“New materials have fresh associations, physical properties and qualities that have built into them the possibility of forcing you or helping you do something else.” (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in an oral history interview, 21 December 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Literally “torn from the headlines,” Political Folly, 1968, dates from a series of Transfer Drawings Rauschenberg made throughout the 1960s that features images and events printed in newspapers and magazines at the time of its creation. Specifically, Political Folly places images of the 1968 Democratic presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy in direct confrontation with an image of the antiwar protests led by Youth International Party (Yippie) leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin that surrounded the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Other works from the series reflect the artist’s and the nation’s persistent interests in the 1960s, including images of the Civil Rights movement, the Space Race, the Vietnam War, presidential elections, and football games. The Transfer Drawings often include references to the artist’s social circle, such as the artists Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others who also drew from the proliferation of mass mediated images to create their work. Rauschenberg also included prints made from the labels of consumer objects found in his studio, like Quaker Oatmeal containers and Jack Daniels whiskey bottles, giving the works the feel of both personal diary and time capsule of the era. Rauschenberg said of his Transfer Drawings, “My work was never a protest against what was going on, it was an expression of my own involvement” (D. Gees Seckler, “The Artist speaks: Robert Rauschenberg,” Art in America 54, May–June 1966, p. 76). So invested in using his artwork as a means of participating in the political events of the time, Rauschenberg loaned Political Folly to the Chicago exhibition organized shortly after the Democratic Convention, Response to Violence in Our Society, curated in response to the police brutality enacted on the protester.
In 1958, Rauschenberg began using the technique that defines the Transfer Drawings, a two-dimensional process on paper that mirrored the work he was doing in three-dimensions with found objects in the Combine Paintings of the same time. The artist soaked pages from newspapers and magazines in a solvent like turpentine or lighter fluid to loosen the printed image from its paper support. He then pressed the clippings faced down onto a piece of drawing paper and rubbed them with a dry pen nib to transfer the image from the printed source to the page of the drawing. In this way, Rauschenberg “unprinted” the image, creating a collage from without the need to cut and paste. The result is a whirlwind of associations that reflect the circulating issues and ideas of the moment, prompting critic Lawrence Alloway to describe the Transfer Drawings as “a postcard stand in a windstorm” (L. Alloway, “Rauschenberg on Paper,” in Robert Rauschenberg Drawings 1958–1968, New York, 1986, n.p.).
The hatch marks and lines that give the works a drawing-like quality are the results of the rubbing tool being moved back and forth across the image. Critic Roberta Smith described the effect as “flickering, almost strobe-like effect, images seem to rise to the surface like memories through a scrim—or through the static of a television set” (R. Smith, “A Rarely Seen Side of a Rauschenberg Shift,” New York Times, 7 March 2007.) Indeed, this effect was part of the artist’s intention and a side effect of his process. Rauschenberg said, “I don’t want my personality to come through the piece. That’s why I keep the television on all the time. And I keep the windows open. I want my paintings to be reflections of life, and life can’t be stopped” (B. Rose, “An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg,” New York, 1987, p. 72).