once. It is shelter; it catches the air and can blow away or float to the ground; it rotates like a wheel, or like a windmill. It can be presented as a pattern…or as a projection with an almost organic structure. …Rauschenberg’s motifs do not come as components or modules of meaning, but as sets of characteristics that adapt to different settings” (J. Lawrence, “Full Circle,” Robert Rauschenberg, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2010, pp. 20, 22).
Indeed, the “setting” that Rauschenberg provides in Untitled is a predominantly black-and-white environment in which photographic imagery emerges from a brightly-lit background, achieved by applying a layer of smooth, white paint as an undercoat and another application around the edges of the umbrella. Because of this, Rauschenberg’s imagery emerges with a stark graphic efficiency from the bright, white background with a nearly photographic precision; its effect is akin to watching a photographic negative develop under black light—the images emerge slowly at first, only to lock into place with a profound formal authority. Indeed, the act of picture-making itself is often referenced in Rauschenberg’s silkscreen paintings, and in Untitled the imagery he uses certainly points to the method of making pictures. The photographer’s light umbrella is a central motif, and the photograph of the New York Hilton Hotel under construction might be analogous to the laborious, step-by-step process of artmaking and all its component parts.
While a definitive meaning in Rauschenberg’s Untitled is impossible to pin down, the themes that emerge from a prolonged viewing are infinitely rich and deeply personal. Rauschenberg’s umbrella conjures many associations; from the rainy Parisian streets of Gustave Caillebotte to the Surrealist paintings of René Magritte. Culling imagery from contemporary magazines and newspapers, like Life, Newsweek, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, along with his own black and white photographs, Rauschenberg selected imagery that most resonated with his own unique pictorial concerns. These images multiply, recurring in different orientations, colors and contexts across the series with an almost musical rhythm. The artist himself aptly described their effect, “It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street. There’s that same quality of surprise and freshness. When I get the screens back from the shop, the images on them look different from the way they did in the original magazine cutouts because of the change in scale, so that’s a surprise. They look different again when I transfer them to canvas. And they constantly suggest different things when they’re juxtaposed with other images. Some images absolutely insist on being themselves, no matter what you do with them” (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings 1962-1964, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 16).