In the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began collaborating on a number of creative projects, operating under the pseudonym Matson Jones (Matson being Rauschenberg’s paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and Jones being an approximation of Johns). Dating from 1955, Untitled is one of these collaborations, undertaken for the Bergdorf Goodman store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. An evocative, enigmatic and rare work that not only demonstrates their innovative style, but also their radical new approach to art making. Standing nearly twelve foot tall, each of these four panels depicts an underwater scene. Dominated by ancient gods of the sea, resplendent with their tridents and crested helmets, the figures are submerged in an exotic underwater world populated with real and fantastical sea creatures.
This ethereal scene is created using a technique called cyanotype, a process whereby objects are placed on light sensitive paper, exposed to light, and the removed leaving white shadows amidst a blue background. In the present work, the two central figures clearly evoke Neptune, gripping his three-pronged trident tightly in his hand. Surrounding him are the plants and creatures that populate his undersea kingdom. Seaweed envelops the figures as they twist and turn in the water; darting in between the fronds are individual fish and crustaceans, plus a menagerie of mysterious sea creatures. These same underwater forms also populate the two outer panels, with two figures swimming with abandon, totally immersing themselves in their underwater environment.
It is thought that in Untitled, the crispness of the human silhouettes (as well as some of the crustaceans) means that these were probably created using cutouts, as opposed to real people lying on the light-sensitive sheet. Consequently, the more shadowy and ethereal forms of a few of the larger fish might have been made by real fish obtained from the local market; the areas with the prismatic light effect were very likely created by crumpling the paper during the process. This technique for making cyanotypes was introduced to Rauschenberg by fellow Black Mountain College student Susan Weil in 1949. Two years later, a three-page article in Life magazine titled “Speaking of Pictures” appeared, documenting Rauschenberg and Weil making blueprints, many of which no longer exist. The following month, their Blueprint: Photogram for Mural Decoration (now titled Female Figure) c.1950 was shown in the exhibition ‘Abstraction in Photography’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized by Edward Steichen.
By using light as a medium, Rauschenberg and Johns follow in the tradition of early twentieth century artists like Lee Miller and Man Ray who harnessed the effect of exposing light sensitive paper in the late 1920s. Man Ray often applied this “solarization” technique, as he termed it, to photographs of the female nudes, using the halo-like outlines that formed around the figure and areas of partially reversed tonality to emphasize the contours of the body.
During the early part of their careers many of the artists known today as the powerhouses of the postwar artistic canon worked on creative projects with major department stores. In his formative days as a commercial artist, Willem de Kooning worked for department stores in both Rotterdam and New York. In addition to Bergdorf Goodman, Rauschenberg and Johns also worked with the legendary designer Gene Moore at Bonwit Teller and Tiffany. Stores often included the artist’s work in their window displays, either renting them directly from the artist or taking a commission if they sold as a result of being on display. Under Moore’s auspices, Johns’s Flag on Orange Field, 1957 (Museum Ludwig, Cologne) was displayed at Bonwit Teller’s store in New York. The Fifth Avenue store was an early supporter of many artist’s careers including Salvador Dalí, who displayed works as early as 1929. In 1959, the Pop artist James Rosenquist’s paintings were on view, and in 1961, Andy Warhol himself had five canvases on display in the store’s famous windows, including Superman, 1961 (previously on loan to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).
Untitled is an early example of the continuous innovations that were a central theme in both Robert Rauschenberg’s and Jasper Johns’s careers. Working as close collaborators for a short—but exciting—period during the late 1950s/early 1960s, the pair explored many different mediums and techniques, characteristics that would define much of their subsequent years. Untitled encapsulates, in one work, the spirit of Rauschenberg’s and Johns’s ingenious contribution to the canon of twentieth century art. Their unique cyanotypes provide a crucial bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and signaled the beginning of a fresh direction for a new generation of postmodern artists.