Executed in 1959, I Swear is one of the celebrated series of 'transfer drawings' made in the late 1950s and early 60s that stand as the graphic counterpart to Rauschenberg's larger-scale experiments 'combining' the fields of painting and sculpture: The Combines.
On a trip to Cuba in 1952, Rauschenberg first experimented with the technique of transferring printed images to paper and in 1958 alongside his work on the Combines, Rauschenberg began a concentrated exploration of this technique. Using printed images from the mass media, from newspapers, comics and popular magazines Rauschenberg transferred these onto paper by covering them with a solvent such as turpentine or lighter fluid, laying them face down and rubbing the back of the image with a pencil or ballpoint pen. A flipped version of the image would subsequently be 'transferred' onto the paper. As with the collaging of imagery that he had used in the Combines, the 'transfer' technique allowed elements from the 'real' world of daily life to be incorporated onto the picture plain. In essence, it allowed for the new aesthetic of the Combines to be extended into the graphic arena of drawing.
In composing these works Rauschenberg took a similar approach to that with which he had used in Combines such as Interview and Rebus where each separate element is allowed an autonomy of its own being neither more nor less important than any other. In these works, spilled, brushed and smeared paint vies with 'real' collaged elements and photographic imagery for the viewer's attention with every element co-ordinated to a vague grid-like structure. Many of the first transfer drawings follow a similar pattern.
In I Swear Rauschenberg appears to play with idea of perceptual truth and even of swearing to the truth of something. A vast transferred image of an eye staring directly back at the viewer's own inquiring gaze dominates all other seemingly disparate images in the picture. Below this, amongst a variety of other imagery that includes two photographs of bewigged judges and a social security card, standing at the epicentre of the work, is an illustrated portrait of Abraham Lincoln. An enduring American icon of truth and fidelity, Lincoln stands in an authoritative pose with one hand resting on an open book or charter as if visibly demonstrating his principles or swearing allegiance to them. It was in a similar pose that Lincoln had been photographed by Matthew Brady on 27 February 1860 in an image that became known as 'the photograph that made Lincoln president'. More appropriately in the context of Rauschenberg's work however, the image of Lincoln used here is remarkably close to, though not the same as, another famous image of Lincoln. This image, showing Lincoln standing before a globe and the American flag with one hand on a book, was itself a 'combine'. One of the earliest examples of photograph manipulation, this famous 1860s image of Lincoln was one in which the iconic president's head had in fact been affixed onto and earlier statesmanlike portrait of Southern politician John Calhoun.