‘Almost the whole of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, but most particularly the Silkscreen Paintings, anticipates contemporary works in which images are used to create images, and in which the entire image bank of culture is viewed as potential material to be used and manipulated at will’ —R. FEINSTEIN
‘He did not merely hold a mirror up to the world’s multiplicity; rather, he exploited multiplicity to reveal something profound and universal about consciousness in an urban, industrialised world’ —R. FEINSTEIN
‘Such are the beauties of Rauschenberg’s new colours, eliciting a chromatic transparency midway in effect between Titian and colour television, that it would take another article merely to do justice to them. He satisfies an appetite for the contemporaneous, for an explicit crystallisation of what art must respond to at this moment, which few can even claim to excite. He does so in a way that is not only far from self-defeating but gives every evidence of becoming a classic of our time’ —M. KOZLOFF
‘It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street … There’s that same quality of surprise and freshness. When I get the screens back from the shop, the images on them look different from the way they did in the original magazine cutouts because of the change in scale, so that’s a surprise. They look different again when I transfer them to canvas. And they constantly suggest different things when they’re juxtaposed with other images’ —R. RAUSCHENBERG
‘... us silkscreeners gotta stick together’ —R. RAUSCHENBERG TO A. WARHOL
‘Other than Rauschenberg, no artist I know (even including Jasper Johns) takes such a polyvalent and imaginative inventory of modern life. It is this fullness of response that gains respect and is deeply moving. Ultimately he stands aside from the Pop art that owes so much to him, not by his methodology – the interjection of a banal motif into a new context – but by his ambition to derive as much sensuous profit from it as he can’ —M. KOZLOFF
‘A light bulb in the dark can not show its self without showing you something else too’ —R. RAUSCHENBERG
A pyrotechnic display of Robert Rauschenberg’s groundbreaking visual language, Transom (1963) is a brilliant large-scale work from his series of Silkscreen Paintings. Rauschenberg was a pioneer in silkscreening, commencing this series around the same time his friend Andy Warhol first employed the process; the works also bear the lyrical traces of his relationship with Cy Twombly. All executed between 1962 and 1964, a number of the Silkscreen Paintings were part of the sensational show that earned Rauschenberg the Grand Prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale. This was the first time an American artist had won the award, heralding a dramatic new chapter in American art: the win sparked wide controversy in Europe, with Rauschenberg seen as the standard-bearer for an American Pop invasion. Rauschenberg is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at London’s Tate Modern until April 2017, later travelling to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A key room is dedicated to the Silkscreen Paintings – many of them on loan from major museum collections – reflecting their centrality to his oeuvre. These works mark a full flowering of Rauschenberg’s freeform creativity, releasing the bricolage of his earlier Combine works into pictorial space through his astoundingly inventive use of the silkscreen.
A kaleidoscopic array of imagery bursts forth from Transom, with all the bold hallmarks of this important series. The title refers to a horizontal beam or the window above a door, underlining the artist’s sharp-eyed concerns with scale and structure. Strikingly original and deeply startling to many early viewers, Rauschenberg’s radical arrangements eschewed classical composition, instead embodying the visual-informational flux of mass media, global news, advertising and colour television. Golden Age painting, urban photography, contemporary photojournalism and abstract brushwork are combined in Transom’s explosive scheme, shot through with repetition and chromatic distortion. At the heart of the picture is Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. She arrives in a blaze of red and yellow, her buttocks outlined by an attentive panel of overpainted white. Her body is screened once more in a cyan slice along the upper edge; at the lower edge is her free-floating face, looking out from her mirror below a red truck wheel and accompanied by a blue fragment of girdered building site. Painted over her at the centre is a red ‘space box,’ a diagrammatic form that Rauschenberg employed throughout the series ‘to heighten the viewer’s intellectual awareness’ (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in D. Swanson, Robert Rauschenberg: Paintings 1953-1964, exh. cat. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1965, n.p.): we are encouraged to study the work’s structure, to watch how image, colour and form play off one another.
The action takes place upon a white ground, enhanced with areas of subsequently layered white paint. Repeated rooftop water towers, derived from a Polaroid taken by Rauschenberg, are silkscreened in black and blue, framing the composition right and left as if each edge is a horizon. Measuring the right-hand towers is a numbered section of scale or ruler. A cherry-red Shawnee helicopter hovers to the top left, its whirring blades accentuated by visible strokes of squeegeed ink. This was based on a photograph taken by Larry Burrows in Vietnam, used in LIFE magazine’s 25 January 1963 cover article ‘We Wade Deeper Into Jungle War.’ Unlike Rauschenberg’s earlier Combines, which married painting, assemblage and sculpture, the Silkscreen Paintings are exclusively photograph-based, sourced from his own snapshots or from magazines such as LIFE, Time, and National Geographic: the images are placed at a double remove from the things themselves, and art history is brought into direct conversation with current events. Flares of yellow paint, a dripped splash of white and zones of rough impasto bolt the eye back to the work’s surface, lending its iconographic play a sophisticated self-consciousness. A deliberate puncture near the space box’s upper right corner – signed and circled by Rauschenberg on the reverse – exposes the canvas as a material object.
RAUSCHENBERG TRIUMPHANT IN VENICE
At the 1964 Venice Biennale, Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prize for a display that included eight outstanding Silkscreen Paintings. This was a watershed moment in 20th-century art. Despite the spectacular rise of the New York School over the preceding decade, the Grand Prize for painting had until now persistently been awarded to European painters, especially those who were followers of the School of Paris. With Rauschenberg, American Pop had arrived in Europe – to cries of ‘cultural colonisation’ from outraged European critics.
The U.S. pavilion at the Biennale was almost laughably small, dwarfed by its European counterparts. Its ambitious curator Alan Solomon had instead installed his display of twenty-two Rauschenberg works in the larger U.S. Consulate, alongside works by Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and John Chamberlain; he later agreed to move three Rauschenbergs to the pavilion in order to make him eligible for the Grand Prize. Ugo Mulas’ famous shot of three men loading the Silkscreen Painting Express (1963) onto a barge was widely reproduced in the European press as a suggestion of underhand American plots surrounding Rauschenberg’s win.
Calvin Tomkins was with Rauschenberg when he won the Grand Prize. ‘Later that morning,’ he remembers, ‘after the formal prize ceremony in the Giardini (Rauschenberg for painting, Kemeny for sculpture), Leo Castelli threw another victory party for forty people, at a restaurant on the island of Burano. Motoscafi ferried us across the lagoon. The day was clear and warm, the seafood was delicious, the wine was sparkling. Lunch continued, course after course, for more than three hours at the long table. When it was over, and we were strolling in small groups back to the dock, I asked Rauschenberg how he felt about winning the Biennale (I was working on a New Yorker profile of him at the time, and had come to Venice partly in anticipation of his victory). He thought for a minute, concentrating hard on the banal question. “That scene in San Marco yesterday really got to me,” he said. “Butterflies in the stomach and a lump in the throat – like it really did mean something after all”’ (C. Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, New York 1980, p. 11).
Shortly after his historic victory, the ceaselessly innovative artist telephoned a friend in New York to have his silkscreens destroyed, forcing himself to move onto a new method. No less dramatic was the response of his continental detractors, as Richard Meyer relates. ‘The award set off something of a panic among European critics who took it as proof of the vulgarising effect of American art on the world stage. The leftist French newspaper Combat called the prize “an offense to the dignity of artistic creation”; on the other side of the political spectrum, the Vatican City newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran an editorial denouncing “the total and general defeat of culture” at the Biennale. In similar distress, the French magazine Arts declared “Venice Colonised by America” on its front page’ (R. Meyer, ‘An invitation, not a command,’ in Robert Rauschenberg, exh. cat. Tate Modern, London 2016, p. 195). But do Rauschenberg’s Silkscreen Paintings really participate in the destruction of painting through their reliance on photography and on mechanical process? Arguably, in his compositional technique, Rauschenberg had as much in common with the Cubism of Picasso or the découpage of Matisse (who had staged a major retrospective at the Biennale in 1948 and won the prize in 1950 respectively) as with Warhol – he worked through a decision-making process of accreting fragments, and each finished Silkscreen Painting remains a vivid and painterly standalone art object, despite its internal use of repetition.
‘US SILKSCREENERS GOTTA STICK TOGETHER’
Tomkins remembers Rauschenberg on the phone to Warhol in his studio, joking that ‘Us silkscreeners gotta stick together’ (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘The Sistine on Broadway,’ in Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962 – 64, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1991, p. 14). The two artists, introduced by Henry Geldzahler in 1962, shared a fruitful relationship. It was the younger Warhol who referred Rauschenberg to Aetna Silk Screen Products, the company who manufactured his screens from the images he provided; in return Rauschenberg sent a group of personal snapshots, which would result in Warhol’s first ever silkscreens of a fellow artist.
While Warhol readily subsumed his work and his Pop persona into the world of consumerism and celebrity, Rauschenberg wished his art to remain separate from such concerns. Like Warhol, he and Jasper Johns worked together on storefronts and advertisements to support themselves financially, but did so under the dual pseudonym Matson Jones to keep their artistic identities apart from this ‘commercial’ work. Despite such divergences, the exchange between Warhol and Rauschenberg’s working methods would prove pivotal to both artists’ careers. If Warhol seems to have been the first to have embarked upon silkscreening, this move itself was likely influenced by Rauschenberg’s earlier ‘transfer prints’ such as his suite of illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (1958-60). Rauschenberg executed these by dousing newsprint photographs with lighter fluid before rubbing them onto a clean sheet of paper – a radical freeing of imagery from its original surface, mobilising it into new contexts and media. The image was unbound and unfixed, creating a multi-layered sense of time in shifting fields of visual information that reflected the pervasive influx of the moving picture in 1950s television. This transfer process, however, limited Rauschenberg to the intimate scale and ghostly definition that make the Inferno series so ethereal. With the Silkscreen Paintings his works gained in size, complexity, colour and variety, allowing electrifying expression of what he called the ‘availability’ of the modern image.
Rauschenberg’s silkscreens went beyond a cool Warholian focus on commercial imagery. Taught by Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s and an intimate friend of both Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg was keenly alert to mark-making and the craft of composition. He travelled Europe with Twombly in the early 1950s, accumulating experiences and images that would have a deep impact on both their practices. The hawkeyed assemblage of his Combines bears the legacy of these travels; the Silkscreen Paintings also learn from Twombly’s freehand constructions and expressive paintwork, setting off an associative dialogue of images through nuanced manual execution and careful colour-handling. Rauschenberg would knock back some images to paler tone by wiping them with a benzine-soaked rag, offset others with oil paint, and endlessly experiment with rotation and resizing to create stimulating patterns of sight and thought. Indeed, there is a mobile theatricality to Transom’s arrangement that calls to mind Rauschenberg’s concurrent work as lighting and stage designer for the choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Four colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – are required to build a complete ‘natural’ picture using silkscreens. At first, Rauschenberg would stick pins through his canvas to align the successive screens used to apply each colour. He quickly became frustrated, however, and abandoned this layering method; embracing more expressionistic, handmade-looking results, he often used just a single hue with each screen, as seen in Transom. As Feinstein recalls, ‘Rauschenberg had initially been repelled by the colours of the silkscreen inks. The red, for example, is not a true red, but more of a magenta. But he rapidly came to appreciate his aversion as a challenge to his taste. “The material is never wrong,” he once said. “It’s only me that can be wrong.” So he played the colour of the silkscreen ink against artist pigments, painting a clashing red flourish over a screened magenta image’ (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962–64, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1991, pp. 50-51). We see an example of precisely this clash in the magenta helicopter of Transom, which carries a jarring, unearthly glow against its neighbouring painted red. This same red outlines the adjacent Velázquez, amplifying a playful contrast between the helicopter blades’ mechanical flight and the soft, feathered wings of Venus’ mirror-bearing cherub.
‘A POLYVALENT AND IMAGINATIVE INVENTORY OF MODERN LIFE’
In 1963, the cultural importance of television and photography – capturing such epochal moments as the Kennedy assassination in vivid colour, and relaying the carnage of the unfolding Vietnam War – was in rapid ascendance. Levelling distinctions between charged symbols, seemingly arbitrary motifs and recognisable art-historical reference, the Silkscreen Paintings reflected the global democratisation of the image at large as much as the vibrant urban experience of 1960s New York. Rauschenberg furthered the displacement of art and life explored in his mixed-media Combine works to exhilarating, defamiliarising effect.
With the Combines, Rauschenberg remembered, ‘I enjoyed the fact that I didn’t know what my materials would be from day to day, and there was real adventure about knowing that you need something in order to make something out of and just looking around and seeing what there was … My interest wasn’t so much in rubbish as it was in – in just availability’ (R. Rauschenberg in conversation with J. Jones, John Jones Collection (TGA 201520), Tate Archive, 13 January 1966, p. 7). He found a similar joy in creating his Silkscreen Paintings, saying ‘It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street … There’s that same quality of surprise and freshness. When I get the screens back from the shop, the images on them look different from the way they did in the original magazine cutouts because of the change in scale, so that’s a surprise. They look different again when I transfer them to canvas. And they constantly suggest different things when they’re juxtaposed with other images’ (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘The Sistine on Broadway,’ in Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962 – 64, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1991, p. 16). The agility of the silkscreen process allowed him to bring his resourceful, recombinant eye to its full potential with the printed image, freeing his art of recontextualisation into tableaux of trailblazing pictorial force.
Writing in 1963, Max Kozloff offered a prescient appraisal of the Silkscreen Paintings. ‘Other than Rauschenberg,’ he said, ‘no artist I know (even including Jasper Johns) takes such a polyvalent and imaginative inventory of modern life. It is this fullness of response that gains respect and is deeply moving. Ultimately he stands aside from the Pop art that owes so much to him, not by his methodology … but by his ambition to derive as much sensuous profit from it as he can’ (M. Kozloff, ‘Art,’ The Nation, 7 December 1963, p. 403). In Transom, we see this ambition at play. Deployed in an ingenious game of layered illusion, the Rokeby Venus looks out of her mirror and out of the painting; contrasted with abstract splashes, textural paint and the graphic form of the ‘space box,’ her wry reflection of the viewer’s own gaze sparks an immediate consciousness of the illusory nature of depth and volume as represented on a flat surface. Disembodied to the lower right as if peering through a window, her face also takes on a formal role: its shape echoes that of the truck wheel, outlined buttocks and flash of white paint above, engaging in a formal rhythm dictated by contour rather than content. Her status as a painting within a painting is heightened, and we are compelled to distinguish among competing levels of artifice, abstraction and reproduction.
Through these modulated remixes of her original presentation, Venus is revealed and re-examined from a profusion of appealing new angles – an impulse not so far removed from the Cubists’ collaging and fracturing of objects on the picture plane into multiple, simultaneous facets. Rauschenberg often used an image of Rubens’ Venus at a Mirror, taken from the 30 August 1963 issue of LIFE, to equally beguiling effect, alongside such contemporary images as a photograph of John F. Kennedy or a parachuting astronaut. Discussing Barge (1963), another large Silkscreen Painting in which both the army truck and Rokeby Venus appear, Feinstein observes that the two ‘readily present themselves as opposites, not only in theme but in form as well, the one rectilinear and hard, the other curvaceous and soft. Certain male-female stereotypes are thus connoted. To the left of Venus is a satellite package known as the “Venus Probe”’ (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962–64, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1991, p. 86). While Transom offers perhaps less lurid allusions, its military chopper and reclining nude create just as startling a sensual duet of love and war. Countless possible formal and thematic associations and oppositions are set off through Rauschenberg’s dance of juxtaposition, breathing new life into every element.
‘A LIGHT BULB IN THE DARK’
The impact of works like Transom can hardly be overstated. As Feinstein has written, ‘Almost the whole of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre, but most particularly the Silkscreen Paintings, anticipates contemporary works in which images are used to create images, and in which the entire image bank of culture is viewed as potential material to be used and manipulated at will’ (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962–64, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1991, p. 92). Rauschenberg’s early dialogues with Warhol, Twombly and Johns were electric. His work of the 1950s and early 1960s would inspire Pop artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including David Hockney and Ed Ruscha. His influence can also be traced in the work of his German contemporary Sigmar Polke, who first saw his paintings alongside Twombly’s in 1960. His ideas course through Richard Prince’s 1980s appropriations, and the urban and literary image-channelling of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Following in Rauschenberg’s footsteps today, the painterly silkscreens of Christopher Wool and the accelerated post- Internet collisions of artists such as Kelley Walker continue to exploit the ‘availability,’ multiplicity and excitement of the modern image, using tactics that remain deeply indebted to Rauschenberg’s Silkscreen Paintings.
The Rokeby Venus, helicopter, rooftop water towers and army truck all recur in a number of important Silkscreen Paintings. Rauschenberg seems to have assigned special significance, however, to the towers, which frame Transom with their strong silhouettes and conjure a distinctly New York skyline. He used this Polaroid photograph, which he had taken himself, in a collage for a 1963 magazine article titled ‘Random Order.’ Here it is captioned in the artist’s handwriting: ‘A LIGHT BULB IN THE DARK CAN NOT SHOW ITS SELF WITHOUT SHOWING YOU SOMETHING ELSE TOO’ (R. Rauschenberg, ‘Random Order,’ Location, I, Spring 1963, p. 29). This makes an apt epigraph for the Silkscreen Paintings themselves. With their lessons in heightened perception and in finding connectedness within a disconnected world, these poetic, evocative and open-ended visual constellations celebrate the power of image in determining our lived experience. Radical, influential and alive with the adventure of modern life, works such as Transom are amongst Rauschenberg’s greatest triumphs: dazzlingly refracting and reflecting the things they contain against one another, they are able, ultimately, to illuminate the external world anew.