"One of the great paintings that left a mark on me is Leonardo's Annunciation in Florence. In that canvas the tree, the rock, the Virgin are all of equal importance. There is no gradation It was Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation that provided the shock which made me paint as I do now" (Robert Rauschenberg talking in 1961 quoted in "Un 'misfit' de la peinture new-yorkaise se confesse," Les Arts et Spectat, no. 821, May 1961).
An astute and colorful fusion of modern mass media imagery, contemporary print technology, art history and pictorial practice, Trapeze is a complex and spectacular, work belonging to the celebrated series of "Silkscreen Paintings" that Rauschenberg made in the early 1960s. A self-referential investigation into the nature and conventions of image-making, this intuitively arrived-at work is one of a dynamic series of image-laden silkscreen paintings that are among the first works of 20th Century art to both anticipate and give visual form to the post-modernist idea of appropriation, seamless streaming imagery and information overload. First created as a way of escaping what Rauschenberg described at the time as "the familiarity of objects and collage" - which his eight years of working with the Combines had provoked in him, his Silkscreen Paintings were in part both a reaction against and a painterly extension of this earlier landmark series of "randomly ordered" painting-and-sculpture assemblages. Displaying what Robert Hughes has described as a "brilliantly heightened documentary flavor" Rauschenberg's Silkscreen Paintings were works that seemed to trap and accumulate an entire world of disparate and dynamic images on their demonstrably flat canvas surfaces. "One was reminded," Hughes wrote, "of the shuttle and flicker of a TV set as the dial is clicked: rocket, eagle, Kennedy, dancer, oranges, box, all registered with the peacock-hued, aniline-sharp intensity of electronic color. The subject was glut" (Robert Hughes, "The Most Living Artist," Time, New York, November 29, 1976).
"I was bombarded with TV sets and magazines, by the excess of the world," Rauschenberg once explained of these now seminal 1960s works. "I thought an honest work should incorporate all of these elements" (Robert Rauschenberg, cited in Mary Lynn Kotz, Rauschenberg/Art and Life, New York, 1990, p. 99). Rauschenberg began the Silkscreen Paintings in the autumn of 1962 and the series was effectively completed in June 1964 when Rauschenberg, on winning the International Gran Premio for Painting at the Venice Biennale, promptly phoned home to order the destruction of all his remaining silkscreens as part of a deliberate strategy aimed at avoiding any temptation to now repeat himself. Trapeze, of 1964, culminates the series. Rauschenberg had begun the works originally using only black and white. An extension of his recent transfer drawings and Dante illustrations into the less graphic but more contemporary, mechanical and immediate medium of the silkscreen photographic transfer, Rauschenberg chose at first to eschew color in these works because, he knew himself to be "such a pushover for it" (Calvin Tomkins, "The Sistine on Broadway" in Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, exh. cat., Whitney, New York, 1990, p. 15). He feared it might interfere with the new pictorial problems he was now deliberately setting for himself.
In fact, as Calvin Tomkins, who spent much time with Rauschenberg during this important period, has pointed out, the technical difficulties and uncertainties he originally feared in the silkscreen process were "made to order for him," because of the way in which they always kept the process from becoming too familiar. "The materials he was working with stubbornly asserted their particularity," Tomkins reported, and Rauschenberg, always had "the sense (an illusion perhaps, but for Bob a necessary one), that he was collaborating in a process over which he did not exercise complete control, and that the results might therefore turn out to be more interesting and surprising than they could have been otherwise" (Ibid., p. 15).
Soon reveling in the new process, in the summer of 1963 he began to work using intense electric colors, eliciting a dynamic chromatic transparency that the critic Max Kozloff memorably described at the time as "midway in effect between Titian and color television" (Ibid., p. 50). Working intuitively with a variety of screen images and often on several canvases at once, Rauschenberg luxuriated in playing with the process of making a screen printed image, defying convention and pulling and extending the act of making the image into numerous new surprising directions spontaneously dictated to him by whim, accident and intuitive design. Often repeating his imagery, angling and even inverting it, or highlighting and veiling it with separate different colored painterly swipes of the squeegee, Rauschenberg began to create works that displayed a dynamic sensation of pictorial rhythm, motion and flux. A seemingly endless and often balletic flow of imagery that, if it signified anything, articulated the playful and physical involvement of the artist, Rauschenberg's often dance-like deconstruction of his medium effectively transformed the procedural mechanics of the silkscreen method into an open and malleable expos of the nature of imagery and the entire practice of image-making as a whole. Indeed, it was this aspect of these groundbreaking works that, as they progressed, the Silkscreen Paintings increasingly came to reflect.
Following a process that he came to define as "the random ordering" of things, Rauschenberg's essentially open way of working, of allowing things to assert themselves as they are, came to be formalized in a unique manifesto-like publication he produced in the spring of 1963 entitled "Random Order." In this mixed-media publication, in which words, photographs and silkscreen images intermingled to mysterious poetic effect, Rauschenberg effectively demonstrated his belief that, "the logical or illogical relationship between one thing and another is no longer a gratifying subject to the artist as the awareness grows that even in his most devastating or heroic moment he is part of the density of uncensored continuum that neither begins nor ends with any decision of his" (Rauschenberg writing in 1961, in Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, exh. cat., Whitney, New York, 1990, p. 76).
As a silkscreen work reproduced in "Random Order" and appropriately entitled Renascence illustrates, it was with the apparent limitation and conflict between traditional conventions of seeing and representing the world and the apparently seamless flow and unending flux of reality that, through his silkscreen paintings, Rauschenberg had become most concerned at this time. Like Renascence, many of the Silkscreen Paintings that he subsequently made in 1964 would come to be centred on the juxtaposition of these two themes - contrasting the practical and art-historical conventions of image-making and representation with an apparent "uncensored continuum" of imagery deriving from the immediate world of current American life.
Trapeze is a one of Rauschenberg's culminating achievements in this respect. One of a series of a colorful Silkscreen Paintings to make use of a repeated sequence of images that included the contemporary themes of spaceflight, military helicopters, and John F. Kennedy juxtaposed with Renaissance masterpieces, perspectival diagrams and Rauschenberg's own photographs of New York, it is a work that openly mimics and mocks the grand pictorial traditions of Western art.
Visually separated into two parts, above and below, the painting seems to take the form of an Annunciation and derives most probably in this respect from Leonardo da Vinci's Annuciation in the Uffizzi in Florence, of which Rauschenberg had once declared, that with its "equal importance" given to each individual element of the picture, it had "provided the shock which made me paint as I do now." In Trapeze, the annunciating angel is represented by the tripartite image of a parachuting spaceman - a favorite image that appears in all the great Rauschenberg silkscreen paintings of the period from Retroactive I and II to his giant mural for the 1964 World's Fair, Skyway. The Virgin is here represented by the figure of Venus admiring herself in another much-favored picture, Rubens' Venus in Front of the Mirror, 1613. Images of spaceflight abound in Rauschenberg's silkscreen paintings, seeming to epitomise the brave new world of the American future, while Rubens' Venus, like Velasquez's Rokeby Venus which also appears in many of Rauschenberg's paintings at this time, is, in direct contrast, a famous historical image of a classical nude observing herself in a mirror. Each of these 17th Century masterpieces is a well-known example of the theme of the picture-within-a-picture often used to illustrate art-historical discussions about the nature of seeing and representation. Indeed, although the actual image of the Rubens, like so many from this period, including that of the parachuting astronaut, was taken from a 1963 edition of LIFE magazine, this painting was one of Rauschenberg's favorite works of art and one that he reportedly knew well from his art history classes at the Kansas City art institute.
The playful theme of the ambiguity between seeing and representation asserted in these two masterpieces also forms the central theme of Trapeze. Magnifying the ambiguity between image and representation in every direction he can think of, Rauschenberg has here repeated and highlighted the imagery and the image-making process at every opportunity. While the image of the astronaut is repeated three times as if suggesting an Edweard Muybridge-like pattern of descent, highlighted with different color sweeps of the squeegee and outlined in oil paint, the double-headed image of Venus admiring herself is framed, like a picture on its own, in an orange-red rectangle. Emphasizing this picture-within-a-picture and the ambiguity and mystery of an image looking at itself in such a way that it here seems to form another autonomous picture complete in itself only serves to add yet another layer of pictorial mystery and confusion. This multiplicity is subsequently expanded by Rauschenberg's abstract painterly additions and highlights made with a brush and also the inclusion of the diagrammatic perspectival cuboid at the bottom of the painting. This illustrative image, which also formed the centre of Rauschenberg's silkscreen painting Renascence, is a visual demonstration of the illusionism of perspective deriving from Renaissance treatises on perspective and painting by such figures as Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti that lends a further dimension to the painting's overriding theme of the effective illusionism of all imagery. In yet a further move that emphasizes both the artifice of the process through which such images have come into being as well as the artifice and also the material realism of the picture itself, Rauschenberg has included an image of the real wooden framework of the canvas into the painting's imagery. As if in response to the illusionism of the diagram of the cuboid drawn in perspective, Rauschenberg has in this work deliberately screened his images of the astronaut and the Rubens directly against the stretcher supports of the canvas. This has allowed the shadowy grid-like impressions of the stretchers that are created by such a method to become part of the resultant image in a way that not only reveals the artifice and unconventional manner of their making but also establishes a further trompe l'oeil-like layer of visual ambiguity to the picture.
In this deliberately self-referential and open concentration on the process by which the work itself has come into being, Rauschenberg's approach reflects the same kind of aesthetic that Marcel Duchamp applied to his ready-made and assisted ready-made works of art as well as his final definitive painting Tu'm. Indeed in this respect there is one further masterpiece that Trapeze also formally emulates. Comprised of what is essentially two distinct images - one of multiple descending males, one of an oblivious self-reflective female nude - divided horizontally into above and below on a vertical panel amidst an open game-like play of illusion, artifice and visual puns, Trapeze echoes closely the formal properties of Duchamp's Bride stripped bare by her bachelors even or The Large Glass that Rauschenberg and Johns had first made a kind of pilgrimage out to Philadelphia to see in 1957.
A deliberate counterplay of classical and modern, heaven and earth, male and female, image and abstraction and illusion and reality, Trapeze, like these works, is therefore, as its title suggests, ultimately an extraordinary virtuoso balletic performance, a flight of fantasy, and a daring pictorial balancing act on and about the art and mystery of painting.