A hallmark Combine by Robert Rauschenberg, the 1957 Untitled is gorgeously “patchwork and palimpsest” (G. Bader, “Rauschenberg’s Skin,” Grey Room no. 27, Spring 2007, p. 105). In this intimately scaled, canvas-based assemblage, Rauschenberg lushly combines a faded, sealed envelope, a page of ledger paper perforated with binder holes, two threadbare, overlapping swatches of silken fabric material, and a sheet of paper with a printed image on it, enigmatically shrouded in white paint by the artist in the additive parallel to his (in)famous erasure of a de Kooning drawing. Rauschenberg’s expressive brushstrokes, rendered in a soft palette, cohere the varied elements at hand to form a consummate whole. The artist’s Combines, which he pioneered in the mid-1950s and had largely abandoned by 1962, unite three-dimensional objects, including detritus and ephemera, with resolutely flat canvases appropriating the gestural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism. Combines like Untitled pushed avant-garde painting in a new direction, transgressing the picture plane as well as widely held notions surrounding the separation between art and life and the divisions between two- and three-dimensional media.
The evocative objects in Untitled might prompt a Proustian moment, or an assignation of memory and meaning to the captivating oeuvre at hand as well as its constituent elements. William Rubin, the former Director of the Museum of Modern Art, once described Rauschenberg’s work: “The iconography of the Rauschenberg pictures seems to reach back through time and consciousness, memory by memory” (W. Rubin, “Younger American Painters”, Art International, vol.4, no.1, January, 1960). The small, enticingly sealed envelope, like a time capsule never to be opened, provokes signification with particular force—its visual and conceptual centrality to Untitled led Rauschenberg to refer to the work for a time as Collage with Letter. However, Rauschenberg’s titles were essential elements of his works, and his ultimate decision to name the present lot Untitled speaks volumes about the artist’s desire to leave this particular work ambiguous and open-ended, with innumerable points of entry for a viewer. In a fashion predictive of postmodernism, Rauschenberg frequently played with the relationship between signifiers and significations, “combin[ing] inviting feats of intricate iconographic interpretation only to call into question through their sheer physical and iconographic heterogeneity the very idea of such readings” (G. Bader, “Rauschenberg’s Skin,” Grey Room no. 27, Spring 2007, p. 105).
Untitled not only exemplifies Rauschenberg’s iconic Combines practice, but the artist’s inclusion of other methods of art-making in the piece provides a virtual sampler of his varied technique. At the time of Untitled’s creation, Abstract Expressionism—heroic and impassioned strokes of paint on flat canvas—enjoyed hegemonic dominance in New York’s avant-garde. Rauschenberg, along with colleague and then-partner Jasper Johns, challenged this prevailing style. He produced a modern visual alternative to its language, while retaining a degree of the movement’s vocabulary in its painterly surface and gestural mark-making; Rauschenberg’s works maintain a playful ambiguity around the extent to which their painterly elements are intended to be expressive or to conceptually appropriate the formal device of the gestural brushstroke. While Rauschenberg broke new ground with works like Untitled, he maintained a strong connection with pictorial tradition as he did so. The artist referred to and built upon Dadaist Assemblages of the 1920s as well as Picasso’s papier collé works, which frequently incorporated newspaper and bits of wood. Rauschenberg imbued these forms of assemblage with a distinctly American flavor that embraced the everyday, incorporating images from magazines and elements from quotidian American life. The result pushed collage to new heights and laid essential groundwork for Pop Art.
One of the most recognizable names in twentieth century art, Rauschenberg was in the Navy when an influential art gallery visit entirely rerouted his trajectory. He went on to study at several art schools, most notably Black Mountain College in 1948-49, where he met colleagues and friends John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Rauschenberg had his first solo show in 1951, but it wasn’t until 1954, when he incorporated three-dimensional objects into “combine paintings,” that he began to draw real recognition and praise. 1957, the year that the present work was executed, was a pivotal year—personally and professionally—for Rauschenberg. True to his interest in mastering art across media, he spent a portion of the year designing the set for experimental choreographer and close friend Merce Cunningham’s Nocturnes as well as the set and costumes for Paul Taylor Dance Company’s The Tower. In March of that year, Leo and Ileana Castelli made a visit to the artist’s Pearl Street studio. Upon seeing Rauschenberg’s Combines, the duo was so impressed that they promised him a one-man show, which took place in 1958. By 1962 the artist, believing that he had developed his Combines to their fullest extent, began to incorporate new technologies into his work and turned to transfer techniques like silk screening with Andy Warhol fast on his heels. By that point Rauschenberg had built up serious international acclaim; in 1964 he won the Grand Prize in painting at the Venice Biennale and was historically the first modern American artist to do so. Major exhibitions and retrospectives, including shows at the Pompidou Center, the Guggenheim, and an exhibition that traveled from the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art to the Metropolitan Museum followed.
While the intimate nature of the present work—in size and potentially in content—stands in stark contrast to his later, larger Combines, Untitled clearly expresses Rauschenberg’s extraordinary creative range in his self-invented genre. Like an insect in amber, the pivotal transition period from a heroic generation of artists to a new and exciting generation of postmodernists is beautifully captured in this striking piece.