The four important early works that Robert Rauschenberg gifted Susan Weil after returning from his travels between Rome and North Africa point not only to a pivotal instant in Rauschenberg's career, but also an intense partnership in life and art. Rauschenberg met Weil in Paris in 1948, the two were living in the same pension in Mountparnasse and attending school at the Académie Julian. Quickly realizing they did not have to study in Paris to be artists, the two began an extraordinary relationship--taking to the streets and wandering around with their sketch pads and oil crayons. That August, Susan departed for Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and Rauschenberg followed, excited to receive a disciplined education from Joseph Albers, a veteran of the Bauhaus. The two studied there together under John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Josef and Anni Albers for the 1948 and 1949 academic year. Together they engaged in many artistic collaborations, most notably the Blueprint paintings of 1950, and after getting married in June of 1950, the two returned to Black Mountain for the 1951 and 1952 summer sessions with their friend Cy Twombly. Emerging as one of the leading artistic couples of the 1950s, Weil and Rauschenberg together pursued an aesthetic that would change the face of modern art.
Perhaps the most fabled journey in the history of modern art, the legendary retreat that Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly embarked on in the summer of 1952 for eight months, produced a stunning series of thirty-three intimate collages. Travelling through Europe and North Africa, the two initially survived on Twombly's grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, living together in a flat on the Piazza di Spagna, at the foot of the Spanish steps. Yet, it soon became clear that Twombly's grant was not going to support two people for very long. Leaving Twombly in Rome, Rauschenberg set off for Northern Africa to seek employment. Inhibited by his own circumstances--limited funds, constant traveling, scarce accommodations and the demands of menial jobs--Rauschenberg was forced to pack and carry his materials with him. An important relic of both his explorations in Rome and Northern Africa, as well as the fundamental key in his own artistic voyage, the small, personal assemblages rendered atop cardboard saved from laundered shirts, are among the most informative creations in the artist's oeuvre. Whereas most of the works from this series borrow their cut-and-paste printed images from antiquated anatomy and zoology books, perhaps none more reflective of this grand tour, Untitled (locomotive), possesses significant iconography, in the form of a steam engine. A dream document, assembled on a romantic expedition, surreal, light, and rich with prognosticative information, Untitled (locomotive) is marked by both the camaraderie and marvel of travel.
Constructed to abide by Rauschenberg's tendency to generate rectilinear configurations, Untitled (locomotive) is at once austere, minimal, and rich with imagistic iconography. Evidence of his time spent browsing antique bookstalls and flea markets, the assemblage is dominated by a centrally pasted book engraving diagraming a nineteenth century French steam train designed by Charles Derosne and Jean-Francois Cail. A hunter-gather artist, Rauschenberg mounted his findings on delicate, almost fragile locally found paper. Below the upper horizontal band, occupied by a collaged strip of gauze emerging from behind a subtle layer of tanned paper, a surreal column of found imagist materials is stacked one on top of the other and employed in a way to reflect their origins. Exhibiting his own innate fascination with the diversity of signs and objects found both in the modern and primitive environments which surrounded him in Rome and Morocco, Rauschenberg's fragmentary use of printed Arabic, red silk, and mystic anatomical iconography demonstrates the integral expansion of his own lexicon of found objects on which he would later rely. By means of the most subtle shifts in color, texture, and surface structure, the carefully layered paper, tissues, silks and cardboards achieve a shallow relief that is nonetheless pronounced given the intimate scale of the work. Yet, as vigorous an editor as he was a collector, the foremost salient feature of Untitled (locomotive) is its sparseness.
Existing potentially as hand-held objects, Rauschenberg never sought to frame these early collages. While treating them as miniature reliefs may impart his tendency not to frame them, further implications are found in the playful hinged elements that alter the overall composition to uncover unexpected material beneath. In its own whimsical manner, two features of Untitled (locomotive) lift upward to reveal veiled imagery. Below the locomotive rail, a delicate fragment of sandy tissue raises to expose a clipping of elegant Italian penmanship. Conversely mirroring the concealed scrawl, which Rauschenberg undoubtedly captured on his journey through Rome, the extract of Arabic, assuredly collected while in Morocco, flips open to reveal a golden illustration of a classical female draped in robes marked on either side by rudimentary trees of Rauschenberg's own creation.
Ranging from abstract to specific, the imagery and technique employed in these early assemblages unites to serve a central compositional purpose. As a result, all active materials comprising Untitled (locomotive) must be examined for their aesthetic distinction. Here, glue, the essential adhesive component reaches beyond its innate properties to function as the primary fluid staining material. Intentionally commissioned along the outer edge of the central component, the glue not only fastens the engraving to the paper backing, but creates a highly calculated gradient along the bottom of the track, subtly revealing an abstracted, almost surreal, cadence of disjointed text.
Presaging his future work, most notably the Combines of the mid-1950s, these early shirtboard collages provide the blueprint for his iconic sculptural assemblages. Equally as important for its constituting elements as for its function, Untitled (locomotive) anticipates what is to come. While the swatch of magnificent red silk foretells Rauschenberg's subsequent Red Paintings, the cut-and-paste printed images remind the viewer of the imagistic quality of his Combines and prints. Even more, the whimsical hinged devices prophesy later types of mutability that allowed for the repositioning of elements within a work, seen in both aspects of opened or closed, seen or not seen, particularly noted in such 1955 combines as Interview and Short Circuit. It is in these early collages from Europe and North Africa that Rauschenberg establishes the general foundation of his visual language for the entirety of his artistic career.
While the art of the previous decade was grounded in the medium of painting exercised on a monumental platform, Robert Rauschenberg, seeking to break the tradition, focused his aesthetic on a more intimate scale with personalized and image based intentions. Limited to work on a scale he could comfortably carry throughout his grand journey between Europe and North Africa, Rauschenberg came to rely on the small strips of cardboard found among freshly washed shirts. One of only three surviving collages not mounted on the paperboard element, Untitled (locomotive) adopts the same portable format, carefully preserved by its creator. A small-scale paradigm for his future creations, Untitled (locomotive) marks a highly personal journey, both in the artist's life and the development of his career.