Created during the heady years of the early 1960s, Untitled, 1963, is among the finest examples of Rauschenberg's extraordinarily fertile imagination. Commanding a voracious and freewheeling grasp of materials and techniques, Rauschenberg had experimented with ways to release himself into an expressive artistic vocabulary that would mimic the speed, flux and derangement of contemporary life. Untitled reveals the artist in the heat of his creative energies as he transformed his radical three-dimensional painting-sculptures into two-dimensional combinatorial systems. In tones of black, white and gray, Rauschenberg combines images seemingly diverse--dancers, a football, a caged bird, architecture, and emblems for travel (boat or railroad)--into an overlapping mélange of forms amid essays in gestural abstraction.
Although seemingly random, the images are laid out in gridded formation, taking their key from the upper horizontal painted band swiped alternately in white, gray and yellow. This disposition of elements creates, in effect, three registers, each one laden with visual incident, which are then focused, unified and punctuated two white painterly blotches, one absolutely center, the other directly below. Presenting an array of literal and associative references, Untitled utilizes as many techniques--silkscreening, painting, staining and washing--as it releases visual language from syntax. "The use of the familiar is obscure, the use of the exotic is familiar. Neither sacrifices completely its origin but the mind has to travel to follow just as the eye has to change focus. In the end a viewed painting has been an invitation not a command" (R. Rauschenberg, 'Öyvind Fahlström (1961)', Art and Literature 3 (1964), p. 214).
Rauschenberg had begun as early as 1958 transferring sourced photographs onto flat surfaces through a process known as "transfer drawings." Using the frottage method to transfer newspaper images to drawing paper--the half-tone image would be placed face down on a sheet soaked in solvent such as lighter fluid or turpentine and rubbed with a ballpoint pen empty of ink--Rauschenberg produced reverse images that were blurred and pale, and which revealed the process of their own making. Understanding, however, the limitations such a process placed on paintings in terms of visibility and scale, the artist searched for another method of transference, which might widen the range of possibilities in terms of scale and reuse for work on canvas. Using commercially produced silkscreen would provide a method of mechanical transfer, which would extend the bounds of creative techniques in use by the artist, among them, doubling, repetition, overlapping, blurring and mirroring. Such processes would parallel Rauschenberg's commitment to an unanticipated, disordered field, yet retain an order fully dictated by his artistic sensibilities and intentions--a method that would produce "that same quality of surprise and freshness that I have when using objects. When I get the screens back from the manufacturer, the images look different from the way they did in the original photographs, because of the change of scale, so that's one surprise right there. Then they look different again when I transfer them to canvas, so there's another surprise, and they keep on suggesting different things when they're juxtaposed with other images on the canvas, so there's the same kind of interaction that goes on in the combines and the same possibilities of collaboration and discovery" (C. Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art, New York, 1965, p. 233).
Untitled transmits several images that Rauschenberg used in the series of silkscreen paintings created between the years 1962 - 63. Dense with painterly markings and manipulated images, the underlying gridded structure barely holds, defaced as it is by the artist slightly skewing the superimposition of the screens and overlapping his images (in a miming of his frottage blurring), through which he creates here an 'off-register' graininess and almost opaque visual field. The effect is one of allover illogic, which is to say that the viewer is disconcerted, not only by the shift in painterly means--textures shifting between washes and thick applications of paint; photomechanical images juxtaposed not only with each other, but also with painted 'images'--but by the illogic of the photographs themselves. The challenge of spatial perception is also heightened. Foreground and background shift, deep space opposes the play of surfaces, images are obscured and revealed--all within a single field. "Rauschenberg's images have been chosen to maintain a condition of pictorial and psychological tensions. Resolution would destroy this tension and the elements chosen never admit the possibility of logical interpretation or elucidation either in themselves or in relation to the things with which they have been combined" (A. Solomon, Robert Rauschenberg, exh. cat., Jewish Museum, New York, 1963, n.p.). Yet Untitled transmits an underlying thematic unity. Every image can be read as a pattern of movement or stasis, an almost forced, or at least restricted, containment. Oppositions such as these reinforce the rhythmic doubling at work in the gridded pattern and the overlapping. Appropriating imagery from popular newspapers and magazines as well as travel postcards and other ephemera, Rauschenberg here focuses on modes of locomotion or movement such as dancers, railroads, barges and waterways; on modes of transport, such as bridges and tunnels, and contained environments, such as buildings and cages. Fragmented, these images are used as evocations of themes rather than literal depictions, raising the issue of their formal relationships.
Beyond literalism, then, in Untitled, 1963, we see the artist making compositional decisions, creating formal relationships of opposition or contrast, as well as rhyming echoes across the field. A strong doubling of elements emerges in Untitled, for example, its large-scale bisection into upper and lower registers. Rather than literally dividing his field in half, Rauschenberg cannily creates a thin washed 'tail' for the barge in the 'act' of emerging from under a railroad crossing. Extending over to the far right edge of the canvas, this suggestively erotic dividing line is mirrored in the uppermost painted horizontal band, ranging across the tonal field in waves of white, gray and yellow. Each quadrant of the work features a single type of image, progressing clockwise from dancers, a football, to caged birds, to cityscapes and water throughways. The ovoid of the football, echoed in the cartoon-like "bubble" embedded in the yellow portion of the uppermost horizontal band is also repeated in the doubled tunnel in the upper left quadrant. The ominous eye peering through the wire mesh of the bird's cage creates a sense of overall balance even as it destabilizes perceptive clarity. But it is the central blotting of white that both organizes and refuses perception, obscuring the image even as it focuses the eye.
Through juxtapositions and overlapping, through oppositions between density and transparency, Untitled is a summation of Rauschenberg's ability to offer and withhold, to leave meaning unresolved. An invitation to inhabit the visual field, the artist also refuses entry-- an eye stares, an image is whited out; deep recession is counteracted with thrusting surface incident. Richly expressive and seductively tactile, suggestive and denying, there is power in this work's graphic intensity. While presenting a proliferation of recognizable images, these images suggest subtle associations and new understandings. As in his vast range of celebrated masterpieces, Rauschenberg challenges perception by overlaying and setting side-by-side easily recognizable imagery, forcing the viewer to readjust his or her spatial sensibilities. Ellen Johnson, an art historian writing in 1966, shortly after this series of screen paintings were made, observed that "Rauschenberg gives new power to the dynamic means of the cubists; he speeds up the simultaneous viewpoint befitting a more mobile observer and a faster changing world; his distortions in scale are more fantastic.; his shifts in space and meaning are more abrupt; and the dialogue between substance and illusion and between art and reality is evermore complex" (E. H. Johnson, "The Image Duplicators-- Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Warhol," Canadian Art, Volume XXIII, No. 1, January 1966, p. 17). In Untitled, 1963, Rauschenberg maintains an electric pictorial and perceptual tension, urging the viewer to observe closely both the enigma he has posed and his mastery over it--and us.