One of the undisputed leaders of the American Avant-Garde, Robert Rauschenberg’s unceasing intellectual curiosity and creativity helped to change the course of art in the 20th century. While never fully part of any one movement, his oeuvre acts as a proverbial bridge between the ideals of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Works like Untitled (1954) are pivotal as some of the artist’s earliest Combines, a term Rauschenberg used to describe his marriage of painting and sculpture into a hybridized composition all its own. One notes a deep indebtedness to Dadaists and the process of assemblage, but especially to the German artist Kurt Schwitters and his use of everyday materials and objects fused into a more meaningful whole. Rauschenberg’s works transcended abstract painting of the day and furthered the conversation of what could be considered art. As one critic astutely noted, “Life has penetrated his work through and through, and each work, rather than imposing a definition of art, springs from a question about the possible contexts in which art can happen” (A. Forge, Rauschenberg, New York, 1978, p. 14). Blurring the lines between art material and the actions of everyday life, Rauschenberg set the stage for generations of future artists.
Constructed of several worn pieces of wood and an assortment of other objects and materials, Untitled is a testament to Rauschenberg’s inventive constructions that harness the ordinary and elevate them into a realm of art. The work is split compositionally down the middle, and the left panel is comprised of thick red and white strokes over an off-white and brown base. Drips of blue and other colors cover a crumpled paint tube affixed to the surface. The right panel borrows some visual elements from Dadaist collage, and the artist has inset a gold picture frame into the wooden armature of the work. Under the frame’s glass, a number of pieces of ephemera are trapped. Paint, bits of red cellophane, and torn papers with handwriting and printed images jostle around together in their enclosure. In the upper right, a cream piece of paper with a distinct red heart is visible. Some of the printed matter is echoed in a diamond pattern attached to the bottom of the work under a green crossbar. Calvin Tompkins wrote about the artist’s affinity for piecing together bits of jetsam, writing, “He [Rauschenberg] had always had a great fondness for the commonplace, the castoff, the worn-out and forgotten. An old sock, a piece of shirt, a paper restaurant mat, a child’s drawing rescued from the trash—humble relics like these turned up in combine after combine, where they entered another life in a strange balance between beauty and ugliness, the real and the abstract” (C. Tompkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, New York, 1980, p. 136). This uneasy truce between discernible objects and ephemera devoid of original context makes Rauschenberg’s work both personal and timeless. Especially in more abstracted works like Untitled, the art exists outside of the present but exudes the aura of memory after memory, though it is often hard to determine whose or from when.
Following the end of World War II, Rauschenberg attended the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design under the GI Bill before travelling to Paris to study in 1948. He returned to the United States upon learning of the work of Josef Albers, who was at that time teaching at the highly influential Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Rauschenberg studied under a number of artists there, including Josef and Anni Albers who brought the well-rounded teachings of the Bauhaus to the school’s arts program. Instead of focusing on only one medium, students were encouraged to explore multiple avenues, and Rauschenberg surely benefited from this more progressive approach. Works like Untitled fuse sculpture and painting in a way that was groundbreaking at the time. Drawing upon the power of the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke and all of its connections to the subconscious and personality, Rauschenberg transferred that gesture to the object, creating an amalgam that he termed Combines. The Combines are a form of art wholly specific to Rauschenberg. “[They] represent the invention of a hybrid form of art that draws from the vocabularies of both painting and sculpture and invests objects with a sense of drama and theatricality as they become part of a larger whole. …At a time when the primacy of New York School painting remained relatively unchallenged, the Combines paved the way for a new direction in art” (P. Schimmel, “Autobiography and Self-Portraiture in Rauschenberg’s Combines,” in Robert Rauschenberg: Combines, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2005, p. 211). Bringing attention to the simple object and placing it in conversation with the history of art began the conversation that would eventually lead to Pop Art.
Upon moving to New York in 1949, Rauschenberg began studies at the Art Students League but would periodically return to Black Mountain College to collaborate with the artists there, notably the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham and the musician John Cage. “For Cage and Rauschenberg, the purpose of art was not to create enduring masterpieces for an elite, but to further a perpetual process of discovery in which everyone could participate. They wanted to break down all barriers between art and life. Rauschenberg wrote, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” Art, said Cage, should be an affirmation of life-not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply wake up to the very life we’re living’” (R. Rauschenberg and J. Cage, quoted in M. L. Kotz, Rauschenberg / Art and Life, New York, 1990, p. 89). This interest in blurring the lines between performance, sculpture, painting, and other media remained a driving force in his practice, and helped the artist question the very nature of American art in the 20th century. By focusing on the day-to-day and the objects and processes that exist around us all, Rauschenberg started to break through the barriers of the traditional