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Transom: A pyrotechnic display of Robert Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking visual language

Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art Alice de Roquemaurel takes a closer look at Transom (1963), offered in our Evening Auction on 7 March in London

‘When you look at this work you can really see how much Rauschenberg has influenced contemporary art and contemporary artists,’ comments Senior Specialist Alice de Roquemaurel as she gazes at Robert Rauschenberg’s Transom, a silkscreen painting made in 1963.

Rauschenberg was a pioneer of silkscreening, commencing this series at around the same time as his friend Andy Warhol first employed the process. A number of the ‘Silkscreen Paintings’ were part of the show that earned Rauschenberg the Grand Prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale. 

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Transom, 1963. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 56 x 50 in (142.2 x 127 cm). Estimate £4,000,000-6,000,000. This lot is offered in Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 7 March 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Transom, 1963. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 56 x 50 in (142.2 x 127 cm). Estimate: £4,000,000-6,000,000. This lot is offered in Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 7 March 2017 at Christie’s in London, King Street

His win was a watershed in 20th-century art. Despite the spectacular rise of the New York School over the preceding decade, the Grand Prize for painting had until this point regularly been awarded to European painters, especially those who were followers of the School of Paris. With Rauschenberg, American Pop had arrived in Europe — to cries of ‘cultural colonisation’ from outraged European critics.

Rauschenberg is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at London’s Tate Modern (until April 2017, later travelling to the Museum of Modern Art, New York), where a key room is dedicated to the ‘Silkscreen Paintings’ — many of them on loan from major museum collections. Reflecting their centrality to his oeuvre, these works mark a full flowering of Rauschenberg’s freeform creativity.

Unlike Rauschenberg’s earlier ‘Combines’, which married painting, assemblage and sculpture, the ‘Silkscreen Paintings’ are exclusively photograph-based, sourced from his own snapshots or from magazines such as LIFE, Time and National Geographic.

‘Almost the whole of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, but most particularly the Silkscreen Paintings, anticipates contemporary works in which images are used to create images’ — Roni Feinstein

Rauschenberg and Warhol were introduced to each other by Henry Geldzahler in 1962, and shared a fruitful relationship. While Warhol readily subsumed his work and his Pop persona into the world of consumerism and celebrity, Rauschenberg wished his art to remain separate from such concerns. The exchange between their working methods, however, would prove pivotal to both artists’ careers.

Rauschenberg’s silkscreens went beyond a cool Warholian focus on commercial imagery. Taught by Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, and an intimate friend of both Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg was alert to mark-making and the craft of composition. He travelled Europe with Twombly in the early 1950s, accumulating experiences and images that would influence both their practices.

In the catalogue for the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962–64, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1991, art historian Roni Feinstein writes, ‘Almost the whole of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, but most particularly the Silkscreen Paintings, anticipates contemporary works in which images are used to create images’. 

Rauschenberg’s early dialogues with Warhol, Twombly and Johns were electric. His work of the 1950s and early 1960s would inspire Pop artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including David Hockney and Ed Ruscha. His influence can also be traced in the work of his German contemporary Sigmar Polke. His ideas course through Richard Prince’s 1980s appropriations, and the urban and literary image-channelling of Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Following in Rauschenberg’s footsteps today, the painterly silkscreens of Christopher Wool and the accelerated post-Internet collisions of artists such as Kelley Walker continue to exploit the ‘availability,’ multiplicity and excitement of the modern image, using tactics that remain deeply indebted to Rauschenberg’s ‘Silkscreen Paintings’.