One of the largest of Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic silkscreen paintings, Buffalo II is an epic work which brings together the world of art and politics. During a particularly fertile period between 1962 and 1964, Rauschenberg produced a series of canvases in which he assembled seemingly disparate images—ranging from the familiar to the mysterious—to capture the social, political and artistic zeitgeist of the age. John F. Kennedy, a bald eagle, the Coca-Cola logo, space travel and the downtown landscape are all featured here, yet Rauschenberg’s silkscreen paintings are as much about artistic innovation and the way we look as they are about capturing the cacophony of modern urban life in the 1960s. “His self-proclaimed aim
was ‘to make a surface which invited a constant change of focus and an examination of detail,’ a surface sufficiently rich in form and concept to reward scrutiny by both the eye and mind,” writes curator Roni Feinstein (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 23). Many smaller examples of the artist’s silkscreen paintings are included in major museum collections, making this one of the last major examples to remain in private hands. Exhibited at the XXXII Venice Biennale in 1964, Buffalo II was part of a group exhibition of young American painters for which Rauschenberg became the first American to win the coveted Grand Prize in Painting.
At over eight feet tall, this imposing canvas is filled with an ostensibly incongruent array of images, spanning the iconic to the mundane. Dominated by a large image of John F. Kennedy, photographed when he was a senator and presidential candidate, Rauschenberg assembles an eclectic range of motifs that, for him, define the optimism and challenges of America: famous politicians, the space race, the military, familiar consumer products and patriotic symbols of America are interspersed with anonymous images of the urban landscape and more personal objects. A pioneer of the silkscreen technique (along with Andy Warhol who had begun using the technique just a couple of months earlier), Rauschenberg appropriates images he collected from newspapers and other publications (including Life magazine)—along with his own photographs—to produce a portrait of a country during the social and political upheaval of the 1960s. Yet, this painting is much more than an historical snapshot of the sixties; it also marks a pivotal point in Rauschenberg’s artistic development and bears witness to his own radical inventiveness and attentiveness to the news of the day. By bringing together pre-existing images from popular culture with an array of drips and painterly gestures, Buffalo II also acts as bridge between the declining dominance of Abstract Expressionism and the new burgeoning world of Pop.
Rauschenberg had the photograph of Kennedy—taken during the second presidential debate with Richard Nixon in October 1960—transferred onto a screen before the President was assassinated in November 1963. As such, between the time Rauschenberg appropriated the image and when he used it in the silkscreen paintings, the context had changed and now carried much more emotional weight and resonance: “Photographic images acquire new meanings and associations over time, including in Kennedy’s case, tragic ones,” writes Richard Meyer in the catalogue to the artist’s recent major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. “Rather than offering his source photographs as vehicles of ‘pure’ meaning, Rauschenberg embedded them within complex fields of visual information where past and present, history and the contemporary moment, seem to coexist” (R. Meyer, “’An Invitation, Not a Command,’ Silk-Screen Paintings,” in L. Dickerman & A. Borchardt-Hume (eds.), Robert Rauschenberg, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2017, p. 191). Thus, the former American president became one of the most enduring motifs of the silkscreen paintings, appearing in no less than eight canvases, many of which are now included in major museum collections including Retroactive I (1963), Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; Retroactive II (1963), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Skyway (1964), Dallas Museum of Art; Untitled (1963), The Broad, Los Angeles.
While the image of Kennedy might be said to represent a particularly dark period of modern U.S. history, American progress is represented by the photograph of an astronaut—a NASA image reproduced in Life magazine in September 1963—which is located just below the politician, in the lower right quadrant of the painting. Suspended by what looks to be a large silver parachute, the helmet of the spaceman is just visible along the extreme lower edge. 1964, the year Buffalo II was painted, marked the height of the international space race when Russian and American scientists were challenging each other to go deeper and farther into the dark recesses of space. While often dealing with contemporary events, Rauschenberg also looked back, as can be seen in the delicate image of a detail from Peter Paul Rubens’s Venus in Front of the Mirror (circa 1615), the goddess’s face turned clockwise by 90 degree. Other motifs that appear across the surface of this painting include an army helicopter (a nod to the ongoing U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the burgeoning war), a bunch of keys from a Bendix car radio ad, a downtown cityscape, some illustrations of birds, and finally a series of dotted lines and a diagram of a three-dimensional box (which some scholars have linked to the work of Josef Albers, whom Rauschenberg studied under while at Black Mountain College in the 1950s). The proximity of the perspectival object to the Rubens quotation in this painting evokes the art historical development of the illusionistic picture plane, a tradition that Rauschenberg boldly disrupts with the silkscreen paintings.
While some of the objects are instantly identifiable, others are not, sometimes becoming indistinguishable when subsumed in a melee of painterly gestures. In Buffalo II, it appears that some of the silkscreened images have been disturbed either by a paintbrush disrupting the image or a cloth being wiped over the newly laid down image. This may be in part due to Rauschenberg’s insistence that his paintings not be didactic; rather they are a collection of motifs that lead the viewer on their own journey, and are subject to the viewer’s own thoughts, perceptions and feelings. “He did not merely hold a mirror up to the world’s multiplicity; rather, he exploited multiplicity to reveal something universal and profound about consciousness in an urban, industrial world. Although not didactic, his art demonstrates how to receive and process information and how to find order and connectivity in an apparently haphazard and discontinuous environment” (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 23).
While social and political concerns did interest Rauschenberg, another major interest for him was the idea of how movement can be portrayed on a static, two-dimensional canvas. This was of particular concern during this period as the silkscreen paintings were completed during a time when he spent part of the year touring with the dance company of his close friend Merce Cunningham, acting as the resident set, costume, and lighting designer. Buffalo II investigates this sense of movement in two ways; firstly, in the images themselves, but also in the way that the arrangement encourages the eye to wander across the surface of the painting. The gesture of JFK’s pointing (included in this work twice for added emphasis), the dotted lines, the whirling of the helicopter blades, and the gestural disturbances of the artist’s hand also engender the painting with a dynamic sense of energy.
Rauschenberg found that the silkscreen process perfectly suited the direction in which he wanted his art to go. Although ostensibly designed to produce identical images over and over again, the artist found that he was able to adapt and embrace the subtle imperfections in the process to his advantage. Rauschenberg was first exposed to silkscreen in a fine art context when he was taken to visit Andy Warhol’s studio by the curator Henry Geldzahler and within a month he began to incorporate this new way of working into his own practice. Yet the results were very different from Warhol, as Roni Feinstein, the curator of the first large-scale retrospective of the artist’s silkscreen paintings points out, “…in [Rauschenberg’s] hands, a mechanical process ironically became malleable, sensitive, and personal, open to improvisation and the touch and motion of his hand” (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 47). The critic Calvin Tomkins visited Rauschenberg’s studio during this innovative period and witnessed firsthand how the artist embraced this new method to stretch his artistic practice to new heights. “The technical difficulties and uncertainties of the silkscreen process were made to order for him,” Tomkins writes, “because they kept the process from becoming too familiar. The materials he was working with stubbornly asserted their particularity. He had the sense… that he was collaborating in a process over which he did not exercise complete control, and that the results might therefore turn out to be more interesting and surprising than they could have been otherwise” (C. Tomkins, “The Sistine on Broadway,” in R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 15). Rauschenberg began his series of silkscreen paintings in October 1962, and continued for just over a year until the spring of 1964, making a total of eighty paintings. Upon winning the Grand Prize in Venice in June 1964, he had all the screens destroyed in an effort, he claimed, to force himself to move on and find the next innovation in his art making practice.
In many ways, the silkscreen paintings were the natural progression from the artist’s earlier Combines (1954-1964) with which he had first made his name. Beginning in 1954, Rauschenberg brought together a wide range of everyday objects and images to produce works of art that defied the traditional categorization of painting and sculpture. Initially at least he began working with ‘flat’ objects (pieces of colored paper, clippings, pieces of fabric etc.), but he soon began embracing larger, more unconventional materials—including bedding (Bed, 1955, Museum of Modern Art, New York); wooden cabinets (Short Circuit, 1955, Art Institute of Chicago); and even taxidermy (Canyon, 1959, Museum of Modern Art, New York) to produce works that came to define a revolutionary period of artistic innovation. Virtually eliminating all distinctions between historic artistic categories, with these works Rauschenberg endowed new significance to ordinary objects by placing them in the context of art.
The silkscreen paintings took this sense of innovation one step further, investigating the increasing power of the mass media. His chosen images were converted to commercially prepared screens, and in another break from artistic convention, he worked directly on the floor, composing each canvas spontaneously. At first, he tried to utilize the mechanical precision that the silkscreen process tried to replicate, but eventually Rauschenberg learned to embrace the imperfections that he soon discovered were inherent to the process. Initially too, he was wary of employing color, working solely in black and white, but he soon adopted the industrial four-color separation process, using differently colored screens to render each image in all its vibrant glory. “I know how to describe this kind of color,” the artist declared, “…delicious! It’s so glamorous. Every color is trying to be a star” (R. Rauschenberg, quoted by C. Tomkins, “The Sistine on Broadway,” in R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 14).
Rauschenberg’s silkscreen paintings are pivotal to his career as one of the leading and most innovative artists of his generation, and to the canon of postwar American art more generally. They are among the first paintings to use mass media techniques to examine the increasing saturation of mechanically reproduced images in society, along with what it meant to be an American during one of the most turbulent times of the 20th century. It also offered the artist a new channel to continue his innovative practice, one which would subsequently have a fundamental impact on the direction of his future career. In the 1980s, Rauschenberg would return to using silkscreen, finding it to be the ideal means for transferring his own photographs onto paintings, often made on unconventional supports. As Feinstein points out, “For Rauschenberg, the nature of the silkscreen process also changed the formal and conceptual nature of his art” (R. Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings, 1962-64, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1990, p. 41). A hybrid of commentary on mass media, commodity culture, the technologies of reproduction, and the artificial construction of the image, Buffalo II is an intuitively balanced, deeply felt essay on artistic practice, where material distinctions between image and pigment elide. Through a fracturing of time and place, Rauschenberg speaks to a society in thrall to technology and disarrayed by its effects: “Looking closely, we see as it was everything is in chaos still” (J. Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work (1961),” in Silence, Middletown, 1961, p. 100).