In 1962, Robert Rauschenberg embarked on a series of works created with, what for him, was a brand new medium, silkscreen. He began the series with paintings that were executed in just in black-and-white, explaining his limited palette by declaring, “I’m such a pushover for color and I didn’t want that to interfere with what I was trying to work out” (C. Tomkins, Off the Wall; Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Times, New York, 1981, p. 200). Thus, Calendar—a monumental black-and-white canvas painted that same year—becomes an important early example of this new body of work.
Rauschenberg gathered his source material from his own photographs and from magazines and newspapers. Unlike Warhol, he wasn’t interested in images of either the celebrated or the sensational. True to his own aesthetic of the ordinary and commonplace, he took a barrage of pictures of regular subjects, ranging from transportation to architecture. Enraptured by the freedom and flexibility the new technique gave him, he often worked on multiple canvases at a time, in a variety of sizes.
Despite its straightforward name, Calendar remains wonderfully enigmatic. The images are ambiguous and, characteristically, not quite legible. But on close examination, a potential theme emerges. Along the lower edge of this large vertical canvas the just-discernible image of a space rocket and four men in white overalls can be glimpsed. To their left are the NASA logo, a flag, and the partially obscured words “United States.” The men appear to be loading something onto the rocket. There are five incomplete, bubble-like orbs—which might perhaps be clock faces—floating near them. On the upper right side of the canvas, black paint is used to obscure an image which resembles leaves or plants and a glass of water, while on the left there is a large passage of agitated white paint. Above them hovers a spectral, almost invisible, form created by a half-rendered screen.
Rauschenberg had begun investigating the power of images as early as 1958, initially 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).
Beyond the literalism that can be seen in Calendar, we also see the artist making compositional decisions, creating formal relationships of opposition or contrast, as well as rhyming echoes across the field. The familiar is juxtaposed with the unfamiliar as large plains of sold pigment are placed next to diaphanous washes, all of which vie for attention along with a series of enigmatic half-rendered screens. All these elements engage in an active tussle for supremacy across the surface of the canvas as they succinctly display the artist’s imaginative quest for composition. Rather than literally dividing up his field, he creates distinct areas where the images play out across the field and this totemic arrangement, moving from the lower edge of the canvas up, incorporates a rich variety of image and gesture in one vibrant compositional arrangement.
Through juxtapositions and overlapping, through oppositions between density and transparency, Calendar becomes 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).
Calendar encapsulates, in one striking work, not only the excitement of the space race, but also Rauschenberg’s unique contribution to the canon of 20th Century art. His appropriation of images taken from mass-media sources and his method of transferring them to the surface of the paper provided a crucial bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art and signaled the beginning of a fresh direction for a new generation of postmodern artists. Over the course of time, but particularly during the heyday of the space program, Rauschenberg did several works which incorporated NASA and space-related pieces; of which Calendar is an early and important example of his fascination with this subject.