Prints specialist Elsie Widing with Robert Rauschenberg’s Accident, 1963. Sold for $93,750 on 19-20 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

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5 minutes with… Robert Rauschenberg’s Accident

Prints specialist Elsie Widing explains why this lithograph — offered at Christie’s New York, 19-20 April — represents a pivotal moment in the groundbreaking American artist’s career 

Over the course of his six-decade career, graphic artist and painter Robert Rauschenberg revolutionised modern art in America.

Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, he studied at the celebrated Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s. His teacher, the German-born American artist Josef Albers, was closely associated with the Bauhaus. Albers stressed discipline and the importance of eliminating all experimentation in art — philosophies against which Rauschenberg rebelled.

Lithography — considered the most painterly of printing techniques — was largely absent from the artistic landscape in 1950s America. In 1957 Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) was founded on Long Island by Tatyana Grosman, and became one of the rare institutions producing lithographs. Under Grosman’s careful guidance, ULAE attracted some of the most talented artists of the era, including Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler, Jim Dine and James Rosenquist, Barnett Newman and Cy Twombly.

‘Grosman’s workshop was a new concept in the printmaking world,’ explains Elsie Widing, a Prints & Multiples specialist at Christie’s in New York. Grosman understood that Rauschenberg was an important artist, and soon invited him to join ULAE; Rauschenberg began printing with Grosman in the early 1960s.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Accident, 1963. Image 37½ x 27 in (940 x 686 mm). Sheet 41¼ x 29¼ in (1048 x 743 mm). Sold for $93,750 on 19-20 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Accident, 1963. Image: 37½ x 27 in (940 x 686 mm). Sheet: 41¼ x 29¼ in (1048 x 743 mm). Sold for $93,750 on 19-20 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Up until that point American artists had generally been viewed as somewhat secondary to their European counterparts. This began to change when Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns burst on the scene. ‘Johns and Rauschenberg were really the first two artists to be embraced by both the European and the American artistic communities,’ says Widing.

Accident (1963), one of Rauschenberg’s earliest prints, ‘represents a moment in American art history when the print became a recognisable artistic medium,’ the specialist adds. In 1963, Grosman submitted Accident  to the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, where it won the Grand Prize.

Rauschenberg probably appreciated the painterly aspect of lithography and the fact that it allowed for greater flexibility and fluidity than techniques such as etching. ‘Abstract Expressionism was still at its height,’ adds Widing, and in Accident  ‘you can still see the gestural brushstroke.’

‘There’s almost a performative aspect to it, an awareness that a lithograph doesn’t have to be the result of an exact technical process’

The black-and-white lithographs of the early 1960s reflect Rauschenberg’s initial experimentation with the medium before he branched out into colour lithography and screenprints later on. ‘These early prints are exciting both art historically and formally,’ Widing explains. ‘I think people don’t really understand how important they are.’

Rauschenberg was interested in the work and improvisations of the musician John Cage, and the unusual process by which Accident  was created reflects the artist’s playfulness and willingness to embrace a chance moment. ‘Rauschenberg and Grosman were having technical difficulties with the lithograph stone, as sometimes happens,’ explains Widing, ‘and while they were printing the stone broke in half.’ Rather than starting again from scratch, however, Rauschenberg decided to continue working with the broken pieces.

‘That was a pivotal moment in his printmaking career,’ says the specialist. ‘There’s almost a performative aspect to it. This awareness that a lithograph doesn’t have to be the result of an exact technical process ran counter to the relatively restrictive way in which artists previously conceived of printmaking.

‘I love how gestural it is — often with prints there’s a mechanical, technical aspect to them, and you don’t see a personal expression of the artist. With Accident, as with much of Rauschenberg’s work, what you see is not what you get. You really need to sit with it and it becomes more complex the more you look.’

Accident  came to Christie’s from a private collection which included other pieces dating from the 1960s. ‘We have reason to believe that it was purchased from Tatyana Grosman at Universal Art Editions,’ says Widing. ‘The collector clearly had a good eye, and knew that these were crucial pieces.’