"It was like a scene out of an old Warner Brothers movie; one almost expected Bogart to appear at any moment.
The two men were walking briskly down East 77th Street in mid-afternoon brazenly carrying a lumpy, dirty, gray cloth bag; the kind that might be used for gold dust or stolen goods. One of the men was small, trim, nattily dressed: he had the face of a rodent; an intelligent sensitive rodent, wary of scientific experiment. The other man was younger, taller, fatter, flamboyant in a red vest; his face was like a cherub's. The dirty bag swung jauntily from his hand.
The small man pecked his head toward the bag. "Careful," he warned.
The cherub laughed. "Don't worry. I'm guarding it with my life."
The two men ducked into a hallway, climbed a flight of stairs, and pushed open a door marked: Rudolf Granec. Granec had been expecting them. He pointed to a huge painting leaning against the side wall. It consisted chiefly of broad painterly dabs, but imbedded in the upper left corner was a realistic photo reproduction of a network of derricks or towers strung latticelike across a horizon. The painting was designed to be hung in two separate panels four inches apart and at the moment a clothesline attached to a pulley was strung limply across the middle of it.
"Perfect," said Ivan Karp, the cherub, director of the Leo Castelli Gallery.
"Voila," said Leo Castelli, the little man.
A Studio Painting by Robert Rauschenberg was now ready for delivery.
(J. Greenfield, "Sort of the Svengali of Pop," The New York Times Magazine, May 8, 1966, p. 34)
Executed in 1960-61, Studio Painting is one of the finest of Rauschenberg's later Combines that was included in both the Jewish Museum and the Venice Biennale, where it was awarded the Gran Premio. An open and self-demonstrative work that emphasizes the material nature and the process of its own making, it is a dynamic and vivid exploration and exposure of the intuitive mechanics and material construction of what it is that constitutes a picture - all presented and investigated as if from the analytical viewpoint of an engineer.
Appropriately entitled Studio Painting this 1961 belongs among his last series of Combines in which Rauschenberg made specific use of these radical and anomalous works to explore the nature, boundaries and limitations of the creative practice and the whole art of image-making. "Painting relates to both art and life," Rauschenberg had famously announced at the 16 Americans exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art at the end of 1959, "Neither can be made. I try to act in the gap between the two."
Drawing on apparently random elements and materials found within the immediate environment of his daily life and then "painting" with them by instinctively "combining" them into his largely canvas-based painted assemblages, Rauschenberg's Combines - so-called because they seemingly "combined" the two traditionally separate disciplines of painting and sculpture - attempted to give an accurate picture of what he described as the randomness or "non-order" of life that he also believed, "cannot be described as accidental" (Robert Rauschenberg cited in Mary Lynn Kotz Rauschenberg/Art and Life New York, 1990, p. 103).
Through to the spontaneous prompts such seemingly chance discoveries provoked in him, Rauschenberg developed an aesthetic process - once described by him as "random ordering." Recognizing, in particular that the kind of self-absorbed, soul-searching approach of the Abstract Expressionists, then currently in vogue in New York, was not only against his own nature, but also, in fact, unnecessary, Rauschenberg had begun to work more or less spontaneously and instinctively with the objects, materials and detritus of the very urban everyday reality he found around him. Applying something of Marcel Duchamp's indifference to his choice of objects and his friend John Cage's Zen-influenced ideas about composition, Rauschenberg's Combines encouraged this flotsam of the streets and his studio to assert itself in his work in such a seemingly arbitrary and unstructured way that each element seemed to establish its own autonomous identity, independence and surprising facticity. "I put my trust in materials that confront me," he said at this time, because it is they that "put me in touch with the unknown" (quoted in John Gruen, "Robert Rauschenberg: An Audience of One," Artnews, New York, 76 , no. 2 , Feb 1977, p. 48).
The importance of Rauschenberg's objects, their significance and any possible symbolism they might convey, was also deliberately underplayed so that no one element ever came to seem more chosen or important than another. In his earlier Combines, however, Rauschenberg had often infused his work with a sense of biography, incorporating personal items and effects into his work, along with a plenitude of photographic material. By 1959, and wary of what he now described as the "souvenir quality" of some of these earlier works, he consciously sought for a more objective and documentary-like selection of objects and materials. As Calvin Tomkins has pointed out, in these later Combines, Rauschenberg started to "think of himself as a reporter, someone who bore visual witness to the constantly shifting, gritty, tension-filled life he saw around him in downtown Manhattan." (Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1981, p. 115).
Always reflective of the artist's changing environment, Rauschenberg's later Combines increasingly came to feature larger, often isolated and more physically assertive objects such as machine parts and electric and industrial items found in the Front Street neighbourhood around his studio during what was at the time a period of massive construction works and major urban redevelopment. Although devoid of such parts, save for the prominent sandbag, rope and pulley, Studio Painting made shortly after Rauschenberg's move to a new and even larger loft studio in Broadway in early 1961, is a work that reflects Rauschenberg's increased concern with the constructional nature of his Combines. A major example of the more structural direction of his Combines of this time, it is a work that, as its title to some degree suggests, is concerned with the constructive process of picture-making and also the structural nature of what a painting is.
Consisting of two equal canvas panels separated by a small (usually three inch) gap, and connected by a rope sandbag and pulley adjoining them, this Combine, asserts itself as a kind of self-demonstrative exercise in the many practices and techniques of picture-making. Here, as if anticipating his later transfer drawings and Silkscreen Paintings, both the reality and illusionism of painting and of image-making, are constantly juxtaposed and made to play off one another in a sequence of pictorial games that Rauschenberg has cleverly set up within the work.
Most apparent in this respect, is the way in which the three dimensional physicality of the work - the actual structure of the canvas itself and the rough materiality of its paint - is contrasted and emphasized by the way in which Rauschenberg has consistently juxtaposed it with the flat and traditionally illusional zone of the canvas surface.
This essential flatness of the canvas plane - a feature that is commonly emphasized in Rauschenberg's work - is here most strongly stressed of course, by the tangible weight and mass of the demonstrably real three-dimensional sandbag that hangs like a touch stone of reality in front of the picture plane. It is also reinforced however, at various other points in the work, particularly in the manner in which Rauschenberg has painted it. In a move that echoes his suspension of the pillow from the stuffed eagle in his epic Combine, Canyon of 1959 for example, Rauschenberg has here left unpainted, the empty strip of bare canvas behind the suspended sandbag, simultaneously stressing both the flat empty plane of the canvas and the downward gravitational pull of the sandbag on the rope. Here the illusive space of the picture plane actually combines with the physical reality of the exterior world to create a new and ambiguous 'combined' dimension.
This inherent ambiguity is perhaps, most clearly illustrated of course, by the physical space that Rauschenberg has introduced between the two apparent halves of the canvas. Following the examples of other Combines such as Winter Pool, Pilgrim and Trophy II (For Teeny and Marcel Duchamp) where large three-dimensional objects such as a ladder, a chair or a metal chain have been thrust into this illusionary space of the picture plane, this game of playing one reality off against another is here repeated in a sequence of different ways. Perhaps most important in Studio Painting in this respect, is that here, in addition to painting in a wild variety of different non-styles, splashing, dripping, scrubbing, pasting and brushing the paint on the surface, Rauschenberg has combined these into what is overall a cohesive painterly unity, albeit one of surprising compositional ambiguity. In this way Studio Painting appears to exist simultaneously as both a complete interconnected and "combined" unity and as a work segregated into two deliberately different and even contradictory panels.
The left-hand panel of the work Rauschenberg has painted predominantly using black and white and incorporated into this is a range of mixed-media imagery including a street poster and a black and white photograph of electricity pylons. The monochrome illusionism of the latter's flat photographic image is for example, directly contrasted by the radiant colour and plastic realism of the thickly painted colourful abstract composition, the textural strip of fabric from a workman's overall and the material bulk of the suspended sandbag hanging in front of the right-hand canvas panel. Each panel appears to assert itself as the opposite of the other and yet bridged by the builder's pulley and rope, together these two equal but opposing canvases ultimately combine in the mind's eye, to form a new, bizarre and surprising kind of pictorial unity.
It is in this way that Studio Painting appears to give an object lesson in the aesthetic language of painting itself. A kind of pictorial deconstruction of the entire language of painting, this work comes close in its formal and analytical taking apart of painterly practice to the colder more intellectual approach shared by two of Rauschenberg's closest influences at this time: Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns. Indeed, in the manner in which Rauschenberg has chosen to introduce the suspended sandbag as a kind of interventional graphic element to the work, Studio Painting strongly echoes and anticipates similar intervening devices used by Johns during the same period - Good Time Charley, Device Circle and Fool's House for example, where the placement of real objects such as wooden rulers or a broom have also been appended to the canvas and used to intervene directly to determine the resultant form of the painted surface of the work. Studio Painting ultimately differs from the cold logic displayed in such works however in the way in which Rauschenberg has allowed the impulsive spontaneity and "random order" of his unique brushwork a far freer reign. Unlike Johns, Rauschenberg's deliberate anti-style of painting was always intended to deny much of the notion of an aesthetically pleasing mark, or the kind of individualist touch so prized for example by the Abstract Expressionists. In what was probably a direct reaction to and against the principles held by his former teacher at Black Mountain College Joseph Albers, Rauschenberg's anti-style of painting was aimed at allowing each brushstroke, mark, smear smudge and color to assert itself, independently and autonomously as a equally valid constituent part. Albers' color theory of "combinations" and his contrasting of different materials and pure colors undoubtedly informed Rauschenberg's constantly asserted technique of placing everything in direct contrast and juxtaposition in this respect. Only where Albers considered every color equally valid and the artist's choice therefore of paramount importance, Rauschenberg, just as logically, saw the opposite, preferring to celebrate an equality of value by keeping all the elements of picture-making wholly autonomous and by deliberately refusing to make a choice. "Albers' rule was to make order," Rauschenberg once explained, "but I consider myself successful when I do something that resembles the lack of order that I sense" (Robert Rauschenberg, in Calvin Tomkins Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1981, p. 115). Studio Painting is in this respect one of the finest and most comprehensive expressions of Rauschenberg's creative credo.