In Untitled Robert Rauschenberg has consciously constructed a terrain of deeply meaningful societal symbols. Commissioned in 1965 by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Rauschenberg filled the field with iconic images bearing historical and racial significance, most prominently John F. Kennedy, in a widely circulated three-quarter presidential portrait and in an excerpted close-up, as well as a Native American, Lady Liberty, industrial smokestacks and a Civil War monument, along with highways, water towers and racecars, the latter drawing from the artist's own photographs. An artist of vast creative temperament and subversive energy, Rauschenberg was not content merely to honor the pacifist organization, formed in 1942 by a group of interracial students in Chicago, but rather to incite memory--and shame--through visual exhortation and image-play, including not only a reminder of those who were suppressed in spite of their proclivity to nonviolent resistance, but also a political leader, who was, in his prime, felled by violence. Rauschenberg's sly enlargement of Kennedy's pointing finger can be understood metaphorically as an analogue both of his death by assassination and a poignant, if emblematic admonition against violence.
The image of JFK was used for the first time in the silkscreen paintings in 1964. Another image of the president had been used in Rauschenberg's 1959--61 series, Canto, Drawings for Dante's Inferno (XXXIV), as a surrogate for the poet himself. The more august image, ordered before his assassination, presented a conundrum for the artist after the president was murdered, yet this photo came to represent, like images of Washington or Lincoln before it, an icon of "what a president is supposed to be--somebody special, not somebody you're comfortable with. One of the things that was so shocking about his death was that it was so believable; it wasn't out of scale with the strength of abruptness of all things he'd done in office" (C. Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, New York, 1980, p. 214). Used in eight paintings over a two-year period, the present work embeds this image of the President in an overlapping array of symbols of Americana, industry, flight and various advanced technologies ranging from space travel to highway systems. Here Rauschenberg also takes advantage of the four-color process used in separate stages for creating silkscreened images in color. Red, white and blue are prominent among the black and yellow, the symbolism of the striped flag suggested by the blue-banded cropped image, suggesting the American flag. These colors evoke a patriotic mood, juxtaposing and overlapping the hot red of the warning stop sign and the cooler blue used for Kennedy. As an acknowledgment of his death, a ghostly shadow, the original black and white photo of the same image, emerges from underneath creating a cross-shape, the universal symbol of martyrdom. The notion that art can serve as a vehicle for protest against violence and the misuse of technologies is emphasized both by the glaring red stop sign and the seemingly severed finger-pointing hand, accentuating both warning and resistance.
At the time of CORE commission, Rauschenberg felt that the image of the President would be considered, like Lincoln's; a vision of political humanitarianism and change. As with all images, our perception is enhanced by its familiarity even as it is troubled by the unfamiliar context of its appearance before us. As Dean Swanson has remarked, Rauschenberg's images are several times removed from the moment of their recording, yet in work such as Untitled, 1965, "content and medium are one and the same" (D. Swanson, Robert Rauschenberg: Paintings 1953--1964, exh. cat. Walker Art Cener, Minneapolis, 1965, n.p.). This work in particular is a "total environment," where elements of life, art--and politics--converge.